The Demise of the Pro Bowl - Part 2

Jim Steeg
National Football Post

The Demise of the Pro Bowl: Part 2 - How to fix the game

By Jim Steeg, former NFL Senior VP of Special Events

In the spring of 2001, there was a meeting of a half dozen Pro Bowl players to discuss how to make the game and related events better. There was universal disapproval within the League office regarding the meeting, as the fear was the players would want more money. Remarkably, that subject hardly came up! In fact, the only reference to money was by Warren Sapp, who stated, “You want me to play harder, put my hotel bill in my locker at halftime!” The collaborative effort did improve the Pro Bowl over the next few years. The ideas made the game and the players experience better. The enthusiasm of the 2004 game was a culminating result.

One complaint that the media consistently levees is that players opt out for a variety of reasons. The reality is that except for a few, led by Brett Favre, very few players missed the game for other than injury reasons. Many of those injured still came to Hawaii to be part of the activities.

In the past few years, the NFL has made multiple poor decisions that have now led to the current state of the Pro Bowl. The game should have remained on ESPN and not rotated among the Super Bowl broadcasters. The other broadcasters’ priority was, and always would be, the Super Bowl. Originally, this plan was hatched under the misguided thought that the network would promote the Pro Bowl in the Super Bowl broadcast. That never was a realistic option. Networks will always use the Super Bowl to promote their prime time programming. Broadcast talent was always the “second team” as the primary team was preparing for or recovering from the Super Bowl.

Then came the decision to move the game to before the Super Bowl. This was ill-fated, as it guaranteed that more than a dozen players from the two Super Bowl teams would not play. Many of these were the League’s highest profile players. Players who originally had been second- and third-alternates were now Pro Bowlers. The players knew that they were being treated as afterthoughts. The fans knew they were getting less than the best. Even the broadcasters would spend more time with the Super Bowl Pro Bowlers than the ones playing. It was thought that TV ratings would increase, an ironic thought, since for years it was openly stated that the game did not generate TV rights fees. When the game was moved from the ABC contract to ESPN in 2001, ABC wanted less than $1 million to do so.

One central problem has always been the media who did not attend, but still criticize the game. Those who did attend the game in Hawaii were often 2500+ miles away and never had attended. Those who actually attended thought it was their best experience of the year. Where else could you conduct casual interviews with the 86 best players in football? Sitting and talking casually with two of the best NFL coaches. After “working” for a week at the Super Bowl, it was impossible to sell to editors the value of getting to know the Pro Bowlers. It was ironic that more than 100 media would attend the NFL owners’ meeting in a resort setting in March where little news ever was created, but not attend the Pro Bowl where stories could be banked for months and relationships built and/or solidified with the NFL’s 86 best.

Perhaps in light of this, next came the decision to move the game from Hawaii to Miami. The game became even more an afterthought to the players, sponsors and media. To save face, thousands of tickets were donated or sponsors were required to buy them. The players now knew, the fans knew, and the media also knew that the game was the League’s stepchild. It also affected the relationship with Hawaii.

The opportunity to make the Pro Bowl a premier event still exists, but it takes a commitment and a focus. Revenues can easily be enhanced by selling “presenting sponsorship.” ESPN will now return as the broadcaster, as they committed to in the recent NFL television package. The formula of shoulder programming that has worked for other Leagues and worked well for the NFL at the Pro Bowl needs to be reinvigorated. Events such as the Skills Challenge, Quarterback Challenge, Concert series, Alumni Beach Challenge, the annual awards show, “bowling on the beach,” charity golf tournament, etc., can be reinvented. There needs to be a true national marketing and promotion plan developed. And, most importantly, the game needs to return to the week following the Super Bowl.

USPresswireCan concerts and special events help keep the Pro Bowl a relevant event?

There needs to be a true partnership between the NFL and Hawaii. The League should treat the event as the 33rd franchise. The efforts the NFL places in London can be replicated.

The media need to examine the value of the event and give it a chance instead of criticizing. Interview the members of the media that always have attended and see what value they receive from attending. As one reporter once said, Please don’t tell the others (media) about our secret and how special this (Pro Bowl) is for relationship building and banking stories."

The players will perform if they are treated in a manner that allows them to know they are appreciated. They want to be recognized as one of the best, which is why things have deteriorated with the alternates being named, as the Super Bowl players are excluded. It should be a “fun” experience and a true honor. Going to Hawaii is still unique and special, especially since the Hula Bowl’s demise. Most players and their families have never been to the Islands.

The League needs to be engaged in the game. Senior staff, especially the Commissioner, need to attend. Often those even in charge of the game now only are in Hawaii for 36-48 hours. It is not lost on the players that ownership and management are not attending. After all, if the League doesn’t take the game seriously, how can it expect the players to take the game seriously?

The Pro Bowl is a legacy of the NFL. There is a chance to let fans see the players in an entirely different way and let them get behind the curtain of a game that cannot be done in the regular season. This legacy should not go the way of the Chicago All Star Game. By investing in the product it can be a premier property, but it takes a commitment to do so.

As one prominent Hawaiian businessman stated ”with all the efforts to kill it (Pro Bowl) you know that statistically they're (NFL) going to get it right one day.” Let’s hope so.      

Former NFL Senior VP of Special Events Jim Steeg was responsible for changing the Super Bowl from a championship game into the event it is today. He also was the man who turned the NFL Draft from a behind-the-scenes meeting into a televised spectacle.

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