Around the Bases: NFL Pro Bowl Edition

Posted on January 26, 2014 | in Football, Quality, Respect For People, Safety, Sports | by
nfl pro bowl team photo

The NFL Pro Bowl in Hawaii – there might be a Hawaiian word for “try your hardest” but don’t expect anyone to say it this weekend. (Photo by Kirby Lee/Image of Sport)

With the two-week gap between the NFL conference championship games and the Super Bowl upon us, all of the sporting world’s attention is now honed in on the NFL Pro Bowl in Hawaii.

Wait, it’s not? You mean there are more people talking about the Super Bowl, Richard Sherman’s postgame interview, Justin Bieber…just about anything…than the Pro Bowl?

The Pro Bowl has become a bit of a low-rated laughingstock of a game – the results are meaningless, the players don’t play hard (for good reason), it’s supposed to be a light-hearted exhibition for representatives from 30 teams while there are still two other teams vying for the Super Bowl trophy. So the NFL figured it should try some new things.

Over the last few years there have been some changes to the game. The Pro Bowl, up through 2009, was played the week after the Super Bowl – after the public’s interest in football had peaked and all but disappeared for the season, which drove poor television ratings. The Pro Bowl was moved to the week before the Super Bowl, giving us our two-week playoff football gap, but that meant that players playing in the Super Bowl were not able to play in the Pro Bowl. And now, instead of following the NFC vs. AFC format, this year the teams will be drafted like fantasy football teams and conference affiliation is irrelevant. Either way, players do not want to hurt one another, especially for a meaningless exhibition where the winners get…a little bit more money per player than the losers. Kickoffs are eliminated, in-game rules are changed, and it’s really a soft unspectacular excuse for an all-star game.

All of these changes are implemented to drive interest, TV ratings, and revenue…but what the NFL is failing to provide is a purpose for this game. Why does this game exist?

– Is it to reward players for a good season just completed? A lot of the game’s players will draw lower salaries for playing in the game than their regular season salaries provide…while unnecessarily putting themselves at risk of injury for an exhibition game. Hence, not trying really hard.

– Is it recognition of the best players? Okay, fine. Aren’t there better ways to recognize the best players than making them travel for this game that probably won’t sell out?

– Or is it another way to keep eyeballs affixed on football and not let them stray toward other winter sports like hockey and basketball so that the league can continue to grow revenues and ratings?

The players want the Pro Bowl because it’s another chance for money and recognition.

“(Commissioner) Roger (Goodell) was very serious about potentially canceling the Pro Bowl because apparently it’s very expensive and isn’t of a ton of value to them,” (NFLPA outgoing president Domonique) Foxworth told USA TODAY Sports this week.

“To be honest with you, I was completely comfortable with eliminating it until I talked to the players, and they said they loved it and they want to be there.”

The NFL wants the game, as long as the players play hard. Hawaii wants the game because of tourism dollars and attention. But the ticket-buying public largely doesn’t give a hoot.

Players and fans are annoyed with having four preseason games, and the league is considering cutting those exhibitions down to two. Roger Goodell is on the record as saying he wants to eliminate unnecessary plays that provide risk for injury. Why should the Pro Bowl game stay when the results and practices mean even less than the preseason games?

Data shows that the game isn’t working. Short of canceling the concept of a Pro Bowl all together, if all three identified purposes are true, isn’t there a safer, more unique way to give rewards and recognition to all players (not just those NOT playing in the Super Bowl, and keep attention on the sport without putting players in harms way?

Well it turns out there is! Well, there used to be. The NFL Quarterback Challenge, held in the Cayman Islands, was a skills challenge for quarterbacks that tested their arm strength, accuracy, agility, and speed. It was a fun, lighthearted competition that didn’t put players in any great injury risk. It was discontinued because of legal matters and could possibly be a great replacement for the Pro Bowl if the NFL were to give it serious consideration.

If the league was genuinely serious about improving the competition level on the field yet still maximizing safety and providing recognition to the best players, here’s their chance.

~~~

Now that the NFL offseason is fast approaching, the league is very quickly undertaking efforts to analyze safety rules and protocols and begin formulating new changes in preparation for the 2014 season. Besides enabling instant replay and reviews of penalties such as helmet-to-helmet, the league is also considering eliminating extra or inconsequential plays such as the Pro Bowl (as noted above) and…extra point kicks!

This is an innovative evaluation of a rule whose abolishment is supported by data but would be a shakeup to the fundamental foundation of the game itself.

Fox’ Daryl Johnston, on the NFL looking into doing away with PATs: “When you talk about safety, how long is it going to be until they change the game at its foundation point? I think this is one of those changes”

Despite this emphasis on safety, the concussion situation between the NFL and the retired players remains open and contentious. A former VP of ESPN says that the league’s denial of the impact of concussions has led her to leave football behind.

~~~

Going back to the Super Bowl, here’s a great feature about a Minnesota company producing NFL merchandise in their home state for fans of teams in the Super Bowl instead of heavy outsourcing of licensed product manufacturing to China, which most licensees do.

WinCraft is the oldest NFL licensee in the market, according to Schipper. About 80 to 90 percent of their product is made in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and right now business is in full-swing as they prepare for Super Bowl XLVIII.

Staff is working around the clock to make team products that include flags, magnets, snack helmets and decals.

That’s what employee Karl Feltes is working on.

“This is our Super Bowl. We come in, sometimes start at 2:30 a.m. – 5:30 a.m., right after the games are done,” Feltes said. “People come in right after the games to get our merchandise ready to go.”

While obviously they had to do some prep work on materials for teams that didn’t make the Super Bowl…

Crews start planning the artwork and putting together materials as early as August, according to Schipper.

…that’s far less costly than ordering a whole lot of team championship merchandise in advance of a game, only to be forced to dispose of that merchandise (or donate it) when that team loses.

new england patriots merchandise

Oh, wait, Modell’s did exactly that. They ordered a bunch of New England Patriots AFC Championship merchandise in advance of the game – $500,000 worth of merchandise – only the Patriots didn’t win.

“We took a tremendous risk, but you know what? People expect us to have the merchandise,” a source told the Boston Herald prior to the game. “We printed up everything: hats, shirts, T-shirts, novelties, pennants — you name it — for men, women, kids.”

Do the fans really expect it to be available that quickly? And $500,000 worth?!?

Okay, I don’t have the data in front of me (and I’m sure they do) to say that they would or would not have sold out of the gear had the Patriots won, but if I’m a Pats fan I’m not buying AFC Championship gear yet – I’d rather spend it on Super Bowl Champions gear (should they win it). Heck, if New England were to win the Super Bowl, the AFC Championship gear becomes all but obsolete.

This seems like a silly and costly gamble, for multiple reasons. However, it’s a gamble Modell’s apparently takes frequently. Remember Linsanity and Tebow-Mania?

~~~

The cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders – the Raiderettes – are suing the team for unfair labor practices and other offenses.

Specifically, the suit charges that the team withholds all pay from the Raiderettes until after the season is completed, does not pay for all hours worked and forces the cheerleaders to pay many of their own business expenses.

It sounds like the cheerleaders cover a lot of their own travel expenses to special appearances, have significant levels of expectations and subsequent penalties levied against them for violations, and on and on. Their monthly salaries of $1250 come to about $5 per hour for the efforts they put into maintaining their images and providing entertainment.

The sports and entertainment industries are notorious for rigorous treatment of low-level employees at salaries beneath poverty level because the supply of potential employees is far greater than the availability of positions they can fill. Rightly or wrongly, teams get away with this treatment and no one inside the system questions it. A lot of these positions are considered internships, which because of seasonality or college credits teams aren’t subject to certain employment laws.

I for one seriously despise this practice of paying wages far out of alignment with efforts or time commitments. It seriously violates “respect for people”. There are great benefits to be received by paying employees/interns more and taking greater care of them – you can recruit better talent instead of just “warm bodies” who are willing to sacrifice more than is necessary.

That’s why I think the Raiders should take better care of their Raiderettes, however I’m quite certain there’s a signed-off waiver somewhere that allows the team to toy with their employees this way. None of this is “respect for people”.

I recently read a short blurb on Twitter from an unnamed sports business leader extolling the virtues of unpaid sports internships and how it’s the right thing to do by the teams because that’s how you get dedicated employees in the industry. I understand his stance, but disagree wholeheartedly. I want more out of my employees and partners than just dedication and sacrifice. This is why I would want to pay more to recruit better/smarter talent that remains dedicated, and provide them more respect and trust – that’s what other industries do.

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