ORLANDO, Fla. – As the NFL plays its first Pro Bowl in Orlando, wondering if it can be a long-term landing point for the beleaguered all-star game, Drew Brees can’t help but think about what was left behind.
The Saints quarterback understands the NFL’s decision to move the Pro Bowl from Hawaii to Orlando from a business standpoint. Still, the 10-time Pro Bowler feels for Honolulu and the loss of the game it had become synonymous with.
“It’s tough that it’s not there, because we had a great fan base there,” Brees said. “I know those fans appreciated it. They lived for that. They don’t have an NFL team and there are a lot of football fans there.”
With hopes of re-energizing an end of the season all-star game that has lost interest and intrigue over the years, the NFL made the decision to shop the Pro Bowl. Orlando ended up the winner, agreeing to a two-year contract to host the contest at Camping World Stadium, with an option for a third.
The players on hand agreed this week that Orlando is nice, but it’s no Hawaii.
This will be just the third time since 1979 that the Pro Bowl has been played outside of Honolulu.
“It’s always a fun week no matter where it is, but guys as a whole would certainly rather have it in Hawaii,” said Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, who will make his 10th straight Pro Bowl appearance Sunday night. “Orlando has been a great host so far.”
If all goes well, Orlando and its 75,000-seat stadium have hopes of being the permanent home of the Pro Bowl. The city believes it has everything to offer that Honolulu has and then some as one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations. Last year, Orlando accommodated 66 million visitors.
In addition to warm weather and beaches in the area, Orlando views itself as much more family friendly as the home to Disney World and three other major theme parks in the vicinity.
“We have so many different and all types of amenities,” said Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer. “Everybody knows the theme parks but we have sporting activities, we have great golf, we have great fishing, we have the beaches nearby, and there aren’t that many places where you can go to the beach in January.”
The NFL was looking for a landing spot that could make the Pro Bowl more of a weeklong celebration that culminates with the game Sunday, much like the Super Bowl.
Orlando’s major resource, Disney World, allows the NFL to showcase all levels of the game from flag football to high school football this week at the theme park’s sports complex.
Additionally, many of the 88 Pro Bowl participants have invited their high school coaches to take part in the week with them.
“We loved what we were doing in Hawaii, but the ability to bring so many parts of our football community together around this makes it really unique,” said Peter O’Reilly, NFL senior vice president of events.
Still, there is no getting around the game itself has to be a success for any chance that the relationship between Orlando and the NFL will continue.
The Pro Bowl has long been a tough sell. It lacks the intensity of the regular season – some say even of preseason games – and many the invited players don’t come. Some, of course, are in the Super Bowl participants and not available. But the rate of dropouts citing injuries is steep, which has caused interest to fade.
There is hope that by moving the game out of Hawaii attendance and interest in the Pro Bowl will pick up. Orlando and the NFL have not provided exact numbers, but Florida Citrus Sports CEO Steve Hogan said this week the game is near a sellout.
“We have to do our job, the league also needs to make sure they have a viable product,” Hogan said.” I think they do and I hope they do and I hope it’s here. We can’t control that.”
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