Yesterday, I wrote a bit about why the Pro Bowl doesn’t matter (but I would watch anyway). Then, I made a big mistake. I actually did watch the Pro Bowl. I watched every awful minute of it. I wasn’t alone — the Pro Bowl drew its best ratings in a decade. As expected, more people watched it than watched baseball’s All-Star Game, which not too long ago was a big day in sports television. Perhaps unexpected, more people watched it than watched Game 3 of the World Series.*
*As my buddy Michael Rosenberg tweeted: “Our country is doomed.”
I would normally say these ratings were good for the NFL — the league is so powerful and popular that a substantial number of people will even watch the Pro Bowl. How can that be anything but good? But, as mentioned, I actually watched the Pro Bowl this year. I watched linebackers back away from tackles. I watched defensive linemen stand up and chat with offensive linemen after the snap. I watched Jay Glazer try some sort of goofy stunt where he called a play or something — it was embarrassing enough that I had to turn away from the TV. Hawaiian shirt. I heard two Goo Goo Dolls songs. It is not something expect to recover from any time soon.
The big moment was the last score — there, Matt Cassel threw a pass to Dwayne Bowe. After he danced around a bit — defenders seemed uninterested in tackling him — Bowe pitched he ball back to Montell Owens, who was apparently taking a break from his Money Mutual commercials.* Owens danced around a bit too, defenders seemed as uninterested in him as they were in Bowe. When they finally surrounded him, he pitched the ball back to Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack, who made the Pro Bowl as a second alternate. Mack ran around a bit, then kept running, and nobody really cared, and he scored a touchdown.
*Oh, sorry, that’s Montel WILLIAMS. Montell Owens is a special teams guru on the Jacksonville Jaguars.
For some reason, this caused much hilarity and joy in the FOX booth. “Good for that young man,” FOX’s Thom Brennaman said about Mack, as if he had just won a Rhodes Scholarship or something. This pathetic play where the NFC simply allowed the AFC to score because, well, nobody cared, made the score 55-41, in case you were keeping score, which, of course, you were not.
And, maybe it just hit me wrong. But I thought it was grotesque. I mean really, truly, grotesque. The laterals, the refusal to tackle, the absurdity. And it hit me, all at once, that in this one instance I don’t think good ratings are good for the league. No, after spending years and years developing their brand, after years of creating the aura of the National Football League (as they always call it), after years of Butkus and Lombardi and Taylor and Payton and Emmitt, no, they don’t want people watching this garbage.
Or anyway, they shouldn’t want it. Yes, people know the Pro Bowl doesn’t matter. But when they put it on prime time on the Sunday before the Super Bowl, they are begging people to watch. And when people watch, they see this joke of football, barely two-hand touch, everyone going half speed, guys trying silly maneuvers that don’t work and aren’t fun to watch, teams conceding touchdowns to centers and guys in the booth saying it’s great. As I wrote the other day, football is a more serious sport than the others. The NFL should know that since it has been peddling seriousness for many years. You don’t put roman numerals after your games unless you want to be taken seriously.
I’ve always thought that the NFL should just keep playing the Pro Bowl because it’s a tradition, and because Hawaii is awesome, and because the whole thing seems fairly harmless. But after actually sitting through a whole game, I don’t think that anymore. I think the NFL has outgrown the Pro Bowl in its current state. Maybe they could turn Pro Bowl week into a celebration of the best players — maybe an ESPY-like celebration hosted by Chris Rock, a few skills competitions, a tricked-up football format. But the idea of playing a real game, 60 minutes, with pads and coaches and announcers and this facade of authenticity … I don’t think it works anymore. The players don’t care and don’t want to play. The fans, largely, don’t care and don’t want to watch. And the fans who DO want to watch generally find what they’re seeing to be pretty unappetizing.
Or anyway, that’s how I felt about it. I don’t expect linebackers to brace themselves and plow into running backs in the Pro Bowl. But that doesn’t mean I want to watch them scurry away. I don’t expect to see players rushing the punter in the Pro Bowl, maybe blowing out ACLs or whatever. But that doesn’t mean I want to watch them just stand there and chat. People like watching the action in action movies. Nobody really wants to watch the air punches during rehearsals.
The NFL has bigger things to worry about right now than the fate of the Pro Bowl. Los Angeles looks ready to make its NFL move. A lockout, I’m told, is a real possibility and the men in charge are in serious negotiations. The concussion issue isn’t going away. And the Pro Bowl just drew its biggest ratings in a decade. So this is low on the list. But, the funny thing is, I think those high ratings might lead to the end of the Pro Bowl as we know it. Too many people saw it. To many people saw just how pointless and awful it is.