The Demise of the Pro Bowl: Part 1 – How did we get to this point?

By Jim Steeg, former NFL Senior VP of Special Events

It was not a surprise when the NFL let word leak out earlier this year that the Pro Bowl was either going to be cancelled in 2013 or moved from Hawaii. When Roger Goodell rekindled that thought this past week, it only reinforced that the game may once again be on life support. However, the Pro Bowl event has been on a downward spiral since the mid 1990's.

The Pro Bowl had been floundering in the 1970’s, as it was attached to the season ticket packages in a number of cities such as Miami and Los Angeles. In an attempt to resuscitate the game, it was even made part of the season ticket packages for the two new expansion teams – Seattle and Tampa Bay. Then came an engaging promoter in Hawaii named Mackay Yanagisawa. He saw the value of the game, and a new home was found in Honolulu. The game thrived and grew. It was a perennial sellout, television ratings hit all time highs, and the players embraced the location. It was the highest rated all-star game in all of sports. ESPN became the broadcast partner and promoted the game as if it were their own Super Bowl.

Mackay YanagisawaHawaiian sports promoter Mackay Yanagisawa was instrumental in bringing the Pro Bowl to Hawaii.

In the mid 1990’s, the decision was made to give the Pro Bowl television rights to ABC. Unfortunately, ABC treated the event poorly, coupling it with the NHL All Star game. It was impossible to achieve success with a lead-in of less than a 1 rating and minimal pre-promotion. The Pro Bowl TV ratings literally tumbled by as much as 75%. The NFL began to treat the game as a necessary evil. The game was headed the same way as NFL Europe. It was not part of the mainstream sponsorship programs. Players were opting out for insignificant reasons. The game was dying.

The NFL was not investing in the game. No TV money was allocated to the budget. Revenues came from the gate, a $4.5 million subsidy form the State of Hawaii, and some smaller game day items. Still, it was a break-even event, if not generating a small profit.

In 2000, a conscientious attempt was made to revitalize the game and related events. At the core, ESPN was negotiated back in as broadcaster. But it took the Pro Bowl after 9/11/01 to fully understand the Pro Bowl’s value. Honolulu was suffering, hotel occupancy was down and the hospitality economy was struggling. The week of the Pro Bowl, all the Oahu-based hotels filled for the first time since September. It was estimated that as many as 30,000 people came to Hawaii for the game.

The NFL made a conscious effort to improve the player experience and get more of their stars to make the trek. They started to pay first-class airfare for spouses, not just the players themselves. They also added family activities and organized transportation for the players. They improved the Aloha Stadium facility, and moved practices away from Waikiki for added privacy.

The game day experience was revamped to include many of the entertainment options and increased production values found at other NFL stadiums, and even some giveaways that weren’t. A Super Bowl-style halftime concert was added. The NFL added other events as well, including skills competitions, golf and bowling tournaments, and appearances and youth clinics throughout the State.

The NFL changed the lease to retain more revenues to invest in the game. This included concessions, merchandise, parking and all signage in Aloha Stadium. They increased exposure by finding a national sponsor, Blockbuster, for the balloting process. They partnered with ESPN, CBS, USAToday and others to promote the game. They even put together travel packages for fans and media, at one point offering mainland media $500 flights and $99 hotel rooms.

The broadcast was experimented with to add skycam, microphoning players, listening to the coach to QB calls, allowing interviews on the benches with players, adding a steadycam to go into the huddles and even allowing a fan to call a play.

It all looked like it was working. The Pro Bowl had begun to rebound, reaching a high point in 2004 when the NFC rallied from a 25 point deficit to win 55-52. The scene of all the NFC players running to the endzone to celebrate Dre Bly’s interception return in the 4th quarter will always be one of the games’ great moments. Only twelve players opted out of that game, and of the eleven who had surgery in the weeks prior to the game, six still attended.

Unfortunately, this success would not last.

Tomorrow:  The Demise of the Pro Bowl Part 2: How to fix the game

Former NFL Senior VP of Special Events Jim Steeg was responsible for changing the Super Bowl from a championship game into the event it is today. He also was the man who turned the NFL Draft from a behind-the-scenes meeting into a televised spectacle.