NFL’s Pro Bowl Is The Inconsequential Quiet Before The Super Bowl Storm

Nobody kind of likes the NFL Pro Bowl. Some people hate it and others tolerate it. The favorable ratings the game usually receives is boosted by the colossal TV impact of the NFL – particularly Super Bowl Sunday. By placing the Pro Bowl a week before the Super Bowl the NFL can ride the euphoric football wave that spellbinds record numbers of viewers for one week every winter.

In 2012, the Pro Bowl, drew 12.5 million viewers on NBC on January 29. Yes, that makes it the lowest NFL broadcast of 2012, but to put the ratings into perspective, the Pro Bowl drew more viewers than the Major League Baseball All-Star game, which is among the highest-rated baseball games of the year. The Pro Bowl also got better ratings than any hockey games that year, better ratings than all of the NBA conference finals games except Game 7 between the Celtics and Heat, better ratings than the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials and better ratings than the final round of the U.S. Open. 

A lackluster, uninspired and borderline comical 2012 game led to a slight ratings dip in 2013, but the game still received a 7.7 overnight rating and was viewed by 12.2 million The Pro Bowl outdid Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, which aired in July on FOX. The MLB game drew 10.9 million viewers and a 6.8 rating. The NBA's All-Star Game last February in Orlando received a 5.4 rating and 7.07 million viewers on TNT. The NHL’s All-Star Game in Ottawa, Ontario last January drew a 1.0 rating and 1.3 million viewers on NBC Sports Network.

The tricknology and cult-like influence of the NFL has kept the Pro Bowl afloat, but its ratings are on a three-year decline and the NFL decided to spice things up this season to revive fan interest in an exhibition that is becoming increasingly irrelevant in thelarger scheme of things.

For the first time ever, players were selected by Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders as part of a two-day school-yard style draft. It’s sure to be different, as NFC and AFC foes are mixed on teams together for the first time and Rice and Sanders received help with their selections from the captains they picked before the draft got underway.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn contributed to the cipher for Team Rice, while Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles and Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt influenced the picks for Team Sanders.

Cam Newton, Nick Foles and Andrew Luck are calling the offensive signals for Team Sanders and will be slinging the pigskin and handing off to dynamic backs like Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy (Green Bay Packers) and Washington Redskins workhorse Alfred Morris.

They’ll be tossing the rock to Dez Bryant (Dallas Cowboys), Cincinnati’s explosive A.J. Green, Steeler’s stud Antonio Brown and Philly blazer DeSean Jackson to name a few.

Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints), Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers) and Chiefs QB Alex Smith, have some multidimensional toys of their own to play with in Philly Eagles running back Shady McCoy, Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, perennial good-hands man Larry Fitzgerald and TE Jimmy Graham (New Orleans Saints). The G.O.A.T. Tony Gonzalez is also on the squad and will be making his 14th and final Pro Bowl appearance before retiring No. 2 on the NFL’s all-time receptions list with 1325.

The two squads will square off tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Honolulu, Hawaii in what is sure to be a high-scoring affair.

Media has been very critical of The Pro Bowl, considering it nothing more than a hollow exhibition, light vacation and tropical reward for outstanding players following a long and grueling season NFL season.

MLB suffered from a similar dilemma a few years ago before deciding to give the winning league in the All-Star Game home-field advantage in the World Series. It’s almost impossible to make the Pro Bowl actually “mean” something to players. Fans will never get balls-to-walls efforts from high-priced superstars. NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed and how silly would a player look if he ended his career going hard in an 64-63 Pro Bowl loss that nobody will remember?

Gonzalez addressed the media about the balance between putting on an entertaining show for the fans and avoiding injury and he was straight up about it.

“It hasn’t been where it could be and where I think it’s going to be this year,” Gonzalez said, via the Washington Post . “It’s up to us to go out there and put on a performance…The thing people have to understand … you just want to be healthy,” he said. “We can’t go out there and give 100 percent effort, because it’s not worth it.”

Gonzalez' honest perspective is disappointing to the maniacal competitor, but it doesn’t totally devalue the impact of the Pro Bowl. We have to look at the game as a festival-like, “now” activity. It's nothing that will have a lasting or memorable effect on NFL history but it brings money into the beautiful island of Hawaii, and fans will travel to any place on earth to get an upclose glimpse of the NFL’s biggest stars up close. Fantasy football’s rise can be attributed to concepts like the Pro Bowl. Back in the days, fans longed for a chance to see something remarkably rare like Randall Cunningham eluding two defenders, rolling left and effortlessly launching a bomb to Jerry Rice. Once a year wasn’t enough so they made it a 16-game thing by creating fantasy teams. And despite increased TV exposure for players of every franchise, the simple appeal of the Pro Bowl hasn’t changed. In this celebrity-crazed world we live in people want to see the elite athletes go at it more than ever. Constant criticizers of status quo living and self-proclaimed progressive thinkers don’t see any real point to it. Certain cynics want to scrap it because making a young kid's day by signing an autograph or running around at half speed so the fans can enjoy themselves, isn’t in their opinions, a high-stakes enough reason to be televising the game.

It’s not a must watch for me, but I will probably catch a glimpse.  It should be especially festive with Deon and Jerry – two mega egos — hyping the show with their personally chosen talent pool. Who knows, maybe it will boost ratings this year. And maybe it will be a bomb game, but it’s becoming more of a circus every season. I can’t wait to see what they have in store next year. Let’s just let Miley Cyrus and Rihanna pick the squads and stand on the sidelines with bikinis and bullhorns. Either way people will never take it seriously. So enjoy it for what it is – the calm before the Super Bowl storm – and keep it moving. The much bigger game with real deal stakes is only a week away.

JR Gamble joined The Shadow League in 2012. The General Manager of Content & Social Media is in his 25th year of covering sports and culture professionally. He has covered a wide variety of major sports and entertainment topics across different mediums, including radio, newspapers, magazines and national TV. His passion is baseball, the culturing of baseball and preserving and documenting the historically-impactful accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans in baseball.