Being named to a Pro Bowl is still considered prestigious, but that prestige has taken a massive hit in recent years. It’s more common for the players first named to voluntarily pull out, injured or not. Combine this with even more players forcibly pulled out due to moving of the game to the week before the Super Bowl, and one can still be risibly called a “Pro Bowler” even if he was the seventh or eighth alternate. Or, to be more blunt, “Trevor Siemian, Pro Bowler“.
The location has also been degraded from its traditional location in Hawaii to Orlando. I suppose the phrase “I’m going to Disney[World]” could still be uttered…entirely among players who aren’t going to win the Super Bowl. There are also five figure game checks to be handed out…in a league where six figures is the veteran minimum and many Pro Bowlers are making seven to eight figures.
But while those aspects once had more glory, the game itself has long been a joke–and for good reason. No one wants to get hurt in a sport where injury is quite common, in the most meaningless game of all professional sports.
So why is the Pro Bowl still played? As is the case with so many silly rules in the NFL, the answer lies in the collective bargaining agreement.
Art. 38 of the CBA explicitly authorizes the Pro Bowl, and for this reason, any alteration to the event must comply to the terms the the CBA, and if the parties adherent to the CBA want to alter those terms, they must engage in collective bargaining to do. And when it comes to collective bargaining, both sides are going to want to get something out of it to make it happen.
Every now and then, the commissioner will grumble about how uninteresting the Pro Bowl game is, and chide the players for a lack of effort. The NFL will sometimes go as far as to suggest to end the game, as it has authority to do under Art. 38, §6. The NFLPA then pushes back, noting that they will still get paid regardless, as is their right under Art. 38, §2. And thus the cycle repeats itself every time this year.
However, when it’s time to negotiate a new CBA in 2021, the players are going to have to find whatever ammunition they can to push negotiations more in their favor. Fully eliminating the Pro Bowl seems like a chip, albeit a very small one, that they can use to help out. By eliminating the Pro Bowl, the players would be giving up the pay that they receive from it, as well as in-kind benefits generated around it. It’s true that the NFL would also lose television revenue from the lack of a Pro Bowl, but as far as I can tell the Pro Bowl is not explicitly exempted from the revenue used to calculate the salary cap in Art. 12, §1(a), so much of that revenue would also be going to the players. Regardless, TV lucrativeness may be in decline no matter what.
The NFLPA could also use the elimination of the Pro Bowl to its advantage by replacing it with something entirely under its aegis. While the NFLPA clearly remains a weak union, one area in which it may have potential to gain strength is in marketing. Thanks to social media, it is much easier for players to directly connect to fans without the team acting as a middleman. Perhaps before or after the Super Bowl, the NFLPA could concoct its own event to build stronger rapport with fans.
One other hurdle to overcome is that Exhibit A to Art. 13, §6(c)(v) authorizes the Pro Bowl to be used in contract incentives. Furthermore, six players already have contracts that contain those incentives beyond the end of the current CBA in 2020. Ways to get around that include holding off on killing the Pro Bowl until no more of those incentives exist, or continue to award the honor for only as long as it takes without playing the actual game. It also wouldn’t hurt if the NFLPA advises agents to replace the Pro Bowl with other postseason honors in upcoming contracts should it be serious about killing the game.
It may be unlikely to kill the Pro Bowl, and the CBA is what it makes it unlikely. But it can be done, and should be.