Why the Pro Bowl Will Never Catch On

Like most Americans, I completely ignored the NFL’s Pro Bowl yesterday. This, despite the fact that I’m an NFL fan and a Ravens’ fan (four Ravens played in the game).

The NFL changed both the venue and the timing of this year’s Pro Bowl, hoping to somehow change the overwhelming odor of irrelevancy that hovers around the game. The truth is, no matter when or where the game is played, the game lacks any compelling drama, and the fault lies within the nature of football itself.

The reason that the baseball all-star game (more so when I was a kid than now, however) and the NBA all-star game are entertaining is that they work in harmony with their respective sports. Baseball and basketball are very much games played by individuals, where one-on-one match-ups often determine the outcomes, and always create topics for debate.

Baseball is little more than a series of individual contests, strung together so that everyone has a turn in the limelight. Batter vs. pitcher, runner vs. pitcher, runner vs. catcher, runner vs. fielder, etc. Almost half of a game’s put-outs are registered by an individual acting alone. It’s very much the type of sport that benefits from an all-star atmosphere, where the game’s titans battle each other one at a time, allowing the spectator to savor the glory of the triumphant and the agony of the vanquished. The faces of the combatants are uncovered, allowing us a look into the emotion of the sport, pitch by pitch.

Basketball benefits similarly, as the giants of the NBA sprint, leap and fly past each other, all the while laughing and taunting each other. The field of play is small, and the participants are in close proximity to each other. More important, however, are the individual competitions within the game that can be focused on by the announcers.

What these individual contests do is to give a weightless game a small bit of mass. You can almost hear the announcers: “Yes, the game doesn’t count in the standings, but it’s matter of pride between these players; no one wants to be shown up by another.” The personal nature of the individual match-ups creates tension where they should be none, and thus a meaningless game becomes watchable (once the egos get involved).

But football, unlike baseball and basketball, is a team sport. This Sunday, we’ll be looking at how Drew Brees and the Saints will perform against the Colts’ defense, not Gary Brackens. And while Drew Brees might be at the top of his game, if his left tackle, or center, or running back misses his assignment on a given play, that play’s chances of succeeding are greatly diminished.

The drama of eleven players, pushed and tested over a period of months together, with each depending on each other on every down, is almost impossible to replicate in an all-star game. As a result, the Pro Bowl, with its collection of week-old teammates, seems like a farcical, synthetic reproduction of what football really is – the ultimate team sport. And that’s why no one watches it.

The truth is that there’s nothing the NFL can do to fix the Pro Bowl because the character of the game condemns it to perpetual insignificance. Its existence is an anomaly in the NFL, an embarrassing failure in the midst of unparalleled successes – a professional sports version of Coca-Cola with Lime. We are only left to wonder for how many more years the league will persist in foisting this monstrosity on the public.

I put the over/under at 4.

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