The NFL Pro Bowl used to be one of the more exciting parts of the football season, but over the years has become as irrelevant as Motorola’s two-way pager. Watching the most outstanding players the game has to offer each year at the same time has now been reduced to nothing more than filler in between championship weekend and the Super Bowl. Pro Bowl Sunday really just signifies the day before the start of the biggest week in North American sports.
You’re probably wondering how we got to this point with the Pro Bowl. Much of it started when many of the top players selected began pulling out of the game. And now that the game is firmly sandwiched between the league’s championship games and the Super Bowl, it’s automatic that players from the teams participating in the big game will skip the Pro Bowl. No NFL coaching staff is allowing any key player to partake in a game that means nothing, one week before the biggest game of their football careers.
In such a violent sport, players aren’t willing to put their careers on the line in an exhibition game at the end of the season like they once were. Some of you might remember former New England Patriot running back Robert Edwards’ career-altering injury during Pro Bowl weekend in 1999. After a great 1998 rookie season where he rushed for 1,115 yards and 9 TDs, it looked like Edwards was on his way to becoming one of the next great backs heading into the new millennium.
Edwards participated in the rookie flag football game during Pro Bowl weekend in Hawaii, and that’s where he suffered a gruesome knee injury. Edwards’ knee was shredded as he tore his ACL, MCL, and PCL ligaments during the game. The injury caused Edwards to sit out the next three years. He would take the field again in 2002 for the Miami Dolphins, but played in just 12 NFL games after his phenomenal rookie campaign. He carried the ball 20 times for the Dolphins, recording just 107 yards and a TD. This might seem like a random albeit brutal injury, but the risk is ever-present, and for Edwards, it didn’t even happen with pads on. So, I get why players might hear this story and say the Pro Bowl probably isn’t worth the risk.
The paycheck for playing in the game isn’t even enough to persuade many players anymore. In 2020, guys on the winning team received $74,000 while the losing team’s participants were paid $37,000. Many pro bowl players already make more than the winners share per regular-season game anyway, so that dangling carrot is no longer cutting it. Pro Bowl-level players are making so much money today that it really makes no sense for them to attend. Most players went back in the day because the game was played in Hawaii for many years. That’s an easy vacation for the family, and you pick up an extra paycheck. That was before the money really exploded over the past two decades. Now it’s more of a chore than a reward for a stellar year.
Ultimately, this game means very little to most players today and even less to many NFL fans. Ratings over the last 20 years prove this fact. The game will peak one year, then decline over the next few only to peak another year, then begin its descent yet again. The 2000 Pro Bowl game brought in 13.2 million viewers compared to 7.97 in 2020. The highest rating during those 20 years came in 2011, with 13.4 million fans tuning in. 2006 was the lowest with 6 million.
There are just so many other options now on the Sunday before the Super Bowl than in 2000. In large part, fans just aren’t as interested in this game as they once were, and it’s obvious. It sucks to say, but I don’t see this game trending upward where overall fan enthusiasm is concerned anytime soon.