The Pro Bowl comes to Orlando tomorrow, amid some uncertainty about whether this will be the beginning of a great new relationship between the city and the National Football League or the final effort by the NFL to breathe life into what many consider the least relevant all-star game in professional sports.
It is difficult to fault Orlando officials for going after the game, though. The city pumped more than $200 million into renovating what is now known as Camping World Stadium (formerly the Citrus Bowl). To ensure a return on that investment, the stadium needs additional content. The addition of the Auto Nation Cure Bowl to accompany the existing Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl and Russell Athletic Bowl was an important step. The boisterous crows at the Orlando Lions MSL games also have helped.
But the Pro Bowl is the N . . . F . . . L, the biggest show in the professional sports universe. It was a prize too tempting to resist, and city leaders – starting with Mayor Buddy Dyer – would have been delinquent in their duties not to go after it. Stealing the game away from its longtime home in Hawaii was a coup. No doubt about it.
What is less clear is how big an economic boon it will actually prove to be. “We estimate at least $50 million to $60 million in economic activity,” Dyer said earlier this week at a fan rally at the stadium. At the same event, a senior NFL official validated Dyer’s vision to renovate the stadium saying that without the upgrades the league “may have picked a different location.”
An extra $50 million or so that otherwise wouldn’t have come to Orlando is nothing to look askance at, but there is reason to question whether the figure is a little over-optimistic. Since 1980 the game has been played in Honolulu all but twice and officials in Hawaii have pegged the economic impact figure at closer to $25 million to $30 million. And, breathtaking as the pricing can be at some Central Florida venues (we’re looking at YOU, Disney), costs are even higher in the islands.
To understand why the value of the game, both for Sunday and the long-term, is in question it is important to understand a little of the game’s history.
The Pro Bowl as we know it today debuted at the end of the 1950 NFL season. It was played Jan. 14, 1951, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and the venerable stadium remained the game’s home through the league’s 1970 merger with the American Football League. During the pre-merger years it pitted the best players from the NFL’s Eastern and Western conferences (after the merger it became American Football Conference versus National Football Conference) and it enjoyed some relevance because of the culture and economy of the times.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the NFL didn’t pay enough to be a full-time job for most players so the money they got for playing in the game was real spending cash. Getting the winners’ share versus the losers’ share meant something too. The game was played with some tenacity and passion.
Post-merger, though, salaries reached a level where playing professional football became a full-time job and the Pro Bowl bonus money, while nice, began to mean a little less. Since football is a rough game and NFL careers as a result are the shortest in professional sports, players were less interested in “laying it all out” for an exhibition game with nothing on the line.
To jazz things up, the league first started rotating the game out of the Coliseum and around to other league cites. Miami’s Orange Bowl and old Tampa Stadium both hosted the game in the 1970s. It went back to the Coliseum once, after the 1978 season, and then the NFL hit on a novel idea. League officials decided it wasn’t so important to play the game at a league stadium. So, in January 1980 the game packed its proverbial bags and moved to Aloha Stadium in Honolulu.
The move was a huge hit with the players. At that point the game was still played the week after the Super Bowl, so it was a nice end-of-season reward for players and their families. The game’s intensity didn’t exactly pick up, but the atmosphere around the game was great.
But, there is an inherent problem with football all-star games. Unlike baseball, where it is easy to integrate people from different teams into a seamless unit, football has complex schemes and getting players from 32 different organizations to fit into two teams and to prevent injuries requires a vast simplification of the rules. In the Pro Bowl, there’s no blitzing, no motion on offenses, no efforts to block kicks and no kick-offs after scores.
It’s a watered-down game, and the fans know it. A former Canadian Football League quarterback residing now in Central Florida called it “touch-tackle football.”
The league tried to shake things up starting with the 2009 season. First, it moved the game from the week after the Super Bowl to the week before. It kept stars from the Super Bowl teams out of the game (sorry fans, but Tom Brady and Matt Ryan will be MIA this Sunday in Orlando), but it also allowed the game to have a pre-Super Bowl spotlight rather than being an afterthought at the end of the season.
NFL officials also tried taking periodic breaks from Hawaii. In January 2010 the game was played at Sun Life (now Hard Rock) Stadium outside Miami and in 2015 it was played at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
The most gonzo experiment, though, was to abandon the AFC-NFC format and have stars chosen regardless of conference and then picked (sort of like you did in your neighborhood games as kids) to be on two teams “captained” by retired stars like Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin. That began after the 2013 season and was met with cautious enthusiasm, including an “I Like It” tweet from Sen. Marco Rubio.
It didn’t work, though, and the game in Orlando marks the return of the AFC-NFC format.
Who knows? Maybe going old school in a new location is just what the game needs. We’ll start finding out on Sunday.