Why NFL Fans Will Never Be Free of the Pro Bowl

Despite a 10-Year Ratings Low, Pro Bowl Still Pack a Punch

By Published on .

The superfluous nature of the Pro Bowl ensures that there's no fixing it, but no matter how dull or inherently goofy the NFL's pseudo All-Star Game becomes, it will always be with us. Blame the usual suspects: ratings and revenue.

According to the final live-same-day data furnished by Nielsen, ESPN's coverage of Sunday night's Pro Bowl averaged 7.99 million viewers and a 4.5 household rating, making it the lowest-rated NFL exhibition in 10 years. Those deliveries marked a 12% decline from last year's 5.1 rating and a 32% drop versus NBC's 2014 broadcast, which drew a 6.6 rating in the face of head-to-head competition from the Grammy Awards.

This marks the sixth straight season of year-over-year declines, and Sunday's telecast now stands as the fifth lowest-rated Pro Bowl since the first AFC-NFC scrimmage aired on CBS back in 1970. The 2006 edition remains the least-watched, lowest-rated game in the series, with ESPN drawing just 6 million viewers and a 3.7 household rating.

While the viewership trends would suggest that even the most fanatical football enthusiasts have grown weary of the sheer pointlessness of the endeavor, the numbers are still far from insignificant. For example, this year's Pro Bowl all but eclipsed the deliveries for Sunday's NHL All-Star Game, which drew 1.6 million viewers and a 0.9 household rating in its early fringe slot (5 p.m.-8:30 p.m. EST) on NBCSN.

The Pro Bowl also topped the 2015 NBA All-Star Game on TNT/TBS (7.20 million viewers, 4.3 household rating), but failed to out-perform Fox's coverage of last summer's MLB All-Star Game, which drew 10.9 million viewers and a 6.6 household rating on July 14.

From a demographic perspective, the Pro Bowl is not without merit. Sunday's telecast averaged a 2.8 rating among adults 18-to-49, and if at first blush that doesn't appear to be a spectacular result, it's worth noting that demo would rank sixth on a list of every broadcast of this season's new scripted series. (Season-to-date, only the first two installments of Fox's "The X-Files" and the pilot episodes of CBS's "Supergirl," NBC's "Blindspot" and ABC's "The Muppets" can boast higher demo deliveries.)

Despite the ongoing ratings slide, the Pro Bowl remains a viable driver of GRPs and a not inconsiderable source of revenue for ESPN. Insurance and automotive sponsors heavied up in the Jan. 31 telecast, which generated an estimated windfall of nearly $20 million in sales for the sports net. The game also provided an opportunity to reach a national NFL audience for sponsors who perhaps don't have the resources to splurge on regular-season inventory.

For all that, the Pro Bowl product itself is so abidingly shoddy that it's a wonder why anyone watches in the first place. This year, a record 47 players declined to participate in the scrimmage, a roster of refuseniks that includes some of the league's marquee quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Caron Palmer) and 10 Carolina Panthers who obviously had bigger fish to fry over the weekend. So rather than having a chance to watch Cam Newton run roughshod over the defense like he's Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl, viewers were treated to the spectacle of replacement QB Tyrod Taylor merrily flinging three interceptions in 14 attempts. Fun!

As much as the NFL occasionally has made noise about doing away with the exhibition -- in 2012, commissioner Roger Goodell suggested that the quality of play had become so sloppy and uninspired that he was considering scrapping the Pro Bowl altogether -- there's simply too much easy money and GRPs at stake to dump the event. (Besides, the players seem to enjoy the free trip to Hawaii.) As long as fans mysteriously keep tuning in to watch what amounts to a very expensive game of two-hand touch, the Pro Bowl will endure.

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