Looks like the NFL finally found a Pro Bowl formula that works. At the very least, it has found one that has not failed. Following the transformation of the event from a game to a week-long Pro Bowl Games with a celebration of player skills, featuring a new format that spotlights flag football, the league has announced the event will return in 2024.
The league recently announced that Orlando, Florida, will host The 2024 Pro Bowl Games presented by Verizon. The multi-day AFC vs. NFC event will feature new and returning skills challenges, with 88 of the league's top players showcasing their on-field and off-field skills in unique competitions and culminate in a flag football game at Camping World Stadium on Sunday, February 4, 2024.
Peyton and Eli Manning will return as head coaches of the AFC and NFC, leading 88 of the NFL's star players. The competition will air on ESPN and ABC.
For years, the Pro Bowl was besieged by declining ratings and a lack of interest among fans; it had, unfortunately, gained a reputation as a snooze-fest, with the Super Bowl getting all the attention.
And who knew that flag football would save the day? But the viewership numbers speak for themselves. The 2023 Pro Bowl Games in Las Vegas garnered 6.4 million viewers across Disney, ESPN, ABC, Disney XD and digital and more than 58,000 in-person fans at Allegiant Stadium, up 16 percent from the previous year. The skills challenges on Thursday averaged 1.06 million viewers on ESPN in primetime, up 23 percent for the program the year before, and social video views from Sunday's event were up over 16 percent from last year.
And now, it’s Orlando’s turn in the spotlight. Not that Orlando is any stranger to that, after all; in addition to being a destination for countless competitions, it has hosted four consecutive Pro Bowls in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. (In 2021, the event was a virtual celebration – more on that later, and in 2022, it was held at Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nevada.)
The 2024 Pro Bowl Games will feature events across Central Florida, including fan experiences that will celebrate the football season and bring fans close to their favorite clubs and players.
"There's no doubt Orlando is the country's premier destination for neutral site games and major events, and there's no bigger show you can bring to town than the NFL," said Florida Citrus Sports CEO Steve Hogan. "Our community has done an amazing job ensuring our facilities remain in NFL-ready condition for opportunities just like this, and I can't wait to see what The Pro Bowl Games have in store."
For broadcasting and programming The 2024 Pro Bowl Games, the NFL will work with longstanding partners, including the Disney family of ESPN and ABC, Peyton Manning's Omaha Productions, producers of shows such as ESPN's Monday Night Football with Peyton & Eli, the Places franchise, and Netflix's new docuseries Quarterback, and A. Smith & Co. Productions, producers of shows such as American Ninja Warrior, Hell's Kitchen and The Titan Games.
The Pro Bowl Games will continue to highlight a strategic priority for the NFL: Flag football. In partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL's flag football operating partner, and International Federation of American Football (IFAF), the NFL will integrate the sport throughout the week as a celebration of all levels of football, from youth to the NFL's best.
In addition to the AFC vs NFC flag games played by Pro Bowl players, other events will include the NFL FLAG Championships, organized with RCX Sports. The NFL FLAG Championships will feature the top girls' and boys' youth flag teams from across the country, as well as an International Division to reflect the ongoing growth and interest in the game around the world.
Capitalizing on the rising star of flag football could be key, not just for the Pro Bowl but for many other events. Flag football is one of the world's fastest-growing sports disciplines, played by over 20 million in more than 100 countries, across every continent. It is the most inclusive and accessible format of football, played by people of all ages and genders, with women and girls driving some of the fastest growth. Bonus: It is being suggested as an Olympic showcase sport.
The NFL’s overhaul of the game came after 2022’s viewership hit an embarrassing low. That game averaged 6.69 million viewers across ABC, ESPN and DisneyXD, the smallest audience in 16 years, since ESPN averaged 5.96 million in 2006. And while there was speculation that the game was competing for viewers with the Winter Olympics, pundits noted that the audience for the two is vastly different.
The 2022 Pro Bowl viewership had also declined 17percent from the previous Pro Bowl three years before that (8.05M). Compared to the 2021 Pro Bowl “Celebration,” a two-hour special in lieu of the actual game, viewership unsurprisingly surged 263 percent from 1.84 million. (It might have been one of the few upsides to the pandemic.)
Historically, there long had been a call for a change to the Pro Bowl. In late January 2013, for example, Bleacher Report published an article, entitled “The Pro Bowl is the Most Worthless Game in Sports and Why the NFL Should Fix It.” The first line read, “It's time for the NFL to make a decision on the Pro Bowl—fix it or forget it.” The article went on to note that even the venerable Roger Goodell had taken to ESPN with a call for dropping the Pro Bowl:
Appearing on SiriusXM NFL Radio's "Town Hall," Goodell agreed with host Michael Strahan that [the previous] January's Pro Bowl "was embarrassing."
"If we cannot accomplish that kind of standard (of high play), I am inclined to not play it," Goodell said. "It is really tough to force competition, and after a long season, to ask those guys to go out and play at the same level they played is really tough."
The league still would select a Pro Bowl team through voting by players, coaches and fans, because it is an honor, but "just not play the game," he said.
Bleacher Report also noted that among the four all-star games (NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL), the Pro Bowl is far less interesting for a variety of reasons. In fact, it placed fourth in almost every one of the seven criteria: Timing, Side Events, Look/Feel (this pertained to how much it had the atmosphere of a regular game – albeit one played at a high level, with players everyone wanted to see), Drama, MVP Award and Overall. The only place the Pro Bowl ranked first was Location – because at the time, it was still being held in Aloha Stadium in Hawaii. Now that is gone and with it, the interest.
Orlando’s take on the event is bound to be an interesting one, and one that could harness the enthusiasm of a wide variety of age groups. Look for more updates concerning this in the months to come.