Fixing the Pro Bowl Flaws

December 5, 2008 by

Next week, fan voting will close for the NFL 2009 Pro Bowl. If this were a just world, it would have never opened in the first place. The NFL Pro Bowl system is flawed on a multitude of levels, beginning with the fans. Simply put, they shouldn’t have a say.

Yes, this sounds disrespectful. And maybe even stupid. After all, every major sports league includes the fans in All-Star balloting. And fans are what make the league go. By barring them from Pro Bowl balloting, the NFL would be slapping its consumer in the face.

I get this. Which is why I realize the league will never remove fan votes from the Pro Bowl equation. But it’s not like the consumer isn’t slapping the NFL in its face. Ninety-five percent of the fans who vote for the Pro Bowl have no idea what they’re doing. They don’t truly understand football. And 95 percent of that 95 percent vote strictly off rooting allegiance (Exhibit A: 19 Redskins leading the NFC Pro Bowl voting, thanks to their owner’s shrewd get out and vote campaign). As it is, popularity contests run most of the free world. But that doesn’t have to be the case here.

For NFL players, Pro Bowl honors aren’t just free trips to Hawaii. They’re also valuable credentials in contract negotiations. To let casual observers of football senselessly contribute to the selection of these accolades is not right.

And to let those casual observers begin casting their ballots in October, before the season’s midway point, and then force them to stop casting their ballots in early December, before the true stretch run, shows the NFL’s absurd commitment to making this strictly a popularity contest.

The good news is that pro football, unlike Major League Baseball, doesn’t give the fans full power. Fan votes contributes to only 1/3 of the Pro Bowl selection process. The other 2/3 comes from players and coaches. But 1/3 is still too much.

Here’s what the NFL should do: maintain the current Pro Bowl voting system. Obnoxious as it is, there are two significant positives with it: it does keep fans feeling involved; and Pro Bowls aren’t just contract negotiation gems – they’re also marketing gems. If Pro Bowls show popularity, players can point to them when they’re haggling with business execs over off-field ventures.

But in order to foster the integrity of honoring the league’s best players, and to provide an award that genuinely gauges what guys have accomplished on the field, the NFL should stop trumpeting Pro Bowls and start highlighting All-Pro Awards. To do this correctly, the league must tweak the All-Pro system. Currently, All-Pro awards merge both conferences and are selected by the media. The league should adjust it so that the conferences split. And don’t limit voting to the media (where no more than 40 percent of the voters actually know what they’re doing). Also include players, coaches, front office execs and scouts. And allow these insiders to vote only for players that their team has faced (a large enough pool of voters makes this possible).

The league can continue to send the Pro Bowlers to Hawaii – you have to send the most popular players, otherwise, even more people would ignore the meaningless game. But it can start honoring the First, Second and Third Team All-Pro’s from the AFC and NFC as the authentic top players.

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