Archived Story

New format breathes life in Pro Bowl

Published 9:28am Wednesday, January 22, 2014

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I’ll be watching the NFL Pro Bowl this Sunday.

Due to the much-needed infusion of energy that tonight’s Pro Bowl draft will provide, I finally have enough interest in the game to sit down, turn on the tube and tune in. I surely won’t be the only one, as the new format appears to be just what the doctor ordered to revitalize a contest whose television ratings and overall fan interest have been hemorrhaging.

Gone is the old AFC versus NFC format and in is a new fantasy draft model, in which former NFL stars Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice selected their own squads from the 86 player pool.

The change is one that was desperately needed for the NFL, which has always had more difficulty promoting its all-star game than other sports due to its timing at the end of the season rather than in the middle.

But the Pro Bowl draft should change all that. The new format passes the smell test by combining the traditional star-power of the Pro Bowl with the raging popularity of fantasy sports games, which now boast an estimated 35 million players across the U.S., most of whom play fantasy football.

While the actual game itself will likely not be any more exciting than previous years due to the heavy restrictions on play – i.e. mandatory 4-3 defense, no blitzing, no kickoffs, etc., but the hype surrounding the teams’ selection and the surrounding story lines (which player got snubbed in the draft, etc) will be fun to watch.

The NFL has also taken the right steps to ramp up publicity for the game, pitching it as a backyard-style “go long and I’ll throw it to you” type of match-up which will rely less on complex playbooks and strategy and more on the athletic ability and egos of the players.

The draft was also used as another conduit for connecting with the fan base. Two fans, winners of NFL.com fantasy tournaments, were allowed to join both Rice and Sanders as assistant general managers of the respective teams – though Sanders said before the draft that he didn’t give a rip about his fan assistant’s opinion.

The league also made a savvy move by airing the draft as a three-hour television special, a nod to the exorbitant ratings the college draft attains each spring.

Also, coaches and players are also being encouraged to engage in friendly trash-talking to spice things up, and the game has been moved to a Sunday evening time slot – which a vast improvement from the previous Saturday afternoon airing.

Critics may argue that the new format is simply a gimmick being employed by the NFL to generate more television ratings, and they are probably right. But given that at this time last year the debate was whether or not the Pro Bowl should continue to exist, I think everyone can agree that the fantasy draft version is at least worth a shot.

If this experiment succeeds, don’t be surprised if other major sports leagues, such as the NBA and NHL, follow suit and adopt a similar fantasy approach.

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