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The end of the Pro Bowl

All-star games lost their purpose long ago and they’ve been fruitlessly innovating since. The Pro Bowl is no different.

Pro Bowl Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There will be a good number of people who will watch the Pro Bowl for nothing more than the sudden realization that there will be no more premier-level football after Feb. 5 and the Super Bowl’s turgid affair. The Pro Bowl only succeeds by sitting alone in this vacuum between weekends, a distraction from the sports commentariat going mad; something to forget that Media Row is full of grown men wearing naught but a barrel and cradling muppets.

(Editorial note: In spite of all this, we would still like press credentials please.)

But on its own legs, the Pro Bowl would be devoured by natural selection were it to wander beyond its safe valley. This is true of all the North American sports; baseball, hockey and basketball require All-Star breaks in order to ensure their games survive contact with a sickly predator.

The concept of an all-star game is a relic of a bygone age—before league pass, stream services and a swelling number of nationally televised games. Even the Pro Bowl, the youngest all-star game of the four sports, was conceived at a time before cable television. The usual conceit of such games is to see the best of a league put together, but more importantly it puts together players that many sports fans might not get to see during a given season.

It’s hard to expect a format such as this to keep up from repeated decades of use and repetition of players. While there have been some innovations to attempt to keep these games fresh, they often fall short or find themselves clunky. Take baseball’s All-Star Game determining home field advantage for the World Series. Skill competitions fill up the days before the game itself, and they’re often more popular to boot. Inane ballot-stuffing characterizes attempts to grant fans a vote, while in the NBA the move to give players a say in the all-star representation led to votes for players who hadn’t even played this season.

In the case of the Pro Bowl, football’s benevolent glue-eating failson suits decided it was important to move the game from Honolulu to Orlando, a decision that managed to generate less enthusiasm than a Gallagher show with no sledgehammer. This followed their previous attempt to turn it into a fantasy draft between two blabbering studio heads. While the skills competitions have become properly gif-able moments for Twitter, there seems little hope for the game itself.

These are, again, symptoms. The root cause lies in the inanity of an all-star event in the modern palate of the sports viewer. What good is it for an east coast viewer to see a player from San Diego in the Pro Bowl when he has Sunday Ticket and can do so during the season? The local coverage of a given team (such as yours truly) is openly available on the internet. Why yearn for the best matchup between conferences when inter-conference play is no longer a rarity? You know who the best running backs in the league are; you watch them on SportsCenter, you have them on your fantasy roster.

Even if you weren’t a Lions fan, every game-winning field goal of Matt Prater is available online, be it in vine, gif or highlight reel. There is no more mystery to who he is that facilitates the need to watch him in the Pro Bowl.

On this week’s PODcast I posed the question to measure up the all-star football games; the two college football games (East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl) and the Pro Bowl. Even though the two college all-star games generate little enthusiasm for college football fans, it’s easy to get bound up in the Senior Bowl because of the possibility of this game creating coverage for the NFL draft. It is perhaps the one last conceit that might still work.

That hope is not there for the Pro Bowl. Not even the nebulous concept in other sports, that their all-star weekends are to be celebrations of the sport itself, applies to football’s showcase. No fantasy draft can pull me in, no skills competition is worth the blather of Jon Gruden. I struggle with the “why” too much now.

Every aspect of an all-star game has been usurped thanks to a wide palate now available with more national games and streaming league passes. The Pro Bowl’s conceit (in the strangled voice of our new president: “These are the best players! The very best players. We’re going to have them together in the classiest, best Pro Bowl we can make”) has been made irrelevant; not that such is a bad thing, but a simple reality. It is an out-modded format that generates less and less attention each year, in spite of the fact that people still watch because they don’t know what else to do on Sunday.

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