Feature

Can the NFL make the Pro Bowl watchable?

Big changes are coming next year, but none address the game's fundamental flaw

No one cares about the Pro Bowl.

Just ask Google.

The NFL has acknowledged as much in recent years, as it has sought to find a suitable way to fix football's equivalent of the All-Star Game. Last October, commissioner Roger Goodell even suggested that the league would dump it entirely, saying the 2012-13 installment had been an "embarrassment."

"If we cannot accomplish that kind of standard (of high play), I am inclined to not play it," he said. "It is really tough to force competition, and after a long season, to ask those guys to go out and play at the same level they played is really tough."

On Wednesday, the NFL announced it would keep the Pro Bowl after all — but only after giving it a complete makeover.

Among the changes:

  • The game will no longer pit the NFC against the AFC. Hall of Famers Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice, along with two active players and two Fantasy Football champs, will draft players onto each team just before the game.
  • There will be no more kickoffs. The ball will instead be placed at the 25-yard line after scores and to start each quarter.
  • There will be a "Game within a Game" with a two-minute warning added to the end of the first and third quarters in an attempt to goose scoring.

The changes are "designed to make it the ultimate fan-friendly celebration of the game," according to the NFL's triumphant press release.

But the changes don't address the biggest problem fans have with the Pro Bowl.

So much of football's appeal is its physicality. Unlike, say, baseball, in which players can safely go full speed on every play in an All-Star Game, football players phone it in at the Pro Bowl because they don't want to risk inflicting, or enduring, serous injuries in a meaningless game.

"Football fans weren't tuning out because they were tired of seeing the NFC's best versus the AFC's best," NFL.com's Chris Wesseling wrote. "They simply were offended by players going through the motions, making 'business decisions' when it came to tackling and blocking in an exhibition game."

That will be even more true under the new format because players from the same team can be "drafted" onto opposing Pro Bowl squads.

The league has a strong financial incentive for keeping the game around. Though the Pro Bowl is routinely the least-watched football game all year, its ratings handily trump all-star games of other pro sports.

Last season, 12.2 million people watched the Pro Bowl. The MLB All-Star Game, despite all its fanfare, attracted 10.9 million viewers in 2012.

Millions of people will tune in to the 2014 Pro Bowl. Maybe millions more will watch it for the first time to see the new format in action, or merely to catch a glimpse of Jerry Rice back on a football field. Still, the players are unlikely to put in any more effort next time around, perhaps even less so since they could be hitting their teammates.

The Pro Bowl will be different next year, but that doesn't mean it will be any better.

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