Three years ago, it was the lack of willingness to play hard during the game. Now, it’s the lack of willingness to even go to the game. Whatever the malady afflicting the Pro Bowl, the NFL will find a way to fix it, as long as one dynamic continues: People watching the game on TV.
Some think the Pro Bowl could be on life support after the league had to scrape together teams of some-stars to go to Hawaii, after a record number of first choices declined to go. But the game will flatline only if the Nielsen numbers plummet.
The last existential threat to the game came more than three years ago, when Commissioner Roger Goodell threatened to pull the plug on the Pro Bowl due to lack of effort.
“I really thought the quality of the game last year was way below standards and if we’re going to play like that we should just eliminate the game,” Goodell said during a SiriusXM NFL Radio town hall. “The players asked if they could take another crack at it and they wanted to try to work to make the game more competitive. Obviously, I support that but if we can’t accomplish that kind of a standard I’m inclined not to play it any longer.”
The next Pro Bowl did indeed become more competitive, fueled by a my-guts-your-blood speech from quarterback Peyton Manning, whose already-protected position benefits during the exhibition game from no blitzing and full freedom to commit intentional grounding. The talk of euthanizing the Pro Bowl evaporated after Goodell publicly approved of the outcome, and the question of effort has been eclipsed in the two Pro Bowls since then by the fantasy-style team drafting process.
But the novelty of players picking other players in a midweek made-for-TV event has quickly worn off, with the effort given significant credence at this point only by media on the payroll of the league or ESPN, the network televising the game. The Pro Bowl’s newest danger comes from the fact that the league’s best players don’t have a sufficient incentive to attend.
If the league wants to fix that problem, the easiest way to do it would be to increase the pool of money that goes to the players who actually show up for the game. Currently, the players on the losing team get $29,000 each and the winners get $58,000. Maybe a better enticement is needed.
The only alternative would be to push back more aggressively (or at all) when a player passes on the game by citing an injury that wouldn’t keep him from playing in a game that counts. But any appearance of heavy handedness from 345 Park Avenue could inflame relations between the league and the men who make the league what it is.
Whatever Goodell says or the league does to address the situation (and the league ultimately may do nothing), the window dressing will shift and change but the game will remain, as long as people watch it. Given the ratings, it’s obvious that plenty of people who claim to loathe the game are nevertheless dialing in. Until that changes, the Pro Bowl will continue to exist, in some form.