This past weekend of the Grammys was also the past weekend of the Pro Bowl, the National Football League’s All-Star Game, featuring the season’s best players.
There are a few glaring problems with the Pro Bowl. Most importantly, the fans do not care. Unlike in other major American sports, there are no stakes at the Pro Bowl. “Clearly, the Pro Bowl still lacks something for fans,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Eric Mack, “It doesn’t have a winner” (Bleacher Report, “How the NFL Can Make the Pro Bowl Relevant,” 02.23.2015).
Indeed, giving the teams no reason to compete fundamentally breaks down the “competition” of it. Watching the Pro Bowl is a little bit like seeing the local youth basketball teams play during halftime of an NBA game. The only difference is that the kids want to be there, which brings us to the next problem.
The players do not and should not care. Much has been made in the past few days of the fact that players on the winning Pro Bowl team this season actually receive bigger bonus checks than players on the losing Super Bowl team. In the grand scheme of things, this does not matter to a football player whose yearly salary is often something in the order of 10 to 50 times greater than $64,000.
If the bonus were designed to entice players to risk injury, to risk their future salary earnings, it would have to be a far more consequential paycheck, especially considering how vulnerable professional football players are to losing their jobs due to the contract structure in the current NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (Deadspin, “Why Only The NFL Doesn’t Guarantee Contract”, 8.01.2017). Judging from how small a bonus the losing Super Bowl players receive ($32,000), a Pro Bowl bonus hike of this nature seems highly unlikely.
So, given these intrinsic flaws that seem to irrevocably damn the game’s viability, why does the Pro Bowl still exist? The answer is TV ratings. “The NFL would be crazy to cancel this game,” tweeted Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch last winter, “That viewership is better than all but six college bowl games including title game.” (Twitter, @richarddeitsch, 1.31.17). A few years ago, the Pro Bowl was strategically moved from the week after the Super Bowl to the week before the big game. This effectively tied the meaningless procession of a game in with the rhythm of the NFL playoffs. TV ratings guarantee, for now, that the NFL is financially better off with the game than without it.
But does this mean that the fans and the players must be subjected to the Pro Bowl as it is in perpetuity? There have been many proposals and alterations to the game over the years. Should the NFL look to their major sports brethren in the NBA for the secret all-pro contest recipe?
The NBA All-Star Game differs in two key ways from the Pro Bowl. First, it takes place in the middle of the season, which captures the standouts in their playing form. This is not really something the NFL should consider, as the season is incredibly taxing to the players’ bodies, and the strenuousness of one NFL game is far more considerable than that of one NBA game. To force an all-star competition into the middle of the NFL season would be to bring about an even more painfully obvious collective effort to avoid injury.
And the second way really gets to the heart of why the NBA All-Star Game is so successful: Star power. Each new version of the contest is constituted only of the most recognizable names in the league. And, as is the nature of basketball, these exceptional players have an outsized alpha influence on the teams they are a part of. To see “the stars align” is to witness an incredible amount of dynamism on one court. Despite the fact that nobody plays defense in the NBA All-Star Game, the offense on view is really some of the best the league and the world of basketball have to offer.
Late last night, I logged onto ESPN to find that the Pro Bowl this season was tightly contested and involved a major, late-game comeback. Conventional wisdom says that this would be a good result for the game’s popularity, but in actuality, the complete lack of excitement in the media over the outcome only further emphasizes how much of an empty vessel the game is.
If the Pro Bowl is good for anything, it is for reminding me that I don’t have it so bad having to watch the Patriots play again next week.