The Pro Bowl, supposedly featuring the football's biggest stars, kicks off Sunday at 7 p.m. on ESPN live from Honolulu. Except the game won't actually "kick off," since the Pro Bowl's game-specific rules outlaw kickoffs. And most of the game's biggest stars decided they didn't want to play, with a record number of players declining invitations this year. I guess it's still football, technically.
So once again, it's time to ask: Why does the Pro Bowl exist? Considering the lack of player, fan and league interest, it's hard to tell.
The NFL doesn't want to have the Pro Bowl
In 2014, former NFL player and NFLPA executive Domonique Foxworth revealed that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wanted to get rid of the Pro Bowl -- if it wasn't for the NFLPA's intervention.
"Roger was very serious about potentially canceling the Pro Bowl because apparently it's very expensive and isn't of a ton of value to them," Foxworth told USA TODAY Sports this week.
"To be honest with you, I was completely comfortable with eliminating it until I talked to the players, and they said they loved it and they want to be there."
OK, so the guy in charge of the NFL doesn't like the game which the NFL holds, but they still do it because the players absolutely love it. Makes sense. One problem:
The players don't want to play in the Pro Bowl
Each Pro Bowl team has 44 players, so if every selected player played in the game, there would be 88 players invited. This year, 133 players were invited, thanks to the most declined invitations in Pro Bowl history.
Some of the players declined for good reasons. 14 declines were by players on the Panthers and Broncos, who play in the Super Bowl next week, and therefore can't be bothered with the Pro Bowl. Some players are rehabbing injuries.
But a lot of players just don't want to play. For example, seven players were selected from the Patriots, who lost last week's AFC Championship game and therefore have a free schedule. All seven were healthy enough to play football last week, but all seven declined their Pro Bowl invites, from Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski down to kicker Stephen Gostkowski and special teamer Matthew Slater.
As it stands, the game lost five of six quarterbacks initially selected who declined their invitations, and only Russell Wilson remains. So Derek Carr, Eli Manning, and Tyrod Taylor face off against Wilson, Teddy Bridgewater, and Jameis Winston. Those are the quarterbacks in the actual Pro Bowl!
Enough cornerbacks dropped out that Adam Jones, the seventh alternate, is playing in the game. Even the two fullbacks named to the game, Mike Tolbert and Marcel Reese, are out of the game, so the Pro Bowl will feature the NFL's third- and fourth-best fullbacks.
Even Packers coach Mike McCarthy declined to participate due to a stomach illness, sending assistant head coach Winston Smith in his place. Not even the coaches want to participate, and they don't have to hit each other.
Philip Rivers officially listed his reason for declining as "personal reasons." Many didn't bother giving a reason. Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report talked to an agent who believes players are intentionally declining to kill the game.
"Players despise the game now more than ever in all the time I've been around the NFL," said one prominent agent who has been representing football players for decades. "They see it as not only a waste of time, but a detriment to their recovery process."
That doesn't exactly sound like the vast wave of support that Foxworth cited.
I honestly can't blame players for not participating. The only potential benefit is financial, with the winning team receiving $58,000 and losers receiving $29,000. Next to their multi-million salaries, that's not a whole lot. Some players receive contractual bonuses for playing, but only if they were amongst the original players selected, leaving alternate selections little reason to participate.
Meanwhile, the potential negatives are big. They could injure themselves or aggravate a prior injury. After five months of ramming their bodies into opponents, I'd probably decline another week too.
The fans don't want to watch the Pro Bowl
When the NFL didn't cancel the game in 2014, it hoped that a new, unconferenced setup would attract fans. Instead of having the AFC play the NFC, it had teams selected by popular NFL legends Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders play each other. Last year it was Michael Irvin and Cris Carter, this year it's Irvin and Rice, whose teams won their respective games.
Suffice it to say, this format has not made the game more popular. The first year saw a 13 percent decline in TV ratings, last year's ratings were 16 percent lower than that. This past season, the MLB's All-Star Game posted its lowest rating since records were kept. It still had a better rating than last year's Pro Bowl.
To be fair, the Pro Bowl still draws lots of viewers. It was the most viewed show on cable last year the week it aired. But that was also true of every NFL game on cable. Last year's Pro Bowl had two million fewer viewers than the least-watched Monday Night Football game, a game between the 3-7 Ravens and 2-8 Browns. The difference is this game requires a lot of otherwise unnecessary infrastructure to produce.
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I'd offer some solution, but I'm not sure there is one.
So much of what's great about football is directly related to how important each game is. We love the high intensity of the players, we let our emotions rise and fall on every play, we salute players who give their all for their team and teammates, we appreciate the complexity of game plans painstakingly strategized to isolate the weaknesses of the opposition.
There's simply no way to simulate these things in an exhibition game with teams assembled days earlier at the end of a long, difficult season. The best way to fix the Pro Bowl is... well... not having a Pro Bowl. No rule change can make us interested, no revamp of the selection process can make us care.
It is a little dumb complaining. Millions of people still watch it, and presumably derive some joy from watching it, and nobody is really hurt by it. But it's still a football game. Even with the reduced intensity, there's still the risk that a player does step the wrong way or get hit a bit too hard, leading to a serious injury that hampers their career and hurts their team's plans. And as soon as that happens, this isn't a harmless exhibition anymore.