Pro Bowl must shift layout to be relevant

The NFL conference championships were settled last weekend, which means it’s now time to revisit the time-honored tradition of trashing the Pro Bowl, which will take place this Sunday in Orlando.

Are you rolling your eyes? Are you muttering something under your breath about beating a dead horse?

I don’t blame you. But no matter how long the discussion has gone on, it still isn’t over —
not as long as the league continues to rework the format of football’s All-Star game in an attempt to salvage what is perhaps the most boring exhibition game in all of sports.

The Pro Bowl in its current form, when the “top” players from each conference go “toe-to-toe” on the field (provided they aren’t injured or playing in the Super Bowl), may be completely unsalvageable.

Football is a unique sport among America’s Big Four — football, basketball, baseball and hockey — in that it inherently, unequivocally stinks at half-speed. Pro Bowl participants are more concerned about their health than the outcome of the game (and rightly so), and the spectacle devolves into a glorified scrimmage.

This near-absence of contact is a massive hurdle, but one hockey appears to have solved in recent years. The NHL is the only major American sports league with a rising viewership for its All-Star festivities, which will coincidentally also take place this weekend. Unsurprisingly then, the NFL has emulated hockey to spice up the Pro Bowl, but the league has chosen to borrow aspects that so far aren’t the ones that draw in the audience.

First, there was the thoroughly uninteresting fantasy draft format, which was just scrapped this season after a three-year test run. Two NFL Hall of Famers (Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin in the most recent Pro Bowl) would alternate picks to assemble their rosters — which merely resulted in a randomly shuffled version of
the typical NFC vs. AFC format.

The NHL abandoned that system after 2015, since the only appeal behind the draft was to watch the All-Stars get drunk while picking their teams (the Pro Bowl version was alcohol-less and even more boring).

This year, the NFL has copied the NHL’s skills competition, which the league first did in the early 2000s before getting rid of it in 2008 (and reinstating it again this season). In the “Skills Showdown,” players will take part in challenging drills and mini-games such as precision passing and dodgeball the day before the actual Pro Bowl.

But hockey has had the skills competition for some time now, even while it endured sinking All-Star Game ratings. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should take a close look at what really saved the NHL All-Star Game, the 3-on-3 tournament, when looking for a way to make the Pro Bowl relevant to football fans.

Hockey’s 3-on-3 format selects three All-Stars from each division and pits the divisions against one another in a knockout tournament, with a cash prize for the winning team. This works for a number of reasons: Most significantly, the miniscule roster sizes for each team means there is a bigger sense of camaraderie among the players, and they seem to legitimately want to win the tournament.

It also helps that 3-on-3 results in a much faster pace of play, more open ice and very few hits, if any at all. The fact that each game is truncated to two 10-minute halves instead of the usual three 20-minute periods also makes it much more appealing to a television audience. Put in the simplest terms, it feels like the best hockey players in the world are playing in a very expensive pickup tournament just for fun. Who doesn’t want to watch that?

I think you could apply a similar format to great effect in the NFL. Why not take each division in every conference and organize a 7-on-7 tournament in lieu of a traditional Pro Bowl? Players would no longer have to fake hitting each other, and watching the likes of quarterback Drew Brees and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. play backyard football would be thrilling.

Like in the NHL, not all players would be represented in the tournament, but everyone could participate in either 7-on-7 or the skills competition,  both of which entertaining.

This change would solve a large number of the Pro Bowl’s problems in one fell swoop. Play would no longer go at half-speed out of fear of injury, a meaningless game wouldn’t drag on for hours and the games wouldn’t feel so meaningless in the first place. Above all, it would be fun, which is what an All-Star weekend is supposed to be about anyway.

I know it’s a radical suggestion, but go ahead and watch this year’s Pro Bowl and tell me it’s not in need of radical change. Seriously, watch it and tell me how it goes. I’ll be too busy watching the 3-on-3 tournament going on in the Staples Center.

Ollie Jung is a sophomore studying print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, Jung Money, runs on Thursdays.