Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a lack of interest and constant changes, the Pro Bowl somehow lives on

For many years, the interest in the Pro Bowl -- from players and fans alike -- has been declining to the point of near-extinction. Despite several radical changes made to try to revive interest, it hasn't happened. Yet, the NFL keeps trying to come up with the formula that will make it exciting, something that has failed for years and shows no signs of pulling out of its tailspin.

There are times when things simply don’t work out no matter what changes you try to make. Some marriages still end in divorce. Players, coaches and general managers get fired. When it is determined that things just aren’t working, even if you don’t why, it’s time to pull the plug and move on.

It would seem we’ve reached that point with the Pro Bowl. This week, the NFL announced its plans to once again revamp and overhaul the process of how and where the game is played.

This time the move is to take the game out of Hawaii and co-brand with the Disney Corporation and ESPN to site the game annually in Orlando – at least for the next five years.

In a statement from Commissioner Roger Goodell, he said, “We are excited to re-imagine the Pro Bowl experience for both fans and players and to celebrate the game of football at all levels.”

It would be one thing if this was the first time the NFL tried to “re-imagine” the league’s all-star game. It isn’t. It’s just the first time the league has tried to hook its wagon to the self-described Happiest Place on Earth. It somehow seems appropriate that a Mickey Mouse game can have the mouse as its mascot.  For years, the NFL has tried to tweak the game to make it more interesting. The problems involved with the game go to its core – it’s played at the end of the season. Every other major sports all-star game comes at the middle of the season. Given the violence of the NFL, that has never been a consideration. But, back when a Pro Bowl paycheck was viewed as a decent percentage of a player’s salary, participation was expected. Now that it is merely a drop in the bucket, more players than ever have said no to playing.

Last year, more than 100 players could claim they were selected to the Pro Bowl because so many players backed out of the game. When you don’t have the teams playing in the Super Bowl taking part, you dilute the product to begin with. But, aside from this fundamental change, the NFL has been trying to keep the Pro Bowl on life support for years with no tangible progress made. The ratings say it is a regression.

Where and when the game has been played was one of the primary attempts the NFL has made to try to save the Pro Bowl from extinction. For 30 years, it was played in Hawaii the week after the Super Bowl – a league paid vacation for players and families. The hope was that it would be a working vacation for the players, but over the years it became a joke.

In one of the first efforts to spark some interest in the lowly rated game, the NFL decided to move it to the Sunday before the Super Bowl, where not only would the players from the teams involved in the Super Bowl not be playing, but likely wouldn’t include most of the players from the teams that lost the conference championship games – further watering down the product. It was hoped the hype surrounding the Super Bowl would be enough to garner more interest so it was moved to Miami in early 2010. It didn’t, so the game went back to Hawaii for four years before trying it again in January 2015 when the Super Bowl was in Arizona. That was yet another flop, so the game went back to Hawaii for a year before the latest revamping of the game location was made to move it to Camping World Stadium in Orlando.

When the game became tedious and similar in scoring to the NBA All-Star Game – where defense is allowed but not encouraged – the NFL decided to abandon the long-held conference rivalry and let former NFL players pick the rosters for the two teams in a school-yard pick format. Once again, the saving grace of the Pro Bowl turned out to be a disaster and, like the backslide moves to Hawaii, it has also been abandoned.

The biggest problem the league is facing – other than not understanding that the Pro Bowl is a joke when compared to the product the league puts on the field for five months a year – is that it is a vast departure from what football fans are used to seeing. It simply doesn’t work. The Pro Bowl is like ESPN trying to force-feed its self-creating and self-appointed QBR system for rating quarterbacks on a scale of 0-100. Whether the QBR system makes more sense or not doesn’t matter. NFL fans are ingrained with understanding the league’s convoluted system for rating passers, so the new system was dismissed by fans just as quickly as Americans refused to accept the metric system, despite being the rule of measure for most of the globe. When you’ve become accustomed to one style, having a new one thrust upon you by outsiders is never well-received. The Pro Bowl is the metric system.

Just as the QBR failed to re-invent the wheel, the rules in place for the Pro Bowl make it almost destined to fail in the eyes of football fans. Offensive players can’t go in motion. You can’t have more than two receivers on the same side of the field. Intentional grounding is legal. Defenses can’t blitz. There are no kickoffs. You can’t rush a punt, field goal or point after touchdown. Teams have two timeouts per period. There is a two-minute warning clock stoppage in all four quarters because the game starts over at the end of a quarter. Instead of kickoffs, following a score, the ball is placed on the 25-yard line. In the final two minutes, the clock stops if a team doesn’t gain yardage on a play.

The claim has been made that player safety is the key, but there is one way to assure that player safety is adhered to – scrap the Pro Bowl. Name players to the team as an honor for their achievement, but they don’t have to go out and play at half-speed with defenses hamstrung to prove how good they are.

The NFL does so many things right when it comes to packaging and marketing its product. The Pro Bowl is the glaring example of what the league does wrong. For years, there has been debate concerning the elimination of the game because, in many ways, it embarrasses The Shield and it does it by design.

This week’s announcement that the game will go forward was met largely with apathy by fans. The NFL has tried re-imagine, repackage, relocate and reformulate the Pro Bowl for years and the result has always been the same --- the game stinks and only those with a football addiction seem even remotely interested.

There are times when the plug needs to be pulled, last rites administered and a DNR order needs to be given to put the dying out of their misery. We’ve reached that point with the Pro Bowl, regardless of what Goodell or Mickey Mouse will tell you.


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