Every professional all-star game has had its dramatic moments. What baseball fan could forget Pete Rose bowling over Ray Fosse at home plate to score the winning run in 1970? In the NBA, the goose bumps came courtesy of Magic Johnson, who won the 1992 Most Valuable Player award in an emotional comeback from his HIV-induced retirement. And the NFL? Well, about the only memorable Pro Bowl event was in 1999, when New England running back Robert Edwards suffered a horrific knee injury. Only that didn’t happen in the Pro Bowl. It happened in a flag-football contest on the beach in Hawaii, before the actual game.
It may be unfair to say nothing exciting has ever happened in a Pro Bowl. In fact, there may have been thrilling plays that nobody remembers because nobody saw them. Last year, the NFL had to go to great lengths just to sell all 50,000 seats in the stadium — and this in Honolulu, where locals normally have to travel 2,000 miles to see pro-football players collide. TV ratings have fallen by 65 percent since 1995. Other all-star games have also lost viewers, but none has fallen so fast or so far as the Pro Bowl. The 2002 game got a 4.3 Nielsen rating, meaning fewer than 5 million people tuned in. The baseball All-Star game that ended in a tie in Milwaukee’s Miller Park got a 9.5 rating — and that was its worst showing ever. The NBA affair got an 8.2. If that’s not embarrassing enough for the NFL, the Pro Bowl had fewer viewers than the Home Run Derby, which is held the day before the All-Star game.
After last year’s sun-dappled snooze, NFL senior vice president Jim Steeg said, “We’ve been out there for 24 years. We’ve let it get tired, and it needs a bit of a push.” This year, the league has been trying to revive interest by making various changes — for instance, starting the game at 5:30 PM Eastern time. But here’s some advice for the league on the Pro Bowl: End it, don’t mend it.
It’s no accident that the game arouses no interest in a populace that’s crazy about football. In the first place, it’s not played in the middle of the season — the custom in other sports, where it provides a diverting break from the season’s long grind. Instead, it comes at the end, in a limp anticlimax to the Super Bowl, which is merely the biggest single event of the entire sports year. By the time February rolls around, the league’s best players fall into one of two categories: Those who are rusty because they haven’t played since the regular season (ended five weeks earlier), and those who are recuperating from the rigors of the playoffs. That’s hardly a formula for getting them at their peak. Nor are the players themselves necessarily thrilled to be there. The NFL has staged the show in Honolulu since 1980 mainly for one reason: An island vacation is about the only way to get players to show up at a time when they’d rather be doing just about anything but strapping on shoulder pads.
On top of that, the Pro Bowl has special rules — like a ban on blitzing — which lessen the danger to life and limb but also diminish its resemblance to a real game. Given the outsized risk of injury in any football game, it’s not surprising that players participating in a meaningless exhibition rarely display their normally unquenchable ferocity. Blowing out a knee in a playoff game is tragedy. Doing so in a Pro Bowl is farce. The tropical surroundings only add to the mellow mood. You could find more intense football games at a Kennedy family reunion.
Football also doesn’t lend itself to the TV-friendly, crowd-pleasing sideshows that have become such a big part of the baseball and basketball games. This year, Pro Bowl players will face off in a televised “Beach Bowling Bash” — that’s right, bowling. As diversion, it’s not exactly the Slam Dunk competition. But the biggest problem has to do with the essence of the sport itself. Baseball is largely a series of one-on-one contests — batter vs. pitcher, fielder vs. runner — that require only rudimentary interaction among teammates. Basketball works tolerably well as both competition and entertainment when played in unstructured fashion. But football is a complicated game that requires intricate, synchronized cooperation among eleven individuals. The quintessential team sport, it requires a real team — not just talented individuals. Assembling a bunch of guys who have never played together, putting them through some perfunctory practices over a few days in a resort setting, and expecting them to play competent football — well, you might as well ask them to stage a Broadway musical.
The main reason the NFL has an all-star game is that all the other pro leagues do. But that’s not a good reason for squeezing a fine sport into a form that just can’t be made to fit. Nobody would really miss the Pro Bowl if it went the way of other outmoded NFL traditions — leather helmets, say, or wholesome cheerleaders. But if the league has to have a substitute, how about this: Name the squads just as it does now, and give the honorees a free trip to Hawaii — but let the designated coaches conduct the game in virtual fashion, in a no-holds-barred game of Madden NFL 2002, on national TV. Maybe that would be a cheap, unsatisfying gimmick bearing no resemblance to a real NFL game. But so is the Pro Bowl.
— Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.