The only thing more obsolete than the NFL Pro Bowl is complaining about the NFL Pro Bowl. Fans have been tired of the former for years and have now just given up on the latter and simply stopped watching. Making the Pro Bowl the NFL’s black sheep event is warranted for all the usual reasons people list.
There may have been a time when the NFL needed the Pro Bowl. That time is not 2012. I’m not propsing that it be tweaked, moved or reinvent it. The NFL needs to cut bait and simply can the Pro Bowl as we know it. So what does the league do the week before or the week after the Super Bowl? Tap the one asset the NFL has where there is any headroom for growth: new talent. College football all-star games are already suffering from “bowl sprawl,” with five major games in January. The future NFL star is the lowest-hanging fruit the NFL could possibly ask for.
Imagine if the NFL (with the cooperation of the NFLPA, which already stages a college all-star game), put on a top-flight all star game in Hawaii or Florida featuring the best draft-eligible players. The NFL Draft and Combine grow larger every year and this would be a great opportunity for NFL fans not immersed in the college game become familiar with their future NFL stars. Who wouldn’t watch that? It’s a slam-dunk. Roger Goodell, earn your extension and make this happen.
The current set of college all-star games (the Casino Del Sol College All-Star Game, the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, the East-West Shrine Game, the Battle of Florida, and the Senior Bowl), provide postseason exhibitions of more college talent than the NFL can handle. Over 500 players will be showcased in these games, with the top talent largely skewing toward the Senior Bowl. Only 254 players will be drafted in April, with another couple hundred undrafted free agents signed shortly thereafter, many of which will not participate in these all-star games. Rather than capitalizing on college football’s popularity, these bowl games dilute the talent out among separate events without any direct NFL connections to be made in the presentation or viewing experience.
The Senior Bowl, though, is currently broadcast on the NFL Network, making my dreams for a Pro Bowl replacement event somewhat closer to a reality. While the NFL is certainly a partner in the event, it doesn’t yet have the NFL “stamp.” Obviously the big hurdle would be combining the best draft-declared underclassmen and the seniors into a single game. People want to see first and second rounders play against first and second rounders. The current college all-star system doesn’t help college football, as those fans are already in frenzy about the coaching carousel and next year’s recruiting class. The hardcore NFL fans who don’t have a horse in the college race are immersed in the NFL playoffs and often miss the under-promoted college all-star events. The only segment they currently cater to are the draftniks and hybrid football fans like myself. If they decided to make a move on a true college all-star event/future NFL showcase, the league could fill in the one gap of the year-long pro football narrative the league currently orchestrates.
The biggest problems with staging a pro all-star game are competition, incentive to participate, and fan experience. If you look at the competition aspect, most all-star games face this conundrum. It’s hard to make something more competitive that has very little reward and very high risk for players. Football especially is a sport that does not lend itself to a relaxed, showy style of play. The perception of the NBA is that the players don’t try exceptionally hard to play defense in the first place in the regular season, so their all-star event is actually an improvement on the regular season product. The NHL and Major League Baseball have the problem of staging a mid-year event, meaning that no matter what the incentive (even if it’s home-field in the World Series), players are not going to sell out their bodies to make a play. With the likelihood of injury in even a casual NFL game, I doubt owners or players would ever consent to a mid-season event. The small sample size of eight or nine games would also make selecting all-stars even more pointless than it is after 41 or 81 games.
Major League Soccer probably has the most intriguing format in pulling together a league-wide all-star team and challenging an international power like Chelsea FC in a friendly. Sadly, a team of worldwide all-stars would be futile against a team of the NFL’s best. The bottom line is, no amount of money or stakes is going to make the NFL stars show up and play harder in a postseason exhibition game.
Taking away the Pro Bowl might seem like a slight against recognizing players (and cheerleaders?) who have performed exceptionally this season. It also deprives them of a free trip to Miami or Hawai’i. Listen, if you are a Pro Bowl-level player and can’t spring for a week in Hawai’i, you need to fire your money manager. As far as recognition goes, nothing drives me more crazy when evaluating the career of a player than counting up the number of Pro Bowls or All-Star games they went to. In the case of All-Star games, you’re essentially compiling a list of the best first-half players and in Pro Bowl recognition, you’re including the bevy of replacement players who step in when the first selections are injured, bow out, or in recent years make it to the Super Bowl.
Removing the empty recognition that comes to Pro Bowlers would then allow the NFL to shine a light more appropriately on its true end-of-season awards. Most fans miss the boat on even noticing these, unless one of their hometown players is up for a major one or they get an email from the team. College football has shown that awards and events surrounding them can be a big deal in the dead space of the sporting year. Why would the NFL not shift the focus on to the award races, put on a proper awards show, and really make the guys who made the All-Pro teams (not the Pro Bowl teams) feel special for their achievements?
Mistakenly, in 2009, the NFL decided that people weren’t watching the Pro Bowl because after the Super Bowl they were just “done with football.” So, instead of watching apathetic players lope through a cupcake game the week after the Super Bowl, the league’s solution was to give us apathetic players loping through a cupcake game the week . . . wait for it . . . before the Super Bowl. Oh, and if that doesn’t get you hot and bothered, you’ll love this: the players from the two best teams won’t be there! Clearly, there are problems with this solution.
The NFL is rightfully lauded as the most tightly-run, streamlined sports organization on the planet. Everything the league does is on-message, unwavering, and calculated. Except for this fiasco. The NFL is as efficient a corporate monoculture as Apple. Now imagine if Apple released a portable CD player every January. It simply does not fit in the NFL’s current mission (ostensibly to promote the hell out of itself).
What would fit the mission is giving NFL fans a chance to see their future heroes play in an NFL event. The top players are already participating in college all-star games with sponsors, agents, scouts and media. Why not bring it under the NFL’s efficient marketing and money-making wing?