Making a case for the Pro Bowl

It’s certainly the time of year to bash the NFL Pro Bowl. The comments from fans and media are largely one-sided against the value of playing the game at all. Of course, this year the volume of negativity is turned up because of the decision to hold the game before the Super Bowl, meaning 14 Super Bowl players can’t participate along with the scores of “medically excused” players. As a result, there are 31 players participating in the game – almost a full active game-day roster – who were not elected to the Pro Bowl on the original ballot as starters or backups. That’s a lot of players.

And, of course, the decision to require the Colts and Saints players to come to Miami in advance of their team arrivals to participate in pregame introductions and media interviews has not gone without major complaint. One of the most vociferous ranters is Colts president Bill Polian, an influential member of the competition committee who is often seen by the league as a sage voice of reason. Well, in this case, Polian and the league are at extreme odds.

Commissioner Roger Goodell, however, has already deemed the decision to hold the Pro Bowl a week before the Super Bowl a success. He notes that the game has attracted more attention than ever, which it has. Whether through negative comments or increased coverage of the logistical and financial issues of the game -- as covered here -- the chatter has been much greater than past years.

And then there’s a statistic from last year’s game that I found absolutely compelling. It involves the all-important metric of Nielsen ratings.

While the Nielsen ratings for the conference championship games were astounding and the numbers for next week’s Super Bowl will be staggering, the ratings for last year’s Pro Bowl surprised and impressed me more because of the network competition.

Last year’s Pro Bowl was played on Feb. 8 in Hawaii – the same meaningless game that we all complain about. At the same time on a different network was the most compelling NBA game of the regular season. The Lakers were in Cleveland playing the Cavs, Kobe against Lebron. The two brightest stars in the star-driven NBA -- as A-list talent as there is in sports, two wonders of the sporting world identified by first-name only -- squaring off on national television on a cold weekend in February with nothing else to watch except a meaningless matchup of all-stars playing an exhibition with their coaches wearing Hawaiian shirts. So what happened in the Nielsens?

Kobe vs. LeBron drew 6.1 million viewers. Good rating. The Pro Bowl? An amazing 8.8 million. The game thought of as a joke and a pointless afterthought to the season drew over 30 percent more viewers than the most compelling individual matchup in all of team sports.

So as we continue to carp about the Pro Bowl and its futility, let’s realize that television is the lifeblood of any sport, and what any other sport wouldn’t give for 8.8 million viewers on a winter weekend. The power of the NFL is undeniable.

While we anticipate the most-watched Super Bowl in history next week, my sense is that the Pro Bowl, in spite of the logistical problems and the lack of meaning in the result, will surprise once again in viewership -- no matter the competition from LeBron, Kobe or whatever else the networks throw up.

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