How do you cash in on a meaningless exhibition game? The NFL is about to try.
The Shield has been attempting to revive the glorified annual scrimmage that is the Pro Bowl since 2009— first moving from the week after the Super Bowl to the bye week before the Super Bowl; then the league played the game on the main land twice in the following seven years after 29 straight in Hawaii (this weekend’s game will be played in Orlando); and, in the greatest departure from the then-68-year history of the game, the NFL created an “unconferenced” game where players were drafted from the overall pool of Pro Bowl selections rather than playing for their conference (borrowed from the NHL All-Star Game model). This year, the Pro Bowl returns to the traditional AFC vs. NFC matchup following three years of unconferenced play.
The latest addition to the Pro Bowl: the Pro Bowl Skills Showdown that will pit AFC players vs. NFC in precision passing and best hands contests, relay races and, of course, dodgeball. Taking a page out of other leagues’ All-Star Game formats, the NFL looks to cash in on a primetime weeknight audience (Skills Showdown airs tonight at 7 p.m. EST on ESPN) and create its own version of the dunk contest or home run derby.
Aired on Turner and ESPN, respectively, the NBA and Major League Baseball maximize exposure with a full schedule of events, from celebrity games to judged contests, over two days of their All Star weekends. The 2016 Home Run Derby and MLB All-Star Game drew a collective 13.5 million viewers, while the NBA drew a two-day total of 14.6 million viewers last February. In both the MLB and NBA All Star weekends, the showcase events accounted for 41% and 48% of total two-day viewership.
This trend bodes nicely for the NFL. Despite a decline in viewership over the last few years, the Pro Bowl is the leader in All Star Game viewership, averaging 10.6 million viewers over the last five years. The addition of the hour long Skills Showdown will add millions of additional viewers, which is a new opportunity for NFL sponsors like Gatorade, Verizon, Papa John’s, Anheuser-Busch and others.
Content is king, and the NFL has created content out of thin air—the most talented players in the country’s most popular league will draw millions of viewers, sponsored clips will live online afterward and brands will line up to be seen by an audience always craving more NFL content just days ahead of a six-month hiatus.
The Pro Bowl is a meaningless exhibition game that serves as nothing more than a bench mark for players’ legacies, and a night of contests won’t do anything to build the NFL brand. But you better believe people will tune in to see Von Miller huck dodgeballs at Odell Beckham, Jr., even if it is simply out of curiosity. And Verizon will be there to advertise to them. So will Pepsi. And Bose. And Visa.
So how do you cash in on a meaningless exhibition game? You create a meaningless exhibition three days before, parade your stars out, pit them against each other and watch the money roll in.