Let’s focus on a few positives.
• Football is wildly popular in America. Competitive playoff games outdraw everything else going on, and the Super Bowl is to current American culture what going to church on Christmas Eve used to be. The NFL is rabidly, obscenely popular – it must be possible to capitalize on that within the traditions and trappings of an all-star game format.
• The Pro Bowl features every great, current player except the injured and those on Super Bowl-bound teams. I’m not expecting some kind of Space Jam-caliber intergalactic battle to stand the test of time, but something positive must be possible with that much talent in one spot.
• NFL merchandising is a currency printing press, albeit one that hasn’t yet been activated for Pro Bowl. Combine sweet (and to me, “sweet” means retro and/or tastefully progressive) jerseys with a good game, and people are almost sure to want them.
I’ll be honest with you, I was a little disappointed. I felt like some of the guys on the NFC side embarrassed themselves. There should be some pride involved in a game like that, and I was just surprised by some of the efforts by some of the guys.
• The Pro Bowl, by virtue of its timeslot, is cradled in football frenzy – during that impossible bye weekend between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. Reasonable people are doing everything short of smoking balled-up ticket stubs on the Sunday before the Super Bowl. And yet after a month of playoff madness, with two weeks to get through until the big game, a traditional football Sunday is allowed to smack you across the face with its emptiness. That’s not right. During the bye weekend, America needs football methadone; what they’re currently getting is hot tea. If something good and meaningful was created in this slot, it would be welcomed as a revelation by the American public.
So, given those potential positives, I feel less like piling on than I do dreaming a little bit. Here’s what I would do.
• Keep the date and time the same, on the Sunday between the title games and the Super Bowl. If the Pro Bowl ever gets good, it will never be placed more perfectly.
• Create inspired jerseys that don’t necessarily feature any particular identification (like A.F.C. / N.F.C. logos). I’m thinking retro along the lines of Michigan’s special throwbacks this past season. Remove the stipulation that players need to wear their home helmets – a jersey patch will suffice – and change each side’s jersey substantially every year. And don’t be shy letting people know they’re available – maybe reveal one at the halftime of each conference title game the preceeding week.
• Put the game in permanently in Vegas, if they will build a world-class stadium. (If not, do a party city rotation – Miami, New Orleans, L.A., maybe London – but Vegas is ideal.) For one, it’s a closer trip for everybody. Players and fans would have an easier time making plans to be there. Two, it’s a place a bunch of NFL players are going to be anyway. Hell, you could probably have a pick-up Pro Bowl in Vegas almost any weekend of the off-season. It’s also a place a bunch of fans are going to be anyway – maybe in droves if the Pro Bowl became an “event." And finally, it lets Vegas audition for the team it so desperately wants.
• Make a big deal out of incentives and swag. Selected players would get $25K for showing up and playing, and an extra $75K – to total a hundred large – for winning. (Currently winners only get half that). But what’s more – right before the coin toss, pull back the shroud on that mysterious item at midfield. Damn, it’s a new Jaguar XK! Yep, everybody on the winning team is getting one of those. Every year, the "big reveal” at the 50 yard line could get more and more elaborate, and the camera cutbacks to players’ faces would, in turn, get more and more ridiculous.
• Let captains pick (and christen) their teams. A great concept that’s already being done in hockey, and actually generates a fair amount of talk in puck-frenzied markets. The idea would absolutely blow up for a national, NFL-scale game. SportsNation polls would be taken; mock drafts would be drafted. Teams are picked, say, on Thursday at the Wynn. Get a few showgirls, do it up – it would be a real-life fantasy draft. And on that subject:
• Make the Pro Bowl the Fantasy Super Bowl. Fantasy football continues to drive the NFL to new heights, and vice-versa. Fantasy and on-field football are caught in a mutually-beneficial feedback loop that has fueled sky-high ratings, a billion-dollar cottage industry, and leagues full of hundreds of thousands of us – now including folks like your Aunt Nancy, who keeps an eye on her league’s waiver wire during Real Housewives of Atlanta. Fantasy is everywhere. But by the time the NFL playoffs are over, virtually everyone’s fantasy season is, too. Let’s send the fantasy season out with a bang. Promote the Pro Bowl as a one-off, everyone’s invited fantasy blowout – separate from your regular league activity – and then build the infrastructure to support that. Die-hards need a fantasy fix, and that’s huge; but more importantly, it’s the perfect chance for timid, fantasy-curious players to get a taste of the sweet life (and the first one’s always free). All the stats leaders are playing in one game – there’s got to be a way to fanta-size the Pro Bowl. Create an NFL.com fantasy area that makes it easy for distributed groups of friends and office water cooler leagues to participate – kind of the way hosted March Madness brackets are so easy to set up today. The goal is to show people how fun it can be to tune in and root for the ticker.
• One last fan-friendly, stat-driven idea: National Powerball. Along with that enhanced gameday stats pool, create a game where you have to pick, say, five statistical outcomes that will be true by the end of the game. (Brees throws two touchdowns; Calvin Johnson has four receptions; Jabari Greer makes one pick, etc.) You pay a buck online to get in; if you hit it all your numbers, you split a half of a nationwide pot with all the other winners (with the other half going to NFL charities). I’d drop a five on something like that in a heartbeat – and be glued to my TV henceforth.
• Use a sponsor to give back. Imagine: the Pro Bowl captains line up for the coin toss. Ray Lewis (captaining Team “Ray’s Relations”) calls heads, gets it right and elects to receive. The ref has one more question: “A through M, or N through Z, Ray?” “We’ll go A-M, baby! Yeah, family!” Lewis bellows into the mic. Ray’s team is now playing for everybody in America with a last name that starts between A and M. The other team is playing for the N-Z’s. The prize? A free foot-long combo meal, any kind, at Subway if “your” team wins. That’s the way the Subway Pro Bowl does it, family.
• And finally, one Pro Bowl-only on-field rule change: any touchdown scored on a play where the ball has touched more than two teammates (not counting the snapper) is worth nine points (and so up to 10 or 11 pending the conversion). This is known as the Razzle-Dazzle Rule, and creates all kinds of incentives for trickery and wild gameplay. Laterals, pitchbacks, Statues-of-Liberty – they’re all on the table, especially at the end of the game. We all know the Pro Bowl isn’t going to be a tactical, ruthless 60 minutes of football anyway; why not embrace that, put on a show, and really stock us up with insane SportsCenter-style highlights that will get us through the lean months of pre-playoffs NBA basketball?
To sum up: if football is our national religion, and the Super Bowl is our highest holy day, let’s make the Pro Bowl into Football Fat Tuesday – hell, call the whole thing “Fat Sunday” – and let us really wallow in our faith. As Americans, I think we deserve that much.