Since its inception, the NFL Pro Bowl has had an inherent problem.
“Football is a difficult game to simulate,” Anthony Storm, SVP at A. Smith & Co. — the production company behind the Pro Bowl skills competitions — told Front Office Sports. “It’s a contact sport, and it plays best at maximum effort. And you can’t ask for that without the stakes that the regular season and the playoffs bring.”
In the NFL, contact and injuries are part of the fabric of the game — players giving even 50% of their normal effort isn’t an option. The competitive tension dissolves, and many stars have skipped the festivities altogether in recent years.
“The players didn’t feel as engaged and so, subsequently, the fans lost interest,” says Storm. “It’s still exciting to see the best football players in the world compete, and so it’s just a matter of figuring out what they’re competing in.”
For the most-watched league in America, where every game matters more than any other sport, the Pro Bowl is simply not important. Even the preseason has value for determining rosters.
Winning doesn’t guarantee home-field advantage, winning the MVP is not a resume-builder — and, worst of all, previous iterations have been neither fun nor interesting.
But, the Pro Bowl still draws millions of eyeballs and ad dollars. As long as the NFL can make money off it, the league wants to keep it and improve it.
Enter the Pro Bowl Games, a completely revamped concept of the NFL’s all-star product.
For the first time, the teams will be playing flag football in the main event and the coaches will be the league’s best ambassadors — Peyton and Eli Manning.
The newly named Pro Bowl Weekend sees the NFL collaborating with Peyton’s Omaha Productions, Eli, and ESPN to try to take the event in a new direction.
In 2022, the Pro Bowl fell to its lowest TV viewership since 2006.
But it’s all relative. The NFL sells. The 2022 Pro Bowl still averaged 6.7 million viewers — more than the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final, which averaged 4.6 million viewers last year.
Last year’s Pro Bowl actually drew more viewers than the NBA All-Star Game (6.3 million viewers) and only trailed the granddaddy of them all, the MLB All-Star Game (7.5 million).
And if anybody can breathe new life into the struggling event, the league believes the First Family of the NFL can.
“There are no better ambassadors for the league than Peyton and Omaha. All their content is positive and uplifting and unifying,” said a source who’s worked closely with NFL media executives.
Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s chief media and business officer, had nothing but praise for the Super Bowl-winning brothers in an interview with Fast Company.
The league had experimented for years with alternative telecasts, said Rolapp. Now the Mannings have taken that strategy to the next level.
“Yes, they are members of the most famous football family in America, and yes, they both had incredible careers at the sport’s most visible position,” Rolapp said. “But it’s really their personalities, the sibling dynamic, the comedy, the guests, all of that combined with a deep knowledge of the game, and then placed in an open and loose setting that makes this magic happen.”
The two seasons of the “ManningCast” for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” have proved a resounding success — and have shown that the brothers can command serious star power, whether it’s LeBron James and Charles Barkley, or Barack Obama and Robin Roberts.
Now, they’re bringing that weight to the Pro Bowl Games.
Kirk Herbstreit and Pat McAfee of ESPN’s “College GameDay” will deliver freewheeling calls of the 7-on-7 flag football games at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Pete Davidson and Snoop Dogg are the team captains.
Meanwhile, former Pro Bowler Robert Griffin III, alongside Marcus Spears and Laura Rutledge of ESPN’s “NFL Live,” will call the Skills Competition both days.
Putting On A Show
A. Smith & Co. — most famous for producing reality competition series such as “American Ninja Warrior” and “Hell’s Kitchen” — has been working with the NFL for several years on its Pro Bowl skills competitions.
In years past, the company produced a 60-minute, live-to-tape program.
For the 2023 edition, the production company had a 90-minute live program on Thursday and will get more live time during the Pro Bowl itself.
“[In the past,] there was limited opportunity to branch out, and so we focused on football, understandably,” says Storm. “But now with a little more room to breathe … it gave us an opportunity to expand and to play around a little bit more.
“We also really wanted to be able to have every single player, all 88 Pro Bowlers, involved.”
For example, on Sunday, Kick Tac Toe — a giant game of Tic Tac Toe for kickers — will be expanded to include punters and long snappers. Thursday already showed off the range of events.
- Longest Drive: The non-football competition is perhaps the most intriguing new addition; the Buffalo Bills’ Jordan Poyer drove a golf ball 320 yards to win.
- Lightning Round: A brand-new three-part elimination game featuring a water balloon toss, a JUGS machine catching competition, and a modified dunk tank.
- Dodgeball: The fan favorite from previous years returned to the slate.
“There’s always been a connection between NFL players and golf,” Storm says of the Longest Drive. “We’re talking about some of the biggest, strongest athletes in the world. So getting an opportunity for them to flex on a golf course and see how far they can hit a ball is exciting.”
NFL players are, of course, frequent participants in PGA Tour pro-ams, making this an appealing aspect to the Pro Bowl weekend — though not immune to a familiar problem: Josh Allen of the Bills skipped the festivities to play at Pebble Beach.
The changes to the skills competitions were seemingly effective: 1.1 million viewers tuned in to the Thursday primetime broadcast — a 23% increase from 2022 and the most watched since 2018.
Embracing The Flags
The flag football game will be the NFL’s biggest test.
Under the revamped format, 46-year-old Peyton will coach the AFC and 42-year-old Eli will coach the NFC in three games, the results of which will be added to a cumulative scoreboard from the start of events on Thursday.
The move to flag was motivated by a desire for more competition — and a chance to showcase the derivative sport.
“Flag football is a huge part of the league strategy overall,” the NFL’s VP of event strategy & integration Matt Shapiro told FOS. “It’s inclusive, it’s accessible, boys and girls can play it, it’s part of our international fan growth strategy. So I think to put 88 of the league’s best players on this stage … gives flag football a different level of spotlight as we’re all continuing to focus on the growth of flag.”
Job No. 1 for the Mannings is to inspire this year’s Pro Bowlers to actually make an effort, said a source familiar with the plan.
“The ask is that Peyton and Eli get the players to play hard. The problem with the game was the perception the players were not trying anymore. I believe Peyton and Eli will solve that. They are prepping hard and working on plays.”
The Mannings’ sibling rivalry — as well as their media panache — could be enough to give the beleaguered all-star weekend the boost it’s been looking for all these years.
It remains to be seen if the reimagined Pro Bowl Games will be good enough to change the fact that all anyone will talk about in the aftermath is how the Super Bowl is just a week away.
But at least everyone will have had more fun.