The NFL is currently America’s number one sport. It gets the best TV rating, has the greatest fan base, and the Super Bowl is two shakes of lamb’s tail from being an official American holiday. From the draft, to free agents, to fantasy football fans are hovering over every aspect of this great American game. Amid all the great success the NFL has achieved these past two decades, one slow spot remains; the Pro Bowl.
Taking place after the Super Bowl, the Pro Bowl holds as innocuous spot in the season not to mention limited TV availability and being hosted in a state only the well-to-do could afford. Aside from these practical barriers to viewers and attendees the players and coaches make like effort to show much interest. While the honor of being selected is still worthwhile, the game itself leaves something to be desired. The fans have already seen the best two teams play, fantasy football is over, the NFL draft is the next big event for fans, and players don’t have any real reason to risk their bodies except for contractual reasons.
What should be done about this seemingly useless game in February? Should be take Mike Greenberg’s suggestion and vote for players without playing a real game? Should the NFL just leave it be? In many ways these seem to be the extremes. Then again, I think to make the Pro Bowl one step better than the other all star games out there, it will take some extreme creatively and marketing. The following article lays out my thoughts for shoring up this afterthought of a game for the NFL.
The first place to start is restructuring how we do all star games. To date, all leagues have their all star games structured to pin one conference’s best players against the other conference’s best players. This was not a bad idea at the time it first began. In fact it was a great idea! The problem is our times have changed and folks just don’t care as much about these games anymore. The Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Championship, and Stanley Cup are all seen as more significant. No one cares about one conference versus another after the real deal has been played out. What might be interesting though is seeing Peyton Manning throwing to Larry Fitzgerald or Brian Westbrook and Maurice Jones-Drew in the same backfield. How about two great players from the same team going head to head? My first suggestion for improving Pro Bowl interest is to allow teams to be mixed conference.
Obviously this is a huge leap from what we are used to. Clearly this would take some creative thinking in other areas to make it happen. Here are my thoughts on a potential progression of events leading to the Pro Bowl. First, increase the total number of players voted to the Pro Bowl by one or two per position. As I get into my thoughts here you will see why. Second, two weeks after the Super Bowl, hold a Pro Bowl selection meeting during which the two Pro Bowl coaches review the list of elected players and take turns picking players for their team.
A coin toss determines the coach picking first. Coaches pick their 52 man rosters from the pool of roughly 150 players. Please note that I am talking about the entire pool of players and not just one conference. Several things happen here. One, teams will be different from year to year. Two, the competing coaches will make the final vote regarding who actually goes to the Pro Bowl. And three, the two teams will be intra-conferential. Third, two weeks following the selection process, hold the Pro Bowl event. This process creates a new and dynamic game from year to year. It may also increase player interest in wanting to be one of the first players selected each year. Clearly this would excite fans if we were to stop here, but let’s consider some other ideas for increasing fan interest.
Fantasy football is the game to tap into. With the structure I’ve presented there are several opportunities to consider. First, consider a mock fantasy draft for the coach’s selection process. With the increased selection pool and cross-conference teams this should present a very competitive opportunity. Second, fans could create Pro Bowl fantasy teams following the selection process. After coaches select their teams, fans choose a starting roster for their team. Include pre-set substitution options for the different quarters to better engage advanced fantasy players. Point would be earned in much the same way as seasonal fantasy football. Third, offer head-to-head fantasy leagues for groups. These 4-6 man leagues would draft rosters from the available pool and complete head-to-head.
The final step to taking pro-bowl interest to the next level is to offer significant prizes to fans winning or placing well in the fantasy games. Top winners could receive Super Bowl tickets, Pro Bowl tickets, or both. Other prizes could include gift certificates to the NFL online store, season tickets, jerseys, or day-with-a-player prizes. The prizes should be significant enough to draw genuine interest. This will pull in fans who might not otherwise watch the game. Unpublished motivators for players and coaches might be used to push players to play harder during the game. Benefits should as bonus salary for performance the follow year, extra retirement benefits, extra draft picks for coaches, league pays for players injured during the game, or injured players don’t count against the cap.