Monday, January 27, 2014

Fixing the Pro Bowl

By Brad Oremland

The Pro Bowl isn't broken, exactly. In 2013, the Pro Bowl drew a higher television rating than Game 3 of the World Series. The problem isn't so much that nobody is watching the Pro Bowl as that everyone hates it. Fans complain about the game. Players don't care, and they don't act like they care. Many of the players voted in choose not to attend, and the Super Bowl teams aren't represented at all. The coaches can't do anything creative, and defensive strategies are limited by rule.

The result doesn't matter. There was a serious AFC/NFC rivalry in the '70s, but these days no one cares. And while all-star games used to serve as a national showcase for the best talent, there are so many games on TV now that fans don't have to watch their heroes in an exhibition game, because they can see them in meaningful action if they have a half-decent television package.

All of these factors combine for a dissatisfying fan experience. The NFL has recognized this for years, and it's tried various tricks to put some life back into the game. The league moved up the date, before the Super Bowl instead of after, and briefly experimented with holding the game at the Super Bowl site rather than in Hawaii. This year, it introduced the new "unconferenced" format, with players elected through the normal method, then drafted onto teams by retired Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders.

I haven't watched the Pro Bowl in years, and that includes last night's game. Team Rice won 22-21, on a last-minute touchdown pass from Alex Smith to DeMarco Murray, and a two-point conversion by Mike Tolbert. From what I've read, it sounds like the best Pro Bowl in a long time, and the unconferenced draft was an interesting idea. Even though the Pro Bowl might not be broken, and might even be trending in the right direction, it can still be dramatically improved. The basic goals would be to ensure that:

1. Players want to participate, and they play to win.

2. Players can showcase all their skills, including defensive players.

3. Fans care about which team wins.

4. Meeting the other conditions does not negatively affect the quality of the NFL's regular season or postseason.

If the Pro Bowl fulfills all those conditions, you suddenly have the best All-Star Game in North America. A stakes game, showing how the best players match up against one another when they're trying hard, and a game in which the audience is invested in the outcome. How do we make this happen?

1. Players want to participate, and they play to win.

This is the easiest condition to meet, because all it takes is money.

The simplest solution is to offer every player on the winning team $1 million, with the losing team getting a free trip to Hawaii ... but no cash. A million dollars is a lot of money even for NFL players. The top quarterbacks and the guys with major endorsement deals might not get hyped about it, but for 99% of the league, a million is a very big deal. If the winning team is making that much, and the losers don't see any of it, you will absolutely get players going hard in the Pro Bowl. People will start calling it the Million Dollar Game.

Of course, now you're talking about doling out $50 million, and you're kind of shafting the losing team. What if we offered $500,000 to the winners, and $50,000 to the losers? The 2013 salary cap was $123 million, about $2.3 million per player — less than $150,000 per game, on average. Five hundred grand is still a pretty serious incentive to go hard, 50k and a vacation in Hawaii is a nice consolation for the losing team, and the total payout of $28 million or so is manageable for the league and its sponsors, well worth the price if it makes the Pro Bowl a must-see event.

We can tinker with the exact amounts, but there's an obvious solution to getting players interested and playing hard: pay the winning team A LOT, and pay the losing team much less. I also like the idea of a significant bonus for the Pro Bowl MVP. Now players want to participate, they want to win, and they want to stay in the game.

2. Players can showcase all their skills, including defensive players.

Football is a rough sport. No one wants to see a Pro Bowl marred by serious injuries. But if the NFL wants the Pro Bowl to be a game rather than just a skills competition, it needs to be a legit game. That means no restrictions on blitzing, no special rules of any kind. Fans want a meaningful game, so it needs the same rules as other meaningful games. And we need to drop the idea that everyone gets to play. Other than backup quarterbacks, everyone will play, on special teams. But Drew Brees warming the bench for three quarters is contrary to the spirit of a competitive game, and unless you're a big Alex Smith fan, it's disappointing for the viewers to watch third-stringers handle the most critical moments of the game.

I would also favor returning the Pro Bowl to the week after the Super Bowl. That would allow Super Bowl players to participate, and it would give the coaches time to install at least a basic gameplan. Fans would tune in just to see how Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh match up when their rosters are full of all-stars.

On a related note, the Super Bowl should occur one week after the conference championship games, not two.

3. Fans care about who wins.

The NFL had a good idea this year, with the unconferenced Rice vs. Sanders format. The "fantasy football, for real" angle was really interesting ... until we learned that they would pick each position individually. It would have been fascinating to see who went for a quarterback first, who prioritized defense, and so on. The league should mandate the number of players per team at each position (no fair taking both long snappers!), but not the order in which they're chosen.

Fantasy football is sensationally popular, and most fantasy owners cite draft day as their favorite part. Introducing a Pro Bowl draft was a great idea, and so was getting high-profile ex-players involved. Few fans have any meaningful conference allegiance at this point, but games are more fun and more dramatic when we care who wins. So how do you get viewers invested in an exhibition game? With captains the fans care about and personalized teams.

This year's game didn't even need captains, just coaches: the league could have billed the game as Bill Belichick vs. Jim Harbaugh, and ESPN would've cancelled all its other programming to have Skip Bayless yell about the game. The coaches should be paid the same way as the players. That gives them the same incentive, and it gives fans one more thing to root for or against. Someone who hates Harbaugh and doesn't want him to cash in suddenly has a rooting interest.

But not every year will produce that kind of coaching matchup. If we'd gotten Mike McCoy vs. Ron Rivera, you couldn't market the game on those two. Celebrity captains are a good idea, and people associated with the game make the most sense. Ideally you'd choose individuals who inspire strong reaction. Brett Favre vs. Michael Strahan. Bill Parcells vs. Mike Ditka. Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher, Steve Young and Michael Irvin, Warren Sapp and Tony Siragusa, Tim Tebow and anyone. Fans identify with and against those people, and if the celebrities personally draft their own teams, you're rooting for or against Favre or Parcells or whoever.

4. Meeting the other conditions does not negatively affect the quality of the NFL's regular season or postseason.

I'm proposing a game in which some of the league's best players are going 100%, and everyone's playing special teams. There are going to be injuries. If any player suffers an injury in the Pro Bowl that forces him to miss games the next season, the league should give his team a salary cap exemption or an extra Injured Reserve - Designated for Return. Maybe there could even be some sort of compensatory draft pick so teams don't try to keep their players out of the Pro Bowl.

* * *

Some of my proposals are more realistic than others. Some of them, the details are flexible. But they form the core of an idea to revive interest in the Pro Bowl, even to make it a major event, the biggest exhibition game in sports.

No one skips the game without a legitimate injury, polarizing captains draft all-star players, and everyone goes hard because the winning team gets paid. There are no artificial restrictions on strategy or playing time: it's a real game, played to win. Implement those basic ideas, and fans will respond.

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