On January 31, the Pro Bowl was held at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii. Out of all of the all-star games in professional sports, the Pro Bowl is the one most criticized, as the high-contact sport of football is transformed into a game featuring poor tackling and players playing out of position (such as Michael Bennett, a defensive tackle for the Seattle Seahawks, playing halfback). Additionally, a record number of players dropped out of the Pro Bowl; more than 130 players were named Pro Bowlers this year because of this. Following this year’s game, Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports stated: “The Pro Bowl is one giant cringe fest… There is nothing more insulting than watching a cheap, inferior product.”
According to Austin Karp, who works at Sports Business Daily, this year’s Pro Bowl drew a 5.0 overnight rating, which was less than last year’s game of 5.6 and the 2014 Pro Bowl of 6.7. In fairness to the National Football League, this year’s Pro Bowl was going up against “Grease Live!” on FOX, so that likely contributed to the ratings dip. Still, there is a possibility that this year’s Pro Bowl turned out to be the lowest rated Pro Bowl of all-time.
Prior to the rise of cable television, all-star games in major sports were high profile events. Unless the Cincinnati Reds were playing the New York Mets, the only time that someone was able to watch a Cincinnati player play live on television was during an all-star game or a postseason game. However, because of 24-hour sports networks covering teams and making it possible to follow teams no matter how far away, all-star games have lost their luster.
Because of this, many sporting leagues have had to adapt their all-star game formats to draw a larger audience. In the National Hockey League, the all-star game changed to a 3-on-3 tournament involving the top all-stars from every division. In Major League Soccer, the all-star game changed to one now involving the top all stars in the league going up against a European soccer team, such as Manchester United or Tottenham Hotspur. On a more drastic level, the Major League Baseball all-star game was changed in 2003 to determine home field advantage in the World Series.
However, the NFL has always been in a strange situation with all-star games, because, unlike sports such as soccer, baseball, and basketball, football is a contact sport. Players in the Pro Bowl do not want to tackle hard like they would in a regular game due to the risk of injury to either themselves or that player; in this year’s Pro Bowl, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie made a hard tackle, and immediately apologized after making the hit. Because there is less contact in the Pro Bowl, there have been numerous criticisms of players not giving enough effort in the game, which, in turn, makes the Pro Bowl more boring to watch.
Much like the other leagues, the NFL has had to change the formatting of their all-star game to try and draw a bigger audience. In a 1980 article by the Associated Press, Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of the league at the time, stated that the Pro Bowl would not move to the week before the Super Bowl, stating: “The fans would see the game as being very contrived when you advertise it as an all-star game and not have as many as fifteen or even more players absent because they’re on the Super Bowl teams.”
However, in 2010, the league moved the Pro Bowl from the week after the Super Bowl to the week before it, making it so that the Super Bowl is now the last game played in the season; because of this, players participating in the Super Bowl cannot play in the Pro Bowl. In 2013, the Pro Bowl went from a game between the top players in the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference to an un-conferenced game where the players would be drafted by former NFL legends (this year, Hall of Fame wide receivers Michael Irvin and Jerry Rice picked the teams).
According to Alex Rozis, who works for NBC Sports, the NHL all-star game got a 1.17 rating, and was praised by fans and critics for its format change. The Pro Bowl still pulls in significantly more viewers than any other all-star game in the United States; the International Business Times stated that when the NBA all-star game is played next week, that it “would be lucky to draw a 5.0 rating”.
Despite this, many fans have offered solutions to fix the Pro Bowl, ranging from making it a flag football game to making it a 7-on-7 tournament to scrapping the game in its entirety and replacing it with a skills competition. Others have stated to keep the Pro Bowl exactly the way it is, but to increase the prize money involved to make players have more of an incentive to play harder. As long as the Pro Bowl is pulling in ratings, the league will not get rid of the game; however, with the sharp decline in ratings in recent years, the NFL will likely be looking for ways to improve the quality of the exhibition game for next season.