By In Stuff

The Pro Bowl Doesn’t Matter (But I’ll Watch)

I was thinking the other day about ABC’s Wide World of Sports. There was a time in America — and not so long ago — when the concept of a show like Wide World of Sports made sense to all of us. The concept was best described in the famous lead-in, read by the incomparable Jim McKay:

“Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports. The thrill of victory. And the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition. This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports.”

Not many people know this, but that lead-in was actually written by a man named Stanley Ralph Ross who had one of the more wondrous careers in entertainment. He wrote the shows in the old Batman and Wonder Woman series, came up with story lines for shows like “All in the Family” and “Columbo,” did various parody songs, played bad guys in gloriously awful kids shows like “Far Out Space Nuts” and “The Lost Saucer,” showed up now and then on “Falcon Crest,” appeared in movies like “Helter Skelter” and “Sleeper,” and did voiceovers for countless cartoons — he was Braniac on the Superfriends, for instance. Wikipedia also says he became an ordained minister and officiated Burt Ward’s third wedding. Talk about someone’s cup running over.

Anyway, those Wide World of Sports words carried a lot of power back in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was growing up. The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. Enormous words. We were willing to watch pretty much ANYTHING back then that fit within those parameters. Wide World of Sports would bring us rodeo and racquetball and surfing and loggers trying to make other loggers fall off of logs, and people on skates jumping over barrels and demolition derbies and Evel Knievel jumping busses on his motorcycle and the Harlem Globetrotters … we watched them all. Yes, there were some sports that we’d probably consider more serious too; we’d get big time boxing matches on Wide World of Sports, and huge track and field events and world championship gymnastics competitions and so on. But in many ways the point was that some weeks it was more important, some weeks less, but we watched it all — the constant variety of sports.

And I never once remember asking: Why are we watching this? We watched because it was sports. We didn’t need an actual reason. Anyway, there wasn’t anything else on.

The point is: It did not have to matter. To be blunt about it: Sports almost NEVER mattered, not in the way we think about today. Why would we watch a mishmash of professional athletes and actors compete in stupid superstars competitions or “Battle of the Sexes” match-ups? Why not? There was a little thrill of victory, a little less agony of defeat, and what else were we going to do anyway? The landscape was just different. People often wonder about the bowl setup in college football — how did a system so ridiculous ever get come together? But the system is only ridiculous when viewed through today’s prism. Well, for a long time in America, we lived in a bowl nation — a sports landscape of match races and boxing match-ups (we actually called the people who put these things together “matchmakers”), and odd professional wrestling matches and quasi-interesting exhibitions and barnstorming and now-quaint events like when the NFL Champions would face off against a team of college football All-Stars.* In that setting, it made perfect sense for men in ugly jackets to scout games and determine what might be a fun match-up for people to watch on Dec. 28th. That’s how we determined pretty much everything in sports.

*Though I’ve already had my 44th birthday, I like to think of today as my real birthday because I was born on the Sunday of the first ever Super Bowl bye week. I was born in those years when fathers were expected to wait nervously in the lobby while their children were born — all the while clutching celebration cigars to hand out to complete strangers upon hearing “It’s a boy!” — and my parents still talk to this day about how the moment I was born my father was watching pro football on TV. This, in and of itself, is no big deal. What I love is that the game he was watching was the now departed Playoff Bowl, a bizarre and long-forgotten NFL exhibition that would face off the third and four-place teams in an effort to determine, once and for all, who deserved to be third. That day, the Baltimore Colts beat the Philadelphia Eagles 20-14.

The landscape, of course, has changed drastically. We have little use for the constant variety of sports — quite the opposite. I hear people constantly griping that they want LESS variety, that they don’t care about soccer (boring) … track and field (come on) … tennis (who’s that guy?) … hockey (icing?) … golf (get over yourselves) … auto racing (that’s a sport?) … women’s basketball (they don’t even dunk) … baseball (too slow) … the NBA regular season (doesn’t matter) … college bowls (stupid system) … college basketball until March (no brackets) …. even the current NFL (not as good as it used to be). In many ways, it seems to me, today’s sports discussion is more about what we DO NOT care about than what we do care about. It’s all one blur. We are like candy store kids who can no longer taste the difference between Rolos and PEZ and no longer care. We just want the sugar rush.

All-Star Games don’t fit into our brave new sports world. This is true of all sports. Baseball’s All-Star Game, by far the most famous and well-regarded of the games, received its lowest ratings EVER this year. There were many attempts to explain this away, some of them technical TV jargon. Apparently: “Nobody gives a damn about all-star games” was not good enough. Up to 1986, the All-Star Game pulled a 20 rating every single year but one (1969 — not sure what happened that year). It often pulled 25 ratings. In 1976, when I was nine, it pulled a 27.6 rating. That’s about the rating that the AFC Championship just pulled — twice the rating of American Idol. Everybody watched. This year’s All-Star Game rating? Right: 7.5. A little less that “The Good Wife” will get most weeks.

Sure, television has changed — there were countless fewer TV options in 1976 — and baseball has changed too. But it seems to me that the feelings about all-star games have changed even more. There was a time when we would all gather around just to watch athletes play their sport, nothing had to be on the line, nothing had to be at stake, the ruled did not even have to make sense. We just wanted to watch, just like there was a time when we would gather around to hear the late Fred Travalena do a few of the same impressions, watch Donny and Marie do a few skits, watch that “You doesn’t have to call me Johnson” guy do that same annoying bit. Basically: We were stupid. And we didn’t have any other choice.

But now … no, people aren’t going to watch the All-Star Game just to see Albert Pujols get a couple of at-bats. We can see that any time we want. Nobody cares. Yes, the NBA has smartly turned their All-Star Game into a weekend of stunts — watch these guys dunk, watch these guys shoot three-pointers, watch Charles Barkley say something funny — and there’s a certain fun in that. The NHL has pulled out the North America vs. the World gimmick, which doesn’t seem to excite people nearly as much as playing games in odd places like Fenway Park (I think the NHL All-Star Game should be in some new odd place every year — (“Hey, they’re playing the All-Star game on the 14th green at Augusta! Awesome!”). Even staid baseball has tried to liven up its game with the interminable home run hitting contest. Basically, these ploys keeps these things afloat. But the basic theme remains: Nobody cares.

And the Pro Bowl — well, everyone agrees its the worst of the bunch. They’ve moved the thing around. They’re trying to mike up more players. Nothing works. I asked around to find why people think the Pro Bowl is widely viewed as the worst of the already lifeless lot of All-Star Games? They generally broke it down to three things:

1. It’s the only one played at the end of the season, not in the middle. For this, perhaps, it doesn’t feel as integrated.

2. It’s the only one where the players are specifically prohibited from playing their sport to the best of their abilities — no blitzing, for instance. If the game means so little to the league, how can it matter to fans?

3. Football, more than the other sports, requires perfect coordination between players. In baseball, nine strangers who have never seen each other can go out and win a baseball game.* In basketball and hockey, yes, more coordination is required, but that can come together naturally, during a game, in the flow of action, without much practice. In football, though, you have 11 players on each side doing 11 different things, and no matter how skilled they are individually their success relies so much on each other. And it really is a team sport — individual excellence really is of minor importance. In other sports, you might watch to marvel at Sidney Crosby’s feel for the game, Kevin Durant’s pure shooting touch, Roy Halladay’s ability to paint the corner. But if the Pro Bowl game itself is boring — and it’s pretty much ALWAYS boring — it won’t be salvaged by watching the blocking talents of Kris Diehlman or the instinctive movement of Jonathan Vilma. That’s just not the thrill of watching football.

*I’m reading John Thorn’s quite excellent Baseball in the Garden of Eden (coming soon), and he makes a point that I don’t think is made quite enough. Most people, unlike poor sap Bud Selig, know that Abner Doubleday did not invent the game of baseball, had nothing to do with inventing the game of baseball, probably never even played baseball and that believing in this myth is a bit like believing there’s are little tiny singers and bands performing inside your radio. But it has become common to believe that while baseball was not really “invented,” the man who came closest was Alexander Cartwright. He and a committee wrote down a set of rules in 1845 after forming the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. It is said on his Hall of Fame plaque that Cartwright set the bases 90 feet apart, established 9 innings and 9 players per team as standards and carried baseball to Hawaii. As Thorn writes of the Hall of Fame plaque: “Every word of substance is false.” But I’ll let you read the book.

The point that never gets old is that we are supposed to believe that Cartwright and the Knickerbocker fellas invented baseball, just came up with the rules. And then they played the very first game of baseball ever, the first game under the Cartwright rules, against a ballclub of ragtag players, a club so new and undistinguished that they did not even have a name (they are often called the “New York Nine”). So you would expect the Knickerbockers to have a bit of an advantage since we are supposed to believe they invented this new game.

As Thorn points out: The Knickerbockers lost the game 23-1 in four innings.

I think there’s at least one more reason the Pro Bowl matters less to us than the others — something else about football the game. I think football is a more serious game than the others. We may take everything in sports more seriously than we once did, but this is five times more true for professional football. Every game is staggeringly important. We accept the carnage of football — the concussions, the broken bones, the injury timeouts, the Coors Light coach commercials — because the games are so important.

But if you take away that staggering importance, football feels empty. This is why exhibition football games are unwatchable. Te Pro Bowl has no chance in this environment. People still argue about Pete Rose crashing into Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game and perhaps altering his career. It might be the most famous moment in All-Star Game history. Some think Rose was a jerk, some think he was just playing the game hard, and some think he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

But imagine something similar in the Pro Bowl, imagine a linebacker blindsiding some gifted young quarterback, say Aaron Rodgers, and busting up his career. NOBODY would look at that as something worth arguing about. It would be a travesty. It would be a criminal act. Nobody wants to see someone get hurt in a stupid Pro Bowl. In baseball, you will hear people longing for those days when the All-Star Game mattered and players desperately wanted to win for their league. Nobody I know feels that way about football.

Of course, as much as people say they don’t care about the Pro Bowl … it’s a near certainty that more people will watch tonight’s Pro Bowl than any of the other all-star games. Many of us will watch, but we won’t really care. And, no, that would not make for nearly as compelling a Wide World of Sports opening.

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33 Responses to The Pro Bowl Doesn’t Matter (But I’ll Watch)

  1. ernieadams says:

    The 1969 All-Star Game happened while Apollo 11 was coming back to Earth — is it possible everyone was watching the news instead?

  2. Spud says:

    The ’69 All-Star Game in D.C. was rained out and was played on Wednesday afternoon instead of its regularly scheduled Tuesday night.

    There’s something great about the fact that Joe was born while the Playoff Bowl was going on. Now there’s a concept that’s hard to figure and yet, if the Bears and Jets were playing today, there might be a lot of interest. Who knows?

  3. Linkmeister says:

    Damn you Blogger. You ate my comment.

    There are two groups of people who love the Pro Bowl: 1) the players who bring their families out here for the week and 2) the Hawai’i fans, who never get to see live NFL football of any sort (there’s been one exhibition game here, in the mid-1970s. I flew back from Kwajalein with a couple of friends to watch).

    Our tourism authority likes it enough to pay $4M to the NFL for the privilege, because it estimates there’s about $20M spent here by fans, players and NFL muckety-mucks while they’re here.

  4. Logan says:

    When I played football in high school, our Thursday night practices (before the game on Friday) were in helmets and shoulder pads only. Everyone knew it was a walk-through and you were supposed to just go through the motions. Anyone who actually tried hard was given the derogatory title of “Thursday Night All-Star”. I watched a little bit of the third quarter of the Pro Bowl last year, and it seemed to me that every player was trying not to be a “Thursday Night All-Star”.

  5. Brad says:

    Circle me, Jay Cutler’s diabetes monitor!

  6. cardsibc says:

    Remember that in 1998, Robert Edwards, after rushing for 1,100 yards as a rookie for New England, blew out his knee and almost had his leg amputated by playing in the rookie flag football game on the beach at the Pro Bowl

  7. David says:

    Joe,

    Your post reminds me of Greek tragedy. (I know, I know; stay with me for a minute.)

    The Greeks gave Western civilization many things, but two of the greatest are Greek tragedy and the Olympics. And these two things are less dissimilar that it might first appear. In Greek tragedy, men challenge the gods, and lose, but in losing reveal the absolute limits of human excellence. These protagonists are the ultimate underdogs, and their losses were important. Even the Greek “hamartia,” often translated as “tragic flaw,” is derived from an archery term; it literally means “missing the mark.”

    But unlike the Greeks, our culture seems to no longer value “the agony of defeat.” Winning is valued above all else, and valued merely for itself. We might tell our children of the lessons to be learned in losing, but we don’t believe it.

  8. Paul Franz says:

    David, are you a fellow Johnnie, or just someone who happens to know a little Greek? Fun fact, “hamartia” is also the word that gets translated as “sin” in the Greek New Testament.

    Anyway, as Linkmeister points out, Hawaii is really the only thing that keeps the Pro Bowl going. When they moved it to the same city as the superbowl, it became even more absurd, boring, and pointless. As is, it is at least a boon – at least in theory – for our poor little island economy, which has been hit extra hard by the recession thanks to decreases in tourism.

  9. “Bizarre and long-forgotten NFL [change]exhibition”

  10. oldstation says:

    Basically, Ted Turner, ESPN and Bud Selig killed–or at least diminished–the MLB All Star game. Prior to TBS and WGN in the 1980s, and then ESPN’s wall-to-wall baseball coverage in the 1990s, you just didn’t see baseball all the time, except perhaps for your home team. The All Star game was special because it gave you the chance to see players you almost *never* got to see on TV. My relatives in New England heard stories about Mays and Aaron and Clemente, but the only time they could count on actually seeing them play would be one summer night in July each year.

    And now, of course, interleague play has made the All Star game feel like an afterthought. Wait a year or two and Pujols, Votto, and Howard will show up at Fenway for a three-game set. Plus, with dozens of interleague games to analyze, the All Star game seems a rather quaint and inadequate way of establishing bragging rights these days.

  11. Disagree about WW of Sports. The opening gave viewers the idea that something good and important was going to be on, but it was almost always crap. Most events of any import were given their own show, and WW of Sports (and later CBS Sports Spectacular) was just filler for people who couldn’t pull themselves away from the TV even on a beautiful Sat or Sun afternoon. Occasionally you would get a Globetrotters game or a replay of one of Ali’s bouts, but those were few and far between. And I may not remember this correctly, but it seemed like most weeks WW of Sports never made it clear what was going to be on, so you had to sit through a lot of piffle on the chance that someone interesting might be on.

  12. ilroyalfan says:

    I have to admit that this year the Pro Bowl means more to me than last year. Last year there were no Chiefs on the team; this year there are six. I will watch to see Tony Gonzales play for the NFC and to see Jamal Charles make some beautiful ten yard runs. But, you are right. It doesn’t mean anything. I only watch to see the guys from my favorite team. Also, since the Baseball All Star game will be in KC in 2012, I hope to be in the stands. I think the game will be a lot more special from that vantage point.

    Gaines

  13. Gil says:

    “They’re trying to mike up more players.”

    Who started this (it’s spreading like Aids in the ’80s) and why hasn’t he been taken out and shot?

    — Graphite

  14. NMark W says:

    @ Harwood Benjamin: It’s funny how folks view things so differently and that’s okay because that’s what makes the world go ’round. You implied that a Harlem Globetrotters televised game was a real treat, one of the few times a year that you would enjoy WWOSports. I am so much on the opposite side of the fence. To me, after seeing the Globetrotters once what was the point to watching the next year or the year after that? It would be the same tricks, the same shtick… Meadowlark Lemon’s antics, his long hook shots or his foul shot using the ball on a string, Curly Neal dribbling versus a confused, 2-leftfooted balding white guy, the bucket full of confetti and all of the rest. It was like the never-ending repeat of a lame variety show with Meadowlatk standing in for Ed Sullivan.

    Probably my favorite WWOSports shows were the top-notch track & field events. Of course the Demolition Derby from Islip, NY was an annual ratings grabber too, I suspect.

    Jim McKay was one of the best that ever was. There were days you’d sit down to watch him describe the competition of paint drying and when it was over you never felt cheated – Sort of like reading that Joe Someone’s blog!

  15. NMark W says:

    Question for Joe: So, in the year (or years?) that there was not a bye week prior to the Super Bowl, did you not celebrate a birthday?

  16. NMark W says:

    My last comment for the eve…I think Barry Switzer eating hot dogs on the sideline of a Pro Bowl Game in the mid-’90s when he was the NFC head coach fairly well sums up the importance of said game. Maybe draft beer is or should be in one or more of the Gatorade containers too!

  17. Mr. Redeye says:

    I think they should give home-field advantage in the playoffs to the conference that wins the Pro Bowl. Then the game will actually mean something

  18. Mikey says:

    The overnight rating for the Pro Bowl is 8.6

    The overnights are preliminary and they tend to be higher than the final ratings for pro sports because they include all the major markets that have teams. When the non-franchise cities get factored in the rating drops. As far as the Pro Bowl beating the MLB ASG, it’ll be close. I tend to think the Pro Bowl will win but not by much.

  19. mistahrat says:

    The Pro Bowl is actually endlessly entertaining if you gamble on it.

  20. Mark Daniel says:

    The World Wide of Sports was great publicity for the Olympics. At least for me. You would get to watch athletes from all over the world compete, and then you’d see them all again during the Olympics. I find that better than the current version of the Olympics, where I am familiar only with the mega stars like Shaun White, Michael Phelps and so on.

    I remember at the Beijing Olympics there was this 40-year old woman on the US swim team, Dara Torres. The announcers casually mentioned she was 40 years old about 10 seconds before she was about to compete. I thought this was a great story, but as far as I know it was not widely publicized. At least not as widely publicized as, for example, the latest exploits of Snooki on the Jersey Shore.

    Maybe the ratings for the Olympics are just immense and no advertising is needed, but I would have thought it would be in the best interests of NBC to publicize some of these athletes and their stories in the months, or even years, leading up to the Olympics. We will watch Snooki and the Situation, we’ll watch truck drivers on ice, we’ll watch people buying houses, so why wouldn’t we watch shows about Olympic athletes training and competing?

  21. Mikey says:

    The final national rating for the Pro Bowl is a 7.7. First time ever that the Pro Bowl has earned a higher rating than the previous year’s MLB ASG.

  22. NMark W says:

    @Mark Daniel: Your point about Wide World once being a sort of preview or promoter for the Olympics is a good one. It helped that for many years the ABC network, which aired Wide World, also held the US television rights to both summer and winter Olympic games.

    However, I disagree about you saying there was little coverage of 40+yr old Dara Torres swimming on US Olympic team in Beijing. There was ample coverage of that, both leading up to the US National swimming trials and then leading up to Beijing. Hell, I think People magazine even had her on the cover or at least a lengthy article and SI didn’t keep it under wraps either.

  23. Marco says:

    Everybody should steal the NHL’s idea and elect captains who choose up sides.

  24. Ed says:

    I remember when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s that the only way I could see some of my favorite players was to watch the All Star Game. Now I can see just about everybody over the course of the season. Again, not a bad thing, but the All Star Game has lost it’s luster due to extensive coverage.

  25. Justin says:

    If I’m ever MLB commissioner, I’ll have them do a fastest-player contest along the lines of the NHL’s fastest skater (if they still do that). Pick five or six guys and time them going around the bases, complete with base-by-base splits a la downhill skiing. I’d watch it.

  26. Ed says:

    I’d rather watch the two best Madden playing NFL players play a game of Madden than watch the Pro Bowl.

  27. KHAZAD says:

    I must admit I had the pro bowl on in the background while doing some chores yesterday,but it is not something I make it a point to watch. Especially towards the end of the game, watching the QB was like watching a kids pickup game with “no rushing.” The lineman would just tap each other and stand there. Special teams, which in the pro bowl are staffed by star players who don’t want to get hurt, seem to go in slow motion. 15 yard illegal defense penalties as well. It simply is not the level of competition you would see at a high school game. Add into that the horrible announcing-hell, even they were not paying attention to the game. A couple of times I was trying to figure out who a player was and I could not because they were too busy talking about some inane topic to tell me. (I hope they are better for the Super Bowl.)

    As for the baseball all star game, I still watch it faithfully, but I understand the dilution. I am close to Joe’s age, (I turned 2 a week after the first Super Bowl) and when I was young, the All Star game was a spectacle. You would have the opportunity to see only between 1-3 MLB games on TV per week, the only highlights were for the local team (except for TWIB), the leagues did not play each other in the regular season, and players did not move around as much. The result was that the game might be your ONLY chance to see Johnny Bench face Jim Palmer.

    Now there are a plethora of MLB games to watch each week on ESPN alone. If you are in an MLB market, you can watch 90% of the home team’s games as well. Probably half the players have played in both leagues, and there is interleague play as well. You can catch highlights of all the games all night long on sportscenter and Baseball tonight. I think the Selig tie was the nail in the coffin for the mystique of the all star game, and between that and the saturation of baseball coverage, no amout of “This one counts” will bring that back.

  28. Mark Daniel says:

    NMark W. I must have missed the coverage of Torres leading up to the Olympics. Then again, I’m not a follower of swimming or any sport outside baseball, basketball and football, so I would have missed it if the coverage wasn’t in my face.

    I just thought NBC could have made a big story out of her on TV so even slackers like me would notice. I knew who Michael Phelps was, and if I recall correctly, he drew the highest ratings of any athlete at the Olympics. So it seems that making a star out of someone before the Olympics might be worth it.

    Then again, maybe it’s too expensive or it’s not feasible to do this. Or, it could backfire much like that Dan & Dave ad campaign from the early 90s. Regardless, I just think it’s worth a try to add some programming that follows Olympic athletes as they train and compete in non-Olympic competitions. I would watch that. But, until someone does that, I’ll just have to keep on watching the Kardashians.

  29. Frank says:

    WWS was great for introducing people to various sports we might not have known about otherwise. Another simiar ABC show was American Sportsman. Nothing quite like Curt Gowdy, Grits Gresham and some citi-fied sports celebrity like Joe Namath traipsing through the woods to take out a bull moose.

  30. allan says:

    Burt Ward’s Third Wedding

    Don’t they have a new album coming out soon?

  31. Jim says:

    WWofS, that was the only time I EVER got to see Horse racing, and it hooked me. I now live outsite Saratoga NY and still in love with that sport. I remember seeing Secretariat on it(I think I was 10). Allan, their hit single is Joker…

  32. Mark says:

    Perhaps the Pro Bowl should combine with some of the events from Wide World of Sports. I’d watch the Pro Bowl if there was an ice motorcycle race featuring the linemen at halftime. Actually, I’d only watch halftime, but that’s more than I usually watch.

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