Holler: Pro Bowl has become a farce

The NFL will showcase its all-stars – or the substitutions for the all-stars – this weekend. Sadly, it won’t be worth watching, or at least not with the same sense of excitement that even regular-season or preseason games bring.

Perhaps it’s because there are no Vikings in it that makes this year’s Pro Bowl seem even more anemic than it usually is, but the general fan apathy toward the Pro Bowl may well lead to its eventual extinction.

The NFL has had to battle the stigma of an anticlimactic all-star game for years. Players opt out of the game right and left – of the six quarterbacks selected to the Pro Bowl, only two are going to play and pedestrian Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton is anything but an all-star and he’s playing. For years, it has been has been a relative failure only enjoyed by friends and relatives of those playing in the game.

The Pro Bowl has been set up to fail. The other major sports have their all-star games in the middle of the season and baseball appears to be the only sport that takes it seriously – probably because in his finite wisdom the commissioner of baseball decided to make home field in the World Series determined not by record, but by which league wins the all-star game. You can’t argue ridiculous logic like that.

In hockey and basketball, defense isn’t required for all-star games, which is fine with most. In the NBA All-Star game, about 300 points will be scored and the game will feature more than its share of power dunks. The NHL All-Star Game will likely see something in the neighborhood of 15-20 goals scored. Once again, defense will be left at the door.

By and large, fans of the NBA and NHL don’t seem to mind that their games get bastardized in an all-star format. That isn’t true with the Pro Bowl. The NFL is such a superior product that fans associate an expectation of excitement and drama that will ensue. Scoring a lot of points doesn’t equate with a happy fan experience. Perhaps no all-star game is as marginalized as the Pro Bowl because it has never been intended to be an actual NFL game.

By design, the Pro Bowl comes at the end of the season at a time when many fans have disengaged themselves from their fan loyalty. The NFL has taken notice of the shoddy nature of the style of play, which has resulted in numerous changes being made to the format of the game. When it became a gimmicky joke a few years ago, Commissioner Roger Goodell threatened to shut down the game. Rules that don’t apply to regular games were employed in the Pro Bowl to make the game more competitive in the event of a blowout. They moved the game from the week after the Super Bowl to the week before in hopes of building momentum toward the big game by having a meaningless game thrown in. There aren’t even conference affiliations anymore –former players now draft the rosters, which can put teammates against one another.

It seems pretty easy to see that, when gimmicks and tricks need to be employed to raise fan interest, something is wrong with the product you’re selling. Fans have an expectation when it comes to football that simply isn’t met by the Pro Bowl. Because of the violent nature of the sport and the meaningful nature of every game, the Pro Bowl has annually been an anti-climax. There is no way Super Bowl-contending teams would allow their players to play a midseason fall classic game. Team fortunes could be squandered if one critical player were to go down with an injury in an exhibition game, so it simply can’t be done. The Pro Bowl is doomed to be a fan failure as a result.

The level of interest in the Pro Bowl is about as minimal as one can get. There isn’t team allegiance or even divisional affiliations – Ben Roethlisberger throwing a touchdown pass to A.J. Green. Instead, it’s a very expensive pickup game that doesn’t have the fan cache that every other NFL game brings along with it.

This Sunday, two teams of all-star players will combine to score 80-100 points and those calling the game will sell it as a showcase of the immortals. In reality, it’s little more than an arena football game with pinball-type scoring that, while amusing, isn’t must-see TV.

Perhaps the lack of Vikings in the game has made the farce of the Pro Bowl stand out more than it usually does, at least locally. There wasn’t the same sense of apathy when Adrian Peterson or Kyle Rudolph won the game MVP award, so that may be playing into it. But, for a sport that can draw viewership like no other is capable of, the Pro Bowl is going to come and go without much in the way of fan interest, and deservedly so. Everyone is geared up toward the Super Bowl, especially in a year when the game is viewed as being so even that the final point spread may well be a pick-em. Maybe Goodell had it right a couple of years back. It might be time to shelve the Pro Bowl because even the most ardent of football fans have little to no interest in the outcome of Sunday night’s Pro Bowl.

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