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The NFL Can’t Fix the Pro Bowl

New rules! Nope. New locations! Eh. New uniforms! Oh no. Every change proposed by the league has marginalized an already-meaningless game.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The NFL asked Trevor Siemian to play in the Pro Bowl. Trevor Siemian, the Broncos quarterback who finished the year 24th in passing yardage, tied for 22nd in passing touchdowns, 20th in yards per attempt, tied for 20th in touchdown percentage, 23rd in QB rating, and 21st in QBR, was invited to the Pro Bowl, theoretically an event for the best players in football.

The AFC’s quarterbacks as voted by players, fans, and coaches were Tom Brady, Derek Carr, and Ben Roethlisberger. Brady is busy preparing to play in the Super Bowl, and, even in the rare seasons the Pats aren’t playing in the Super Bowl, he likely would have skipped the Pro Bowl. He’s been selected every year since 2009, but hasn’t played in the game since 2005. Carr’s leg is broken. And Roethlisberger declined to participate after playing in the AFC championship game last week. That led the NFL to ask Siemian to be a replacement.

What’s most embarrassing, though, isn’t that Siemian got an invitation to the Pro Bowl; it’s that he turned it down, citing elective shoulder surgery he had done after the season. The NFL also asked Tyrod Taylor, who is also hurt, and then eventually settled on Philip Rivers, who led the NFL with 21 interceptions.

To fill the 88 roster spots in the game, the NFL had to invite 123 players, almost enough to create a third 44-man roster out of players who had better things to do than play in the Pro Bowl. It’s actually an improvement from last year, when 133 invitations were sent out.

In addition to the lack of player interest, there’s also been a nosedive in fan interest. For years, the NFL could say that no matter how much people mocked the meaningless Pro Bowl, they still watched. In 2014, the game got its worst ratings in five years, but still drew more viewers than the MLB, NBA, and NHL All-Star Games, plus all non–World Series MLB games, all non-Finals NBA games, and even the most-watched Stanley Cup games. But last year’s Pro Bowl was one of the least-watched ever, dominated in the ratings by a live performance of Grease on Fox. It received lower ratings than every Monday Night Football game, including a Week 15 matchup between the 5–8 Lions and 4–9 Saints, and most Thursday Night Football games, including a 31–10 Bengals win over the Browns.

Even before last year’s ratings drop, the NFL had become increasingly desperate to pique our interest in the game. This year, they’re reviving the Pro Bowl skills competition, which will feature an event where drones drop footballs to wide receivers and a precision passing drill where quarterbacks try to hit moving targets … We’ll even get to see the world’s best football players play dodgeball. If the players are having fun, it genuinely could be fun to watch.

Still, dodgeball doesn’t make the Pro Bowl itself any more interesting. The league has tried many, many ways to make the game more intriguing. But nothing has gotten us to pay attention.

Change Its Location!

The Pro Bowl was Hawaii’s largest sporting event for decades. From 1980 to 2009, the Pro Bowl was held at Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium every season. It was a boon for all parties involved. Hawaii got to advertise itself as a tourism destination, which is essential for the state’s economy. And the NFL got a great location for the game — and $5 million a year from the state’s tourism board. Somebody was going to the games: Each Hawaii Pro Bowl had an attendance of over 47,000 people, more than twice the attendance of an average University of Hawaii football game, and the state claimed a $33.46 million economic impact brought by Pro Bowl travelers in 2014.

But with flagging interest, the league has tried alternate locations. In 2010 and 2015, the game was held at the site of the Super Bowl in an attempt to extend Super Bowl week into a two-week, one-location extravaganza. Players hated the idea of making the Pro Bowl a rotating event. Peyton Manning once pointed out that if the Pro Bowl was held at the Super Bowl site every year, it would eventually go to places such as Indianapolis, and, as much as he loves Indianapolis, it was “not necessarily a reward to go to Indianapolis in February.

Now the Pro Bowl is in Orlando, which isn’t even a Super Bowl site, and it will stay there until 2018 (with an option for 2019). That’s good news for ESPN, which will broadcast the games until 2022. Orlando’s greatest attraction is Disney World, which is owned by Disney, which also owns ESPN, and the company has made use of that in pre–Pro Bowl activities.

Orlando is also easier to get to than Hawaii. But that’s part of the problem. Many NFL players liked the idea of a free trip to Hawaii and aren’t too thrilled about central Florida. Lions cornerback Darius Slay called holding the event in places other than Hawaii “pointless,” saying he didn’t even want to play in the game if it was in Orlando. When the game was in Miami in 2010, Adrian Peterson said, “We can go to Miami any time. Going to Hawaii, over the water, is special.” In that story, Ray Lewis, who went to the University of Miami, expressed dismay that the game was in a such a familiar place.

It’s not certain that players are actually dropping out of the game because it’s not in Hawaii — it’s worth noting that when Slay realized he was one Pro Bowler’s injury away from making the game, he changed his mind and expressed sincere desire in playing. But it does seem like moving the contest around has the potential to turn off players, which could lower the prestige of a game that already has little.

Change the Format!

For decades, the game was played between the AFC and NFC. I’ve always been a fan of an AFC team, but I can’t really argue that I have any allegiance toward the AFC. The NFL’s conferences haven’t had any practical difference since the 1960s. Baseball fans do seem to carry some level of American League vs. National League pride, but that’s helped by the fact that the two circuits have different rules, which lead to different styles of play.

Then, in 2014, the NFL decided to switch to a fantasy-draft-style format where former NFL players got to select the teams.

I don’t know if there’s a way to pick teams that could make the Pro Bowl more interesting. Splitting players by birthplace, east vs. west? Maybe players with three or fewer years of experience vs. players with three or more? Maybe a fantasy-draft concept with current players picking? That could be fun — it would feel like a schoolyard and could potentially cause beef over who picked whom. Maybe the league should just ditch the whole concept of the game and go 7-on-7, similar to what the NHL did by turning its games into a 3-on-3 format?

I do know one thing, though: The idea to have former players pick teams was a failure. I don’t know why we were supposed to be interested in a game that determines bragging rights between TV personalities who played football in the ’80s.

There was also the ill-fated idea to turn the draft into a two-night television event. The 2015 edition was outperformed by regular-season hockey on the NBC Sports Network and nearly doubled in the ratings by a documentary about Snoop Dogg’s football-playing son. The 2016 edition saw a boost after being moved from the NFL Network to ESPN2, but still got beaten out by the Australian Open semifinals on the same network.

It’s hard to imagine a concept that would actually make this game interesting. But I think the fantasy draft idea highlighted the game’s gimmickry, making an already-fake thing seem faker.

Change the Rules!

Since at least 2009, the game hasn’t allowed blitzing (to prevent hits to fragile quarterbacks), and both offenses and defenses have been required to line up in standard formations. For many years, teams were allowed to play only man defense — fewer surprises, fewer injuries — but teams are now also allowed to play a Cover 2 defense.

In 2014, the league added a slew of new rules. Some were for player safety — like the removal of kickoffs, long shown by data to be football’s most dangerous play.

Some were designed to make the game more exciting: There’s a change of possession at the beginning of each quarter, turning the end of each period into a two-minute drill. The play clock is only 35 seconds, meaning there are more plays, which mean more points. Quarterback kneel-downs are illegal — if a team doesn’t gain at least a yard on offense on a play in the last two minutes of a quarter, the clock stops.

Some seemed to be tests of potential future NFL rules, like the decision to shrink the goalposts and move extra points back. The extra-point rule obviously stuck. The tiny goal posts … well… they just looked kinda weird.

The rules meant to protect players make sense — nobody should risk their livelihood for an exhibition game. But the rules meant to make the game more fun don’t seem to actually do that. A team scoring 50 points in a game is cool. A team scoring 50 points in a game designed to help teams score 50 points is expected.

Give Them Flashy Uniforms!

This isn’t really a matter of substance; I’d just like to say that the Pro Bowl uniforms over the past few years have been some of the greatest eyesores in recent sports-uniform history.

Exhibit A:

And B:

I actually kinda liked the gold-trimmed ones from last year, but overall the strategy seems to be to throw a bunch of conflicting neon colors and weird fonts together in hopes people think it looks futuristic. Bring back the red-and-blue uniforms with all the stars on them. I won’t say they’re pretty, but the colors were nice, and the theme was better than Ugly Tron.

Change the Date!

The Pro Bowl used to be held the week after the Super Bowl, typically the first week in February. In 2009, the decision was made to switch it to the week before the Super Bowl. This prevented the NFL’s best players — the ones in the dang Super Bowl — from participating.

Most sports have their all-star game right in the middle of the season, which flows nicely. Fans are still paying attention to the sport, the players are still feeling competitive, and the game gives them a much-needed break from the wear and tear on their bodies. Plus, they get to party.

The NFL can’t really do this, since the risk of injury is too high. This ensures the Pro Bowl will always feel like an addendum for players already mentally and physically checked out, and not like a fun little minigame before returning to the main campaign.

I think the hope is that having the game before the Super Bowl means we’re still in football mode, and it does nicely fill a gap in the NFL’s calendar created by the two-week break before the big game. Personally, I liked it better as a true season-ender. But I’m not sure it makes a huge difference either way.

We love watching football. We’ll watch good NFL teams, we’ll watch bad NFL teams, we’ll watch games that have no effect on the way the season plays out.

But we kinda need the game to be competitive to love it. Unlike basketball, where highlights are highlights regardless, our interest in football is dependent on both sides playing like the game means something to them.

The NFL isn’t going to cancel the Pro Bowl. Even if only 10 million people watch it, that’s enough to justify the game’s existence.

But if the NFL thinks it can fix the Pro Bowl, it’s wrong. I don’t think there’s any tweak that can suddenly make an all-star football exhibition worthwhile. The league’s best hope is to pick a strategy, stick with it, and just accept that the game’s always going to be a dud. New locations, funny formats, and kooky rules just highlight that the thing we’re watching is a gimmick. The Pro Bowl was already meaningless, and most of the attempts to fix it have somehow made it even more so.