This past Sunday was the NFL’s Pro Bowl, and it was bad. You probably didn’t know it was bad, since you probably didn’t watch it. I’m so sure of this, in fact, that I’m writing this on the Thursday before the game is even played.
Do you know who else doesn’t like the Pro Bowl? The players. This year, a total of 133 players were invited to the Pro Bowl, the most in its history. This was due to the large number of players who abstained from participating. As expected, some skipped due to playing in the Super Bowl next week. But then there’s Tom Brady, who, despite being selected for 11 Pro Bowls in his career, hasn’t played in one since his first. In fact, five of the six quarterbacks selected this year were replaced.
So if the players don’t like the Pro Bowl, and fans don’t like the Pro Bowl (last year’s Pro Bowl pulled a lower rating than the worst Monday Night Football game), then why does it keep the same stale format?
Well, it’s mainly due to the fact that there’s really only so much you can do to make a football game entertaining when the players are actively trying to avoid injuring one another. You can’t play football on eggshells.
The Pro Bowl has no “wow” factor. Conversely, the MLB has a game that actually means something (determining home field advantage for the World Series), the NBA has a slew of events, like the Slam Dunk Contest, that are generally exciting. Even the NHL, whose All-Star experience is usually decried as being just as boring as the Pro Bowl, is testing out three-on-three this year.
The Pro Bowl has tried various gimmicks in an attempt to gain a larger viewership. The NFL instituted a player draft two years ago to mix up teams. They generally try out new rules, like swapping positions at the end of every quarter. There are only two reasons someone watches the Pro Bowl: they are afraid to confront the impending absence of football coming right after the Super Bowl or they want to make fun of the dumpster fire on social media. The latter of the two really doesn’t help the NFL brand.
So if the NFL can’t fix the game to make it more intriguing, what can they do? The key is in understanding why any players go to the Pro Bowl: it’s a paid vacation on the NFL’s dime with a bunch of their buddies. Knowing this, I propose what I have deemed “Soft Knocks” – a “Hard Knocks”-esque show following the players selected for the Pro Bowl doing their practices, but also their exploits in Hawaii. One of the biggest draws of “Hard Knocks” is getting to see NFL players’ personalities, both on their off-days and during practices. There are practices, parties and a ton of star power.
Sure, this might not get people to actually watch the game itself, but “Soft Knocks” would at least draw viewers. Combining arguably the NFL’s weakest product with one of its strongest seems like a match made in marketing heaven. Darren Rovell would lose his mind over the synergy.
The Pro Bowl is stale. Not much can be done to fix the game itself, but if it’s made into an experience, there’s a chance.