How Does the NFL Fix its Terrible Pro Bowl?
The NFL Pro Bowl is a joke.
It's not even the kind of joke that the NBA, MLB, or NHL all-star games are, it's the worst one because at least each of the other sports has some type of meaning on the rest of the season or have made some major change in the past few years in an attempt to make the game more interesting. The lack of effort that the players showed in the most recent Pro Bowl this past weekend was so embarrassing that they even had players in their league tweeting about how awful it was.
The current Pro Bowl has many problems, some more pressing than others, and while there may not be a way to solve every single problem, I think I have identified some problems and possible solutions to those problems that will make at least make the Pro Bowl more entertaining to watch.
Problem #1: The Pro Bowl Has No Incentives
Other than paying the players to be there ($80k to the winning players, $40k to the losing players), there are no other real incentives in the game: no type of home-field advantage like the MLB does with the World Series, not even a fine to players who refuse to play in the game for non-injury related reasons.
Solution #1: Add Incentives to the Game
While money isn't exactly the biggest problem as every Pro Bowl player is already getting paid, it can be a better incentive. Making $80k may sound nice to the average person, but in most cases, it doesn't make a difference in these players' lives because they are making millions per year. If the NFL were to double the amount of the winning team to $160k though and maybe even decrease the amount of the losing team, there might be more effort being given, especially in a close game, as there would be a $100k+ difference in profits between winning and losing.
Giving the winning conference home field advantage would be a bit harder to do in the NFL because it's not like the MLB where it's a seven-game series, but even doing some simple things like letting the winning conference have the home locker rooms in the Super Bowl stadium (which would ironically place the Rams in the away locker room because the NFC lost even though the game is at their home stadium) might be better. Another idea could be to let the winning conference of the Pro Bowl automatically win the Super Bowl coin toss. Maybe a controversial idea but also a huge advantage in any football game is having the choice to receive the ball first or defer to the second half.
Also, another incentive for attempting to have players not decline the game is to fine them if they decline for non-injury-related reasons. The fine might not make a difference to a lot of players but at least it shows the fans that the NFL is punishing the players they chose to play for not playing.
Problem #2: The Skills Competition
The Pro Bowl Skills Competition is both a problem and a solution in my opinion. The events that were in the skills competition this past Pro Bowl were Precision Passing, Thread the Needle, Best Catch, Fastest Man, and Epic Pro Bowl Dodgeball. None of them are bad by any means, but none of them are too memorable either. Look at other pro sports like the NBA, which has the slam dunk contest, or the MLB, which has the home run derby. Both of those events have highlighted their sports all-star weekends for years, even producing memorable moments that debatable overtook the actual all-star games in popularity. For example, the 2016 NBA Slam Dunk Contest resulted in Zach Lavine and Aaron Gordon going head-to-head in a controversial but thrilling contest that is still brought by NBA fans to this day. Can't say the NFL skills competition produces the same memorable events.
Solution #2: Change the Skills Competition to Make it More Competitive
Like I said in the problem section, none of the skills events that the NFL had this past weekend were bad, but I believe some of them can be replaced or expanded.
For replacement, I think the Precision Passing event could be replaced by the NFL QB Challenge, which was a previous challenge in the Pro Bowl that determined which QB could throw the ball the furthest in two attempts. To pull this off, I think it should be changed to a challenge where every position competes (though the QBs will have to be handicapped somehow to make it fair) and it should be played in a tournament format. For expanding, I think the NFL should add a few more events, like soccer or even a game like beer pong (without the drinking of course) to connect with the younger fans. I can't speak for every fan but I like to watch pro athletes play other sports, so I'm a firm believer that the NFL should add a couple of other sports events to join dodgeball.
The NFL should also have a fan poll where fans can vote from a list of events which ones to have in each Pro Bowl. Pro Bowl week is all for the fans after all, so there might as well be events that they want to watch.
Problem #3: The Pro Bowl Game is a Glorified Two-Hand Touch
This is the hardest problem to solve in my opinion because on one hand, you can't expect the players to go all out and play like it's a regular-season game because there's a real chance of injury (like Drew Brees' shoulder injury in 2007 Pro Bowl), but in the other hand, NFL fans are also being cheated after watching players play great all year and vote them to the Pro Bowl for them to play two-hand touch. A prime example would be in the last couple minutes of the game this past weekend where Mac Jones is touched by a defender (who could've tackled him) and the play was immediately whistled over. While it was was to keep him safe, it just proves that there's no winning side of the Pro Bowl. Either the game could go full speed to keep fans happy, but players risk pointless injury, or it could be played with half effort like it has been for years, and fans hate it.
Solution #3: Change the Pro Bowl Rules
An easy, and what I believe the most effective fix would be, is to make the Pro Bowl flag football. There's no point in even pretending that the game is tackle football if there's going to be nothing close to it, so that leaves two-hand touch and flag football. I believe the latter is better because it's a lot less controversial on if someone was "down" or not. Yes, it's definitely less exciting than normal football and it's not really a solution that will put the Pro Bowl on par with some of the other pro sports all-star games, but at least it won't try to sell the product of real football when it's really not anymore.
Another fix could be is to change the game to a 7v7 tournament. They can split the teams either by division so there will be eight different teams or by letting each of the six QBs invited to the Pro Bowl choose teams, so there would be six teams (the two QBs with the most votes would have first-round byes in the tournament). For the latter team choice, the QBs would have to pick the same amount of each position so no one person can stack their team with wide receivers to have an advantage. While also not tackle football, this is a much safer option and I think still entertaining enough to watch.
Honestly, maybe the NFL should just not have the Pro Bowl. Maybe they should just make a better skills competition to take up the weekend instead. Or maybe they can have the two worst teams in the league play for the number one pick in the draft. Unfortunately, they probably won't do any of those ideas. The NFL is a professional sports league though, and they need to find a way to make the Pro Bowl more interesting and fast because they have a whole new generation of superstars in the league now that have not been able to show their talents in the Pro Bowl yet due to it's watered downplay. And if the NFL doesn't make any major changes to it, then the fans need to boycott the Pro Bowl to force changes.