Lodi News-Sentinel

Pro Bowl arrives in Vegas with eye on Super Bowl

- Case Keefer LAS VEGAS SUN

The NFL reevaluate­d everything relating to the Pro Bowl after last year’s annual all-star event. The league ended up making significan­t and wide-reaching changes in virtually every area, including the name, with one exception — the location.

Moving the pre-Super Bowl gathering of the league’s best players from the past season away from Las Vegas after having the festivitie­s here last year was never seriously considered. The 2023 Pro Bowl Games commenced Thursday night with a skills competitio­n at the Raiders’ Henderson headquarte­rs before a series of flag-football games serves as the main event starting at noon Sunday at Allegiant Stadium.

“We in theory knew Las Vegas would be a great host for our events but it’s been great to see it happen in practice,” Matthew Shapiro, the NFL’s vice president of events strategy, said late last year in an interview at Allegiant. “As we re-imagined the Pro Bowl overall, Las Vegas was the right place to host it.”

When the Raiders were in the process of relocating to Las Vegas from Oakland starting seven years ago, the NFL pledged to parade all of its biggest events through town as soon as the team arrived. This year’s Pro Bowl is the latest, though surely not last, example.

It started with last year’s Pro Bowl, which attracted 29,575 out-of-town visitors and a $59.7 million economic impact according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The NFL Draft, which was reschedule­d from 2020 to 2022 locally amid the pandemic, followed and spurred an estimated hundreds of millions dollars in economic impact through attracting hundreds of thousands of fans.

This year’s Pro Bowl feels like the final opening act for the biggest headliner of all — the Super Bowl, which Allegiant Stadium will host on Feb. 11, 2024.

“The Super Bowl has a really long runway of planning, and we have an eye on what’s coming up,” Shapiro said.

“The really great thing about hosting all of these events in Las Vegas before the Super Bowl is all the learning we can do about the city, the stadium, the different properties and venues . ... There’s always a vision in your mind’s eye of what a Super Bowl Sunday will look like, but right now, we’re definitely focused on what Pro Bowl Sunday will look like.”

Pro Bowl Sunday will look quite a bit different from past years. The field will be only 50 yards, and the game clock will feature only 20 minutes, for three 7-on-7 flag-football games. Side events will be contested among the players including a best catch competitio­n and a “gridiron gauntlet” relay race.

Peyton Manning (AFC) and Eli Manning (NFC) will act as the coaches.

The three Raiders who made the Pro Bowl as initial selections — quarterbac­k Derek Carr and punter AJ Cole were added as alternates earlier this week — were unanimousl­y unsure what to make of the changes when surveyed near the

end of the regular season. But edge rusher Maxx Crosby, running back Josh Jacobs and wide receiver Davante Adams all expressed excitement about taking part in the inaugural Pro Bowl Games.

“It’s a fun experience at the end of the day,” Adams said. “I don’t think anybody wants to go to the Pro Bowl to try to break the record for receiving or rushing. It’s more so about the fellowship and just enjoying each other, meeting people. I’ve made a lot of friends throughout the league that maybe I wouldn’t have met initially. It’s a pretty cool deal either way.”

The Pro Bowl in many ways found its heyday during the middle of a stretch from 1979 to 2008 when it was annually contested at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii. Players flocked to Oahu as a reward for a great season for many years until the novelty wore off and participat­ion began to wane.

Las Vegas could theoretica­lly carve a similar niche. The Pro Bowl isn’t guaranteed to stay in Las Vegas beyond this year — and next year could be particular­ly tricky with the Super Bowl already set for the following week — but players have demonstrat­ed a desire to come here and that makes a big difference.

Not a single selected player opted out of last year’s Las Vegas debut without citing injury or retirement, with participat­ion eclipsing the previous three Pro Bowls, which were in Orlando, Fla.

“We took a really comprehens­ive and inclusive approach on how we gathered feedback and ultimately built the plan,” Shapiro said of crafting the new setup. “We want to deliver a fantastic experience for the fans, for the players, partners, for the television audience and everyone, but I think it would be naïve to say I don’t think we will expect to learn this year.”

Shapiro meant learning for the future of the Pro Bowl but some of the lessons will also be applied to preparing for the local Super Bowl. There’s no bigger moment for a sports destinatio­n than hosting the biggest game.

Las Vegas will get its longawaite­d turn a year from now with Super Bowl 58 serving as the final frontier of the NFL’s commitment to its newest market.

“I have no doubt this stadium will shine on the world’s biggest stage,” Shapiro said.

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