There is no better symbol of the breadth and depth of the NFL's popularity than the insane viewership numbers the Pro Bowl draws. This year, 11.4 million people tuned in to watch the first Fantasy Draft version of the game as Team Rice edged out Team Sanders… or was it the other way around? I honestly can't remember. The game had a small uptick in competitiveness and timely Al Michaels gambling references. The overnight rating of 6.7 was down 13% versus last year, but it comes with a caveat. This was the first year since 2010 the Pro Bowl had to compete directly against the Grammys, which won the night by a wide margin.
Therefore, in spite of the drop in ratings, the NFL will still probably consider the glorified exhibition a success. The Pro Bowl is like some kind of unkillable cyborg that just keeps delivering ratings no matter how much column-space or how many tweets are dedicated to the game's supreme crappiness.
And in what should be disconcerting to any sport looking to compete with the NFL, the Pro Bowl had a larger audience than several top sporting events that came before it in the last 12 months. Even a glorified exhibition game is still one of the most popular games on American television sets as long as the NFL shield is present. Here's a list of events that were outdrawn by the Pro Bowl…
Fiesta Bowl (UCF-Baylor) – 11.2 million
MLB All-Star Game – 10.96 million
Preakness Stakes – 9.7 million
Ohio State-Michigan football – 9.5 million
Game 6 ALCS – 9.0 million
Peach Bowl (Texas A&M-Duke) – 8.69 million
Game 5 NBA Eastern Conference Finals – 8.54 million (and all but one conference finals game)
Final Round US Open golf – 8.39 million
Game 6 NHL Stanley Cup Finals – 8.16 million (and every other hockey game in the past year)
US-Mexico World Cup Qualifier – 6.96 million between ESPN & Univision
US Open Women’s Tennis Final – 6.17 million
Indianapolis 500 – 5.70 million
Wrap your minds around that – more people watched the flippin' Pro Bowl than one of college football's great rivalries! More people watched the Pro Bowl than playoff basketball, baseball, or hockey! For every argument against the Pro Bowl, and the even-moreso-than-usual convoluted nature of this year's game, people still tune in to watch. Somehow, some way, by some kind of Roger Goodell wizard spell, people still watch.
The NFL could slap its logo on C-Span's coverage of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and it would probably draw at least 8 million viewers.