MIAMI — The NFL Pro Bowl's experimental one-year move to Miami has resulted in better ticket sales, more media coverage and some grousing by players.
"I like Hawaii a lot better," Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison said. He and the other NFL all-stars wanted to end the season in Miami — but not this week.
With a new venue and new slot on the league calendar, the Pro Bowl will be played today as a preliminary to next week's Super Bowl on the same field.
It definitely feels like a warmup act.
"There's a bittersweet taste," said quarterback Tony Romo, a late addition to the NFC roster after his Dallas Cowboys came up two wins shy of a Super Bowl berth. "You're always hoping to play in the big game."
The NFL is trying to transform the Pro Bowl into a bigger game by playing it before the Super Bowl for the first time. The league also moved the game from Honolulu, its home since 1980.
One result: The best attendance in 51 years, with a sellout crowd of more than 70,000 expected. But some players said they preferred the more exotic setting of Honolulu for the game.
"Hawaii is considered kind of a vacation," San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates said. "A lot of these guys are from Florida, and a lot of people come to Florida on a regular basis."
Defections by players were numerous, as usual. More than a dozen pulled out citing injuries. Minnesota Vikings tackle Bryant McKinnie was dismissed from the NFC team for unexcused absences after missing two days of practice.
Nearly 40 percent of those originally selected won't play. That includes seven Indianapolis Colts and seven New Orleans Saints missing because they're preparing for the Super Bowl, a drawback to playing the Pro Bowl first.
"You take 14 guys from the Super Bowl teams that are not here," Gates said. "Does it mean it's a true all-star game now?"
Frank Supovitz, the NFL's senior vice president for events, noted that the high defection rate was nothing new. It's not what the league sought to fix by changing the date and site of the game, he said.
"The changes were meant to look at two things: Whether we could create more excitement with the Pro Bowl being the first event of Super Bowl week, and whether it would have an impact on TV ratings," he said.
Ticket sales show the excitement level is up, Supovitz said. And he's optimistic about the U.S. television audience for the game.
Those tuning in will see established stars such as Ray Lewis, Chad Ochocinco and DeMarcus Ware, as well as first-time Pro Bowlers such as DeAngelo Williams, Clay Matthews and Matt Schaub. The U.S. TV audience they attract will help the NFL decide where and when to play future Pro Bowls.
The game will return to Honolulu in 2011 and 2012, but the league hasn't decided whether to hold those games before or after the Super Bowl. The Pro Bowl site for 2013 and beyond hasn't been determined.