The NFL’s variation of the All-Star game, the Pro Bowl, finally sold out for the upcoming weekend’s match between the top players of the AFC and NFC. The NFL moved the game from its usual post-Super Bowl place in the schedule to occur during the playoffs in hopes of attracting a larger audience.
Another wrinkle added to the equation was to locate the match in the same city as the Super Bowl, a Miami destination far from the usual Hawaiian star-fest. This move was partly due to a desire to improve attendance and viewership by way of a more "accessible" location, but it was also simply practicality.
The demands of moving a cast of players in and out of Hawaii while still running a season and preparing for the biggest game of professional sports would be far tougher than the relaxed atmosphere the event held when the season was already completed.
The change in time and venue has failed to drum up the expected boost in fan attention, while at the same time giving way to an unprecedented number of players bowing out of the event.
Fourteen players from Indianapolis and New Orleans will be missing the event as they prepare for a game with far more incentive: a league championship. Had Minnesota advanced to the Super Bowl, 15 players would have been missing from the lineup.
Other players have bowed out with injuries still healing; several would have likely missed the Hawaiian invite as well. But with limited motivation behind the current setup, it becomes far easier to decline the invitation. Just this Monday, 17 "alternate" choices were made to play in this year’s event.
At quarterback, what was once Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers has become Matt Schaub, Vince Young, David Garrard, Donovan McNabb, Tony Romo, and the lone starter playing: Rodgers.
This follows true to a trend in which 30 players voted to start in the Pro Bowl will be absent for various reasons. Of the 120 players involved with the Pro Bowl, only 50 percent will be players present for the game that were originally voted in. An additional 25 percent will be replacements—kindly termed alternates—and consequently, the remaining 25 percent will be players absent from the event.
What the NFL fails to realize through all of this is that it is simply not an event that can be force-fed into popularity. Football is a violent, collision-based sport. The half-life on an athlete’s career is far shorter than in other major sports, as players are forced to step away from injury—or from their bodies breaking down.
In a season 82 to 162 games long, a single All-Star game is a speck that taxes a body comparatively little. The NFL season is 16 games long for a reason: Each game bears a significant impact on a player’s body. Four or five days' rest in a football game means the team is at a disadvantage, playing on "short" rest.
That same span off in any other sport is considered a luxury that rarely happens. This is because the type of pounding is much easier on a body. Players won’t step away from an NBA or MLB All-Star match because it holds little comparative chance for harm.
Even in light contact, the NFL sees many significant injuries. Wes Welker did not miss the playoffs because of a brutal playoff-atmosphere hit. His leg shifted wrong, and he was done.
The aforementioned light contact has its own effect. Pro Bowl players do not tackle aggressively so as to avoid serious injury, but the net result is light to no contact in a contact-centric sport. It takes an entire focal element to the game away (imagine an MLB All-Star Game in which pitchers threw no fastballs).
Those concerns, which are what really weighs down a Pro Bowl, cannot be fixed by moving the game elsewhere or moving the week when the game is played.
If the NFL commissioner’s office is wise, it will return the game to Hawaii next year. It may not see much in the way of attention, but at least the original festive atmosphere of the event will help retain a few more players with enough name-power to draw an audience: a few more Peyton Mannings and a few less David Garrards (with all due respect to the Jacksonville quarterback) outweigh trying to capitalize on the buzz of a season still in progress.