Once upon a time, the Pro Bowl actually meant something. The best football players — or, at least, most of the best and some extremely popular ones — took their talents to Hawaii and played an exhibition the week after the Super Bowl.
Now, no matter what the NFL might say about how many people watch the Pro Bowl, the game means nothing. There is nothing at stake, the voting is extremely flawed, and players often withdraw, forcing the league to add replacements on short notice, even if those fill-ins might not necessarily be deserving.
At this point, not even a return to Hawaii could save the Pro Bowl.
The Pro Bowl had been on a steady decline for years before the NFL began trying to fix things
Although the Pro Bowl exclusively took place in Los Angeles from 1951-72, generations of football fans became familiar with the game’s clashes at Aloha Stadium in Halawa, Hawaii. From 1980 through 2009, the league’s best players spent the week after the Super Bowl soaking in the sunlight and enjoying a leisurely vacation.
The problem was exactly that: the game occurred after the Super Bowl. Not only was the game anti-climatic, but there was nothing at stake. Major League Baseball at least realized in the early 2000s that the All-Star Game, which took place in July, might matter more if home-field advantage in the World Series was on the line.
Everything changed ahead of the 2009 season when, in an attempt to change things up and draw more eyes, the league held the Pro Bowl a week before the Super Bowl. Players such as Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who were scheduled to play in the Big Game, were ineligible to play and subsequently replaced.
The 2010 game was also the first time in decades the league played the game elsewhere. Instead of spending a week in Hawaii, Pro Bowlers flew to south Florida and played at what is now Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. Over the next few years, the league experimented with rule changes, including allowing NFL legends to draft players. Gone was the AFC-NFC format that had been a staple for decades.
In 2016, Orlando took over as the Pro Bowl host and held that role through 2020. Although people watched, it really didn’t matter. The most notable thing from any of those Pro Bowl games was the midgame reactions to Kobe Bryant’s sudden death in January 2020.
The 2022 Pro Bowl will take place at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Who cares?
The NFL’s all-star event has lost all credibility and relevancy in recent years
Part of what made all-star events so appealing in years past wasn’t so much that the game mattered, but it was an opportunity for a national audience to see the sport’s top players. A New York Jets fan living in Texas couldn’t use the NFL package to live in misery for three hours in October. They instead spent the day watching the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers unless their TV market had the Jets game or Gang Green played on national television.
That’s not the case anymore. A Jets fan living in Texas doesn’t need the Pro Bowl to watch receiver Braxton Berrios. The Pro Bowl is nothing more than a farce of an exhibition where the players are trying not to get hurt.
How do you know players don’t care about the Pro Bowl? Tom Brady’s 15 Pro Bowl selections are the most in NFL history, but he only played in the game three times total. He realized after the 2005 event that it was better to enjoy the trip to Hawaii and rest rather than play.
Now, the players don’t even get a Hawaii trip out of it. At least they get a week in Las Vegas.
Should the NFL simply get rid of the Pro Bowl? Well…
At this stage in the game, the Pro Bowl is an outdated event that isn’t going away. According to Statista, the Pro Bowl topped seven million viewers every year from 2008-2020.
Even if the 7.97 million who watched in 2020 were significantly down from the 13.4 million in 2011, the NFL doesn’t want those people leaving to watch the NBA or binge The Sopranos for the 500th time. There is also the sports gambling aspect because nothing says fun like taking the over in an exhibition game.
Unfortunately for the fans at home, there likely isn’t a conceivable way to make the Pro Bowl entertaining. The fantasy draft idea didn’t work, and the vast majority of players aren’t going to give 100% effort if it means getting hurt.
If the players don’t care about the Pro Bowl, why should we? And if we don’t care, why should the NFL even hold the game?
Easy, because it draws money. They like their cash, and we like binging The Sopranos, so it all works out in the end.