The NFL is chewing over a number of ways to improve the Pro Bowl, and among the options that are on the table is the outright elimination of the 72-year-old curiosity.
Among the initial suggestions made during this week during the NFL Owners Meeting in Atlanta include replacing the full-contact game with the significantly less-violent wrinkle that is flag football. Conversations are expected to continue throughout the months leading up to the 2022 season, with some owners reportedly pushing for the game to be retired in favor of a series of skills contests.
However things shake out on the field, the NFL intends to carry on the postseason celebration in some form. If nothing else, the players likely will want to preserve the cash-incentive program that sees the winning Pro Bowl roster earn around $75,000 per man, while the losing team takes home half that amount.
While the league has made changes to the Pro Bowl format in the past—the traditional AFC vs. NFC matchup was scrapped for the three games played between 2014 and 2016—such tweaks have done little to address the fundamental flaws in the postseason exhibition. Chief among these is the player-safety issue; while the game is played at three-quarter speed and defenses aren’t allowed to blitz, there’s no way to safeguard against the risk of a catastrophic non-contact injury.
Even the most watered-down version of no-stakes football can have an irrevocable impact on a players’ life/career. Playing in a rookie flag-football game in Hawaii the week of the 1999 Pro Bowl, New England’s Robert Edwards nearly lost his left leg after sustaining a massive blowout of his knee.
As much as the Pro Bowl is more or less shrouded in irrelevance, Americans still can’t seem to break themselves of the habit. While last year’s game was the least-watched since 2006, the 6.69 million viewers that tuned in to ABC/ESPN absolutely dwarfed the deliveries for the average primetime broadcast series (3.78 million) during the 2021-22 TV season. The Pro Bowl also eked out a narrow win compared to the 2022 NBA All-Star Game (6.28 million viewers), but fell shy of the 8.24 million viewers who watched last summer’s MLB All-Star Game on Fox.
That said, comparisons to the two midseason exhibitions are complicated by the fact that the NBA and MLB versions represent the highest national TV deliveries for each league outside of the postseason. Per Nielsen, the Feb. 20 NBA All-Star Game on TNT/TBS now stands as the seventh most-watched game of the season, trailing a dozen playoff outings, while baseball wouldn’t top its midsummer deliveries until the Yankees-Red Sox AL Wild Card Game scared up 7.69 million viewers on Oct. 5.
For its part, the ratings for the NFL’s annual exhibition don’t come within 100 yards of the league’s massive regular-season turnout, with top games on Fox, CBS and NBC regularly reaching 25 million viewers or better. Even the preseason Hall of Fame scrimmage put up bigger numbers last season, as the Steelers’ 16-3 win over the Cowboys averaged 7.31 million viewers.
As much as Disney might balk at the prospect of losing out on what is still a formidable TV audience, the game itself doesn’t generate much in the way of ad revenue. According to Kantar Media estimates, the 2018 Pro Bowl took in just $3.4 million in commercial spend, a sum that was eclipsed by that same year’s MLB All-Star Game ($44.8 million) and NBA All-Star Game ($43.9 million). For what it’s worth, ABC/ESPN’s Pro Bowl coverage that year averaged 8.6 million viewers, or just 90,000 viewers shy of Fox’s Midsummer Classic. The NFL scrimmage out-delivered Turner Sports’ pro hoops showcase by nearly 1 million viewers.
If it’s fair to say that the Pro Bowl won’t be sorely missed, it seems as if the only way to get people to stop watching is to cancel it altogether.