For nearly everyone, especially those in the Mid-Atlantic who have been slogging through pits of post-blizzard slush, choosing between Hawaii and Los Angeles would be a sunny toss-up. But for NFL decision-makers charged with determining the Pro Bowl's future, the choice might be far easier, experts say: Go back to Cali, under the same sunny Los Angeles skies the league first played the game in 1951.
The 2016 Pro Bowl — scheduled for Sunday at Aloha Stadium in suburban Honolulu, Hawaii — is the NFL's all-star game. But it's confounded the NFL, as many players opt to sit out the typically underwhelming contest, inciting rumors that its facing extinction. But with the Rams franchise's decision to relocate from St. Louis to Los Angeles and plans for a multibillion-dollar Inglewood stadium becoming a reality, moving the Pro Bowl to Hollywood could be the one way to make the event more relevant, which could spur more player participation, sports marketing experts said.
"I think it’s a great idea," said Bill Sutton, director of the University of Southern Florida's sport and entertainment management program and a longtime sports marketing consultant. Los Angeles can host the Pro Bowl about as well any city imaginable, Sutton added.
The NFL is a juggernaut sports league that brought in some $12 billion in revenue last year. But the Pro Bowl has been perhaps its most lackluster property, for a number of reasons. Many who were voted by their peers and coaches to play simply do not, in order to avoid injury and get rest. For instance, all seven Pro Bowlers from the New England Patriots — one of the league's most successful teams — aren't playing this year. Those who do play usually mail it in, with the game devolving into a glorified pitch-and-catch, backyard football matchup.
The game's television viewership — by NFL standards — is sluggish. Typically speaking, there are the NFL's ratings and then everything else. Nothing compares. An enviable 58 percent of television viewers caught some part of last week's AFC Championship Game, while last season's Pro Bowl drew just a 5.6 overnight rating, down 16 percent from the year prior.
Conversely, last year's NBA All-Star Game had a 5.5 overnight rating. Usually the NBA isn't even the same ballpark as the NFL, let alone a rounding-error away from equaling it. To wit: last year's Super Bowl earned a record 49.7 overnight rating, while the 2015 NBA Finals averaged a respectable 11.6 rating.
It should be noted that fan attendance at the Pro Bowl has traditionally been strong, and this year's event has already sold out Aloha Stadium, which has a capacity of 50,000. But the game's lack of star power also remains consistent, which is a problem for the league.
The Pro Bowl's image has struggled so much that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has in the past indicated its future was in doubt, with speculation about the game's end enduring. In their relocation proposal approved this month by the league's franchise owners, the then-St. Louis Rams offered to host the Pro Bowl in L.A. as a deal-sweetener. Hawaii has looked to keep the Pro Bowl, having hosted the game every year but two since 1979. Local officials have claimed their $5 million investment in buying the rights from the NFL has paid off in revenues and taxes.
Victor Matheson, a sports economist at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, said he has crunched the numbers and doubts there's much benefit to hosting the game in what's already a tourist oasis in the winter months. "[The] net answer is no effect whatsoever … you can’t identify it at all," he said. Los Angeles, as a city, might suffer the same fate, but experts said it would prove to be a beneficial landing spot for the NFL's underperforming all-star game.
If the game moved to L.A., it might have a better chance of reshaping its image than if it stayed in Hawaii. While the actual game's competitiveness might never improve because there aren't any real stakes involved, the allure of a major metropolis could potentially transform what is essentially a football scrimmage into an all-out event.
"It’s the only all-star game that’s not played during the season … it’s a bit anti-climatic," Sutton said. But in the Rams' planned Inglewood, California, stadium — a glitzy, pricey entertainment destination — the NFL can sell a different product. You could make it "like a Grammy show … the L.A. football festival," Sutton said.
The NBA All-Star weekend has found success with a similar formula. Its main event is preceded by showboat-y events like the dunk contest, a skills competition and a glorified pick-up game that includes celebrities. The rich and famous, as well as attention-capturing events, aren't hard to come by in L.A., where stars routinely make it a point to be seen at sporting events. A similar strategy for the Pro Bowl isn't entirely out of the question, as the NFL has proven open to trying new things. One example is shifting the game to have captains pick teams like a backyard game, said David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California's Marshall Sports Business Institute.
A Hollywood move would be a "reboot" that would be far more palatable to celebrity athletes, who then might actually decide to play, and it would be far easier for fans to attend and engage with, Carter added. Practically speaking, it's also much easier to drive to a weekend of events in Southern California than it is to fly hours to islands in the Pacific.
The Pro Bowl seemingly needs a change, and with Los Angeles now officially an NFL city once more, the current climate might by ideal for a west coast relocation of the NFL's all-star matchup. It can piggyback off the momentum and excitement of the NFL moving back to L.A. The Rams could, in turn, benefit from having the NFL christen its new market with a major league property.
"You're trying to build a culture of pro-football back in L.A., and anything you can do to increase that exposure of the NFL would have a good effect," USF's Sutton said. In sports parlance, that's a win-win.