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The Business Behind the NFL Pro Bowl Games

The NFL plans to eliminate the Pro Bowl and replace it with skills competitions and a flag football game. Boardroom examines why.

The Pro Bowl as we know it is coming to an end.

The NFL will turn the event into a weeklong skills competition and flag football game, according to the Associated Press. It will also rebrand the event as the Pro Bowl Games.

The league will work with host network ESPN and its other partners to organize the programming. Peyton Manning and Omaha Productions will be key partners in helping shape the festivities, according to a release. Manning is a 14-time Pro Bowler who is now fully invested in the media landscape via the Manningcast, Peyton’s Places, and occasional hosting duties for Detail on ESPN+.

“I’m thankful I can continue to be part of the week as all of us at Omaha Productions work with the NFL to reimagine The Pro Bowl Games,” Manning told the AP. “Making Sunday’s game a flag football game is great to see. Youth football has been extremely important to me, and knowing NFL FLAG will help grow this sport, I hope boys and girls can see themselves playing the same game as the best players in the world.”

The changes are a long time coming. The 2022 Pro Bowl drew only 6.69 million viewers, making it the least-watched Pro Bowl in over 15 years. And in a Morning Consult poll from June 2022 evaluating the Pro Bowl, 1 in 3 NFL fans said they wanted to eliminate it altogether, three in 10 said they watched the 2022 Pro Bowl, and 54% of fans said they’d be interested in watching a QB skills competition.

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Recommitment to Flag Football

Perhaps most importantly, 39% of fans interviewed in the Morning Consult poll indicated interest in watching a flag football game. The NFL has not been shy about wanting to grow flag football globally. During opening weekend, the league hosted a flag football tournament in partnership with the Special Olympics and Los Angeles Rams. Earlier this year at the World Games 2022, the league announced Troy Vincent, its executive vice president of football operations, would co-chair “Vision28,” a newly formed group vying for flag football to be included in the 2028 Olympic Games.

“We see flag football as an all-inclusive sport, which makes it a great vehicle to spread the values of American football around the world,” Vincent said in a statement.

The NFL has previously hosted celebrity flag football games with FaZe Clan and a flag football clinic at the NFL’s first event in Africa.

“We’ve received invaluable feedback from players, teams and fans about reimagining the Pro Bowl,” said NFL executive vice president of club business and league events Peter O’Reilly in a release. “And as a result, we’re thrilled to use The Pro Bowl Games as a platform to spotlight Flag football as an integral part of the sport’s future while also introducing fun, new forms of competition and entertainment that will bring our players, their families and fans closer than ever before.”

For those wondering why the NFL would try to bring flag football to the global forefront instead of tackle football, Irwin Kishner, co-chair of the Sports Law Group at New York law firm Herrick Feinstein, believes it is simple:

“Flag football is a much easier game to play,” Kishner told Boardroom. “You can see pick-up games in flag football and the extent to which people playing that more increases the overall popularity in the country and elsewhere. It is not very typical for people to do pick-up leagues for tackle football [but] in flag football it is more likely and you can have different sexes play at the same time.”

While we won’t likely see tackle football in the 2028 Olympics, the NFL is now hosting its games across the globe. This weekend, it will hold a game in London, with Germany and Mexico on the schedule as well. Still, an NFL-endorsed Olympic flag football game could do wonders for the popularity of the sport.

The Pro Bowl Players

There are multiple reasons the Pro Bowl has dipped in ratings. For the players, the game is on the brink of the offseason. Those eligible for contract extensions are risking millions of dollars by chancing an injury.

Look no further than former Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert. In the 2015-16 Pro Bowl, Eifert was fresh off a career year, boasting 13 touchdowns. In the fourth quarter, Eifert injured his ankle while attempting a catch, and the tight end later needed surgery. Eifert was in the third year of a four-year contract, but after the injury, never received a long term extension.

Both rebuilding and contending teams share that same concern. In most cases, participants are a team’s best players, who in turn have the biggest contracts. Not only could an injury could affect performance on the field, but it could also be a salary cap burden. And an injured player with guaranteed money will be in no rush to restructure his contract.

In fact, some players don’t even bother attending the event at all. Players with 2022 Pro Bowl honors who opted out of the game include Lamar Jackson, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, Keenan Allen, Joey Bosa and Bobby Wagner.

“People are not prepping for the Pro Bowl in the same way you prep for a regular season game because it is ultimately for a meaningless concept,” Kishner said.

Hosting the Pro Bowl Games

The 2022 Pro Bowl presented at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. (Marc Sanchez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With most NFL events bringing a week-long economic surge, the fervor to host one has grown over the years. And while the Super Bowl has consistently jumped across the country since 1969, the league’s other events have remained stationary. The NFL Combine has been in Indianapolis since 1987, and the Pro Bowl has been in Honolulu all but two years from 1980 through 2016.

The Pro Bowl has since moved to the Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium and will take place there again later this year. But should the new Pro Bowl Games be successful, cities and clubs could pitch the league for hosting the event.

There are also multiple NFL teams looking to build new stadiums. The Buffalo Bills are targeting a 2027 completion date for their new stadium and both the Chicago Bears and Washington Commanders are attempting to build new homes as well.

It is unlikely any of those teams would host the Pro Bowl Games unless they built domed stadiums. Historically speaking, the Pro Bowl is played in a warm-weather climate — the event’s last three locations, Glendale, Orlando, and Las Vegas — rarely fall below 60 degrees in February. But making the event more attractive will result in more bids and more consideration to what makes a good host for the NFL’s end-of-year festivities.

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