Despite the low profile of the game itself, being selected to the Pro Bowl is a big deal. Making the roster establishes a player as one of the best at his position and can raise his visibility and lead to lucrative contracts and endorsement possibilities. Fan voting accounts for one-third of the Pro Bowl process, with players' and coaches' votes making up the remaining two-thirds. Fan voting usually opens during the last half of the season and concludes before the final regular-season games take place. Players and coaches submit their ballots after fan voting closes, and rosters are usually set by mid-December.
Giving the fans a voice in the selection of players has been a popular addition to the process, but it's not without its drawbacks. There are no limits on how many times a fan can vote, and online voting makes it possible for enthusiastic supporters to stuff the ballot boxes in their team's favor. Last season, for example, Washington Redskins fans responded to the organization's flashy voting campaign and pushed punter Ryan Plackemeier to the top of the list to represent the NFC [source: Chase]. But Plackemeier led the worst punting squad in the league, and once the players and coaches had their votes, Andy Lee of the San Francisco 49ers got the nod.
And even though these athletes make extraordinary salaries, there is an added financial incentive for being voted to the Pro Bowl. In the 2010 Pro Bowl, players on the winning team received a game check worth $45,000, while the losers took home $22,000. Win or lose, not a bad afternoon haul.
Voting aside, the NFL's decision to play the 2010 game the week before the Super Bowl made a significant impact on the final rosters. Since the Super Bowl is the be-all and end-all of the entire season, Pro Bowlers from the conference-champion teams were exempt from playing in the game. Getting hurt the week before the biggest game of your life because you were playing an exhibition game makes no sense, so the league mitigated this by removing these players from the obligation. This knocked out 14 players from the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints and left empty roster spots to be filled [source: Fletcher]. Add to these vacancies the list of players who opted out of the game citing injuries (real or imagined) and the talent pool gets shallower.
A record 29 players were replaced on the 2010 Pro Bowl roster, further dulling what was already a shaky attraction and diluting the level of play to where average players on losing teams were suiting up to fill the empty slots.
In the next section, we'll discuss some of the factors that impact the popularity of the NFL Pro Bowl and how the league is working to make it more appealing for fans.