The NFL Pro Bowl is not exactly the must-see event of the season, and this year — more than ever — the game was met with criticism because of the scheduling and location change. The adjustments, and perhaps the resulting publicity, however, welcomed record-breaking attendance and viewership.
The Pro Bowl, traditionally held the Sunday after the Super Bowl in Honolulu, was moved to the Sunday before the Super Bowl at the actual Super Bowl site, which this year is Miami?s Sun Life Stadium. Despite disapproval on many fronts, Sunday night?s game attracted 70,697 fans, the second-largest crowd in Pro Bowl history.
The attendance numbers may be up because south Florida is more accessible to fans than Aloha Stadium in Hawaii — not to mention that Aloha Stadium, which has hosted the Pro Bowl for the past 30 years, only holds 50,000. Nonetheless, the game attracted more fans than any Dolphins game since the 2007 season.
"Going to Hawaii is special," Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "But having it in the States brings it back home. This rewards the people who pay their hard-earned money every week to support the guys. It's pushing it forward so there's some good and some bad."
The number of viewers who watched the game from their couches was also a success for the NFL. According to ESPN, the Pro Bowl broadcast had a 7.9 overnight rating, up 39 percent from last year. The ratings were better than the Orange Bowl and the final round of last year's PGA Championship. It crushed Sunday's nationally televised Lakers-Celtics game, which hit a mere 4.4.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admits that the change may have been successful because of the buzz — both positive and negative — the game was receiving.
"I think we're getting more and more attention for the game. It's a great lead-up into the Super Bowl, so it's accomplishing a lot of things we talked about," Goodell said. "I'm sure there are things we're going to want to do better that we'll work on as we look forward to what we can do to make the Pro Bowl even bigger and better."
The NFL has traditionally not only found it difficult to attract an audience to the powder-puff Pro Bowl competition, but it has also struggled to interest players to partake in the event, despite the lure of a free trip to Hawaii. In Miami, it was an even tougher sell. This year, 34 players named to the Pro Bowl roster were replaced. An important downfall of the schedule change is that 14 of the players originally slotted to play are instead participating in the Super Bowl next Sunday.
The Pro Bowl will return to Aloha Stadium in 2011 and 2012, but the NFL has yet to confirm when it will be held.