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NFL’s Pro Bowl still needs work

If it weren’t for Twitter, I wouldn’t have known it was happening.

After the conference championship games last week but before the Super Bowl next Sunday, I was ready to take a little break from football. After all, it’s not like there was any game being played this weekend anyway, and I had the season finale of Galavant to watch.

However, I made the mistake of checking my Twitter account late Sunday night, and that’s when I realized there was one other football game left to be played: the Pro Bowl.

I never really watch the Pro Bowl on purpose. If I stumble upon it by accident and the score isn’t ridiculous, or if there are Bengals in key positions I could watch, then I’ll tune in for a while. I don’t make it appointment viewing.

Apparently, very few people do. The ratings for this year’s game, which aired on ESPN, were down from 2014. The 2014 ratings were down from 2013, when the game aired on NBC. This trend has been continuing for years now, and it’s easy to see why: the Pro Bowl is boring.

From 1970 to 2013, the game pitted the best of the AFC against the best from the NFC, and most of those games were tolerable. But something changed in the mid-2000s. Carson Palmer, then with the Bengals, led the AFC to a 31-28 victory in 2007. That’s a normal, competitive game score. The next year, the final score was 42-30. Two years after that it was 41-34, ending in the mockery that was the 62-35 game in 2012.

Even that game received higher ratings than the one that aired Sunday night. The NFL saw this, and decided to make some changes to the game in July 2013 in an attempt to reignite interest. They did away with the AFC/NFC format, switching to a fantasy draft with captains. They added a two-minute warning to the first and third quarters so fans could see teams run two-minute offenses. Also, kickoffs were eliminated, the play clock was shortened and zone coverage was allowed in all downs.

It appeared to have worked, at least on the field. For the first two years (2013 and 2014), the average margin of victory was 2.5 points, compared to 19 the prior four years. Yet the ratings still continued to decline. This year, ESPN’s broadcast of the Pro Bowl was watched by fewer people than FOX’s showing of the MLB All-Star Game and TNT’s broadcast of the NBA All-Star game.

Why? Speaking personally, I don’t want to watch defensive backs not play defense. They can’t play the same way they do in regular-season games because of the risk of injury, so they play softer. If I wanted to watch defensive backs try to play two-hand touch with wide receivers, I’d go back and watch a few of the Cincinnati Bearcats’ games from this past season.

There are other reasons the Pro Bowl is struggling. Even the NFL admitted that it wanted to stop the game back in 2014, but the Players Association wouldn’t let them, saying the players “loved and they want to be there.” Which is weird, since in 2015 28 players were selected to the game, but declined to play in it because of injuries, for example. This season, that number grew to 43. If the players don’t want to be there, why would fans want to watch?

If they’re going to play the game, which based on the fact that ESPN owns the rights to it through 2022, I’m going to assume they will, it may be time to make more changes.

Look at the NHL. The National Hockey League hosted it’s all-star game Sunday night as well. It received roughly one-fourth the ratings the Pro Bowl did, though to be fair, ESPN is in nearly 20 million more homes than NBCSN, the network that aired the NHL All-Star game. While that number is going down (reports say ESPN lost seven million subscribers since 2013), the Worldwide Leader clearly has an advantage there, but not in entertainment value.

The NHL’s game was actually fun. Part of that was because of a fan vote that elected John Scott, an enforcer with five career goals to his name, as captain of the Pacific Division team. While rumors persist that the NHL orchestrated a trade involving Scott with the intent of removing him from the game, in the end they let him play in the three-on-three tournament.

Scott actually scored two goals and was named the game’s MVP. If that weird story wasn’t enjoyable enough, the league held a skills competition the night before. The NFL used to have one, but in 2007 they stopped. The event wasn’t aired live and it didn’t even take place in the stadium. Instead, it took place at a field near the hotel.

Adding something like that would be a step in the right direction for the league, because it’s becoming clearer every year that the Pro Bowl simply isn’t enough to draw fans in. Something has to be done.

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By Garth Shanklin

gshanklin@civitasmedia.com

Reach Garth Shanklin at 937-378-6161 or follow him on Twitter at @GNDShanklin.

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