ESPN Delivers With Pro Bowl

If ratings are anything to go by, the National Football League’s 2010 Pro Bowl experiment was a resounding success.

ESPN’s coverage of the NFL all-star scrimmage delivered 12.3 million viewers Sunday night, making it the most watched Pro Bowl since the Feb. 6, 2000 AFC-NFC tilt. (ABC’s presentation of that 51-31 blowout drew 13.2 million viewers, per Nielsen ratings data.)

The AFC outgunned the NFC 41-34, in an air battle that served up 40 percent more viewers than last year’s broadcast on NBC (8.9 million). The Feb. 8, 2009, exhibition aired in the afternoon.

Last night’s game marked the first time the Pro Bowl has been played before the Super Bowl, a move devised by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as a way to set the table for the biggest sporting event of the year. Many observers criticized the move, suggesting that the proper lead-ins for the Super Bowl are the AFC and NFC Championship games.

The NFL also switched venues for the first time in 30 years, moving the 2010 Pro Bowl from Aloha Stadium in Honolulu to Miami’s newly christened Sun Life Stadium. The game returns to Hawaii next year.

While ESPN was undoubtedly pleased with its deliveries, the Pro Bowl continues to be a challenge for broadcasters, as it is the only major all-star expo that occurs after the regular season. Given the physical demands of the NFL––nobody wants to close out the year with a destroyed ACL or a fractured femur––the game is also light on fundamentals. In the first quarter of last night’s contest, the AFC ran two running plays, doubling the number of times the NFC launched a ground offensive.

The lack of hard tackles and even the most rudimentary running attack all but guarantees that the Pro Bowl will draw fewer viewers than the NFL’s regular-season games. For the sake of comparison, ESPN’s Pro Bowl audience was 15 percent smaller than the 14.4 million viewers it averaged in its 17 Monday Night Football telecasts in 2009.

As a standalone event, however, the Pro Bowl holds its own against the other three major pro sports leagues. Fox outdrew ESPN with its broadcast of the 2009 MLB All-Star game (14.6 million viewers), but the sports net easily out-delivered TNT’s coverage of the 2009 NBA All-Star Game (7.62 million). Versus’ NHL All-Star Game finished a distant fourth (1.1 million).