It’s rare that a professional sports league’s “all-star” game or contests can capture the collective attention of their fans. The best they can do is to showcase a product that has portions designed to attract as many viewers as possible. Which is why most all-star portions of a given league are “events” rather than a single game.
And the NFL’s Pro Bowl is no different, although it will look very different this year. For those of you either aware or in some cases too aware of the platform that E-Sports has brought us, you can probably move on to other things. But for those of you not yet on the E-Sports bandwagon, you might want to sit up and pay attention. E-Sports is essentially a tv game show that pits video gamer players against each other, while people interested in video games watch them compete (via cable or satellite).
Why would that have anything to do with the Pro Bowl? Well, the Pro Bowl, for at least the current installment, has gone the way of E-Sports. This year, eight celebrities will take over the AFC and NFC teams for a quarter a piece and compete for bragging rights. The AFC will be controlled a quarter at a time by Snoop Dogg, Keyshawn Johnson, Deshaun Watson, and Derrick Henry. The NFC will be controlled in quarters by Bubba Wallace, Marshawn Lynch, Kyler Murray, and Jamal Adams. The game will be hosted by Michael Strahan and Charissa Thompson, and broadcast on ABC and ESPN, and will be live streamed on the Madden 21 Twitch channel, as well as the NFL’s Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube channels.
The contestants will play virtually from their seperate homes, while the hosts will be in the studio for ESPN/ABC. The Pro Bowl rosters will be available for all to play on Madden 21. The Madden Pro Bowl will kick off at 2pm on ESPN, and takes the place of the NFL’s annual all-star contest that is usually held a week prior to the Super Bowl, with the players competing in the Super Bowl ineligible to participate. That won’t be the case this year, although they will be limited to spectators like the rest of us.
This is a great move in the right direction, as the NFL has found a way to connect with their younger fans while also putting a product out there that just about any person of any age can find some level of entertainment from. The next step would be to figure out how to get more eyes on their skills competitions? The NBA has the Slam Dunk and 3 Point Competition, the MLB has the Home Run Derby, but what does the NFL have that you can’t see just about every other Sunday? The distance throwing competition? The precision throwing competition? The flag football game? These are just watered down versions of training camp, why are fans watching?
What would make the Pro Bowl a lot more fun would be to show today’s stars competing for things you wouldn’t normally see them do in a standard game. How about Patrick Mahomes trying a 50 yard field goal? Or Deshaun Watson trying to catch a deep pass against the best corner in the game? Or how about bringing retired players like Jerry Rice and Deon Sanders and Peyton Manning back to compete in those challenges? We hear a lot about how some of the old players could still run with the young stars, what if we make them prove it? Make Deon cover Julio Jones on routes, make Peyton Manning throw a touchdown to Jerry Rice against Jalen Ramsey. Let’s see them roll out some competitions we haven’t seen before. The reason the Slam Dunk competition is fun and the Home Run derby is fun is because you are getting to see some of the best players in the game do the most exciting thing in the sport in a controlled environment that enhances their chances of doing exactly what you wish you could see in a game. You’re never going to see one player rip off ten home runs in a row in a single game, but you might in the Home Run Derby. You’re not going to see LeBron James dunk over a Cadillac in a regular season game, but if he ever did a Slam Dunk competition, you might have seen it then.
The NFL needs to figure out what the fans want to see their favorite players do in a casual competition, and then put that product out there. Right now, it’s a gimmick, it’s not anything we need to see. But NFL players in a Double Dare environment? That’s something I would want to watch.
This year, we are getting a virtual experience, and it sounds like a fun one. But next year and beyond? The NFL needs to figure out how to make their all-star experience as fun as some of the other major sports out there. Some folks may want to see who can throw farther between Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, but I’d rather see who can catch the most touchdowns in a game of 500 or something. At this point, they can only go up. The fans aren’t watching, and unless they can figure out how to make the game more than just a scrimmage without any defense, they need to improve the events that take place leading up to the game. No one wants to watch target practice, if your all-star game doesn’t have game show components to it, it’s probably not something the average fan is dropping what they are doing to watch it. Today, they are doing just about anything but watching the Pro Bowl. It’s on the NFL to figure out how to make it more entertaining. They can’t say they don’t have enough ideas. In today’s world, there’s nothing close to a shortage of ideas.