How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Pro Bowl?

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Pro Bowl?
A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The Pro Bowl is upcoming this week, being played both before the Super Bowl and out of Hawai'i for the first time since its inception.

Already, there have been many complaints by fans and players alike. The latest rub is that players who were voted to the Pro Bowl on teams in the Super Bowl will be required to attend the game, even though they won't be playing.

And the move to the week before the Super Bowl, which was designed to make the game seem more relevant instead of being tacked on to the end of the season, seems to be having the opposite effect.

Already, by virtue of players backing out or being withheld from competing due to their team making the Super Bowl, five of the six quarterbacks voted into the game won't be participating.

The NFC's stable of QB's—Donovan McNabb, Tony Romo, and Aaron Rodgers (the only QB who was voted in who will be competing)—seems to be a pretty solid group, but how many NFL fans want to tune in to see the AFC's trio of Matt Schaub, Vince Young, and David Garrard?

Whether in or out of Hawai'i, and before or after the Super Bowl, the fact remains that the NFL is the most compelling league to watch regularly, but also has the most meaningless and boring All-Star game. And the question remains, why?

There are some noticeable differences between the All-Star games of MLB, the NBA, and the NHL when compared to the NFL. For example, most of the other major leagues hold their All-Star game in the middle of their seasons. The NFL, for the obvious reason of having a one-game-a-week format, cannot easily adopt that.

Major League Baseball tied the outcome of their All-Star Game to home-field advantage in the World Series. Since the Super Bowl is played on a neutral site, there would be no advantage to confer.

The one thing that all the other major sports seem to do is to tie skills competitions into the game. From the Home Run Derby to the Slam Dunk and Three-Point Shooting Contests to the NHL's Superskills Competition, all the leagues except for the NFL allow the best and brightest to go toe-to-toe to determine who's the best at one of the more flashy aspects of the game.

This is something that I believe the NFL could implement, in a number of ways.

Instantly, one could see the potential for QB's to compete in both distance and accuracy competition. HB's, WR's, and DB's could compete in 40-yard dashes. Offensive and defensive lineman could be involved in strength competition (I could see any number of ways to do this, including combine-style rep counts or even World's Strongest Man-style competitions). You could even get kickers and punters involved with a longest kick/punt competition.

This seems to be a good idea—there have been competitions like these, but they aren't currently tied directly into the Pro Bowl weekend.

However, even the inclusion of these events may not be enough. Football fans as a group tend to get burnt out towards the end of the season. With the notable exceptions of the past two years, which have featured exciting contests, often there is more buzz about the commercials after the game than the game itself.

This makes sense; unless there is a really compelling story, like Jerome Bettis returning to Detroit with the sixth-seeded Steelers a few years ago, 30 of 32 NFL fan bases don't have a rooting interest in the game. So maybe attaching the Pro Bowl to the end of the season, when fan interest is at its lowest, isn't the best idea.

Fortunately, I have come up with a solution, that, while difficult to implement, may make an improvement: Attach the Pro Bowl to NFL Draft Weekend.

This makes sense (at least to me) for a number of reasons. First, it avoids that end-of-season malaise that seems to be a problem with the current incarnation. Draft time is the beginning of the NFL calendar for most fans.

Second, the position on the sports calendar as a whole may be better. The Pro Bowl currently runs up against the regular seasons of hockey and pro and college basketball.

Putting it in late April eliminates college basketball from that equation. Granted, it would now be competing against both the NHL and NBA playoffs, but there is no reason to believe that with proper time placement that the Pro Bowl couldn't find a niche amongst those two events.

The NFL Draft takes place during this time period, and does well enough to be televised on ESPN, so I see no reason that the Pro Bowl could not do the same.

Here would be my proposal for the new NFL Draft Week:

  • NFL Skills Competitions Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday
  • NFL Draft: Round 1—Thursday, Rounds 2 and 3—Friday, Rounds 4 through 7—Saturday (with Pro Bowl practices throughout)
  • The Pro Bowl on Sunday

That's seven days of NFL-related events, a sort of football oasis in the desert that is the long NFL offseason.

The main issue I can think of is that it would come during free agency, and that players may no longer be on the team that they were playing for when they were voted into the Pro Bowl. However, this could easily be fixed by allowing free agent players to, instead of wearing the helmet of their team, wear a helmet with the NFC or AFC Logo or something similarly neutral.

Admittedly, this idea of mine is raw, and is in need of some tweaking. But if you want the Pro Bowl to become a meaningful event, give it a chance to stand out.

Don't tie it to the end of the season, when fan interest is near its nadir, instead make it something for football-starved fans to look forward to during the long drought between February and August.

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