Right now, the NFL doesn't give experienced players very much incentive to actually play in the game.
The payout is $50,000 for the winners and $25,000 for the losers; while you and I would probably get all doe-eyed about a trip to Hawaii and a $25K+ paycheck for one day's work, the sad fact of the matter is, this is chump change for many of these players.
To put it in perspective, Terrell Owens was once fined $20K for signing a football, and Joe Horn was slapped with a $30K bill for making a telephone call.
The reality is, that sort of money doesn't motivate players who have contracts guaranteeing them tens of millions of dollars per season.
Now, don't get me wrong, there are many, many players in the NFL—the majority in fact—for whom a $50,000 payday is a real, significant deal. The problem is, those players are not the ones getting a place in the Pro Bowl, and they are not the players who the fans want to see.
The current system, in fact, encourages the top-tier players to pull out of the game. For an NFL player, the honor is in being named for the Pro Bowl, not playing in it. Take Troy Polamalu, who was named as a starter for the 2012 game, only to pull out, reportedly to make way for teammate Ryan Clark.
While Clark certainly earned his spot as an alternate, few fans would disagree, that given the choice, they would prefer to watch Polamalu.
If the Pro Bowl is to be taken seriously, the NFL needs to find a way to give the best players, those who draw the crowds, a reason to actually take part.
It needs to start with a change in how Pro Bowler's are classified—namely, ensuring that you only carry the title if you actually suit up for the game.
First team, second and alternates should not be named as early. Instead, the various ballots should serve to form a list of "eligible" players. Players would have until Super Bowl week to declare themselves ineligible (due to legitimate injury, etc).
During Super Bowl week, the NFC and AFC captains and coaches should then hold a draft from amongst all eligible players. Once drafted, a player is considered a Pro Bowler, and would be fined for backing out.
This means players legitimately injured would be able to decline playing in the game, but no one would have the ability to call themselves a Pro Bowler and then back out.
The next change should be what to offer the players. I have heard suggestions like paying the winning team more, not paying the losers at all or paying everyone the same, win or lose. But as we've already established, the money offered to play in the Pro Bowl is insignificant to many of the NFL's top stars.
Short of offering huge bonuses to the players competing—something a league, who spent all summer arguing, didn't have the money to do—money isn't the answer. Instead, the NFL needs to find something more tangible to offer players, something that money cannot buy.
My suggestion is simple. In addition to paying the players—which they should still do—the league should also offer Pro Bowl rings and patches.
It's a token gesture, no one is denying this. So is a Super Bowl ring or Captains patch, but players still respond well to it.
Each player who competes in the Pro Bowl is then allowed to wear a Pro-Bowl patch for the following season. The more appearances, the better the patch. The winners take home a Pro Bowl ring too. A Super Bowl runs the league about $5,000—officially at least—which is hardly a huge figure, yet for the players who own them, the value is much greater.
There are, of course, other incentives which could be offered.
Perhaps Pro Bowlers could be offered additional freedoms or protections.
They could be given privileges like the ability to continue to be able to tweet from the sidelines for the following season, or extra invites to big league events, like the Super Bowl. Players with three or more Pro Bowl appearances could be granted reductions of the amount of time necessary to enter the Hall of Fame—a three-time Pro Bowler can enter after four years, a seven-time Pro Bowler upon retirement.
Whatever the NFL does, it needs to acknowledge that these players are motivated by more than just money.