There are many advantages that come with staying home.
Training camps around the NFL have been a familiar ritual around the country for much of the league’s existence. Today’s landscape of where camp breaks is a far cry from what it looked like prior to the advent of free agency in the 1993 offseason and into the current financial landscape.
Holding camp on the road has its advantages, but so does bringing the multi-week fan experience home to a team facility.
We’ll take a look at how things have changed and at a few case studies on either side to learn more about what incents teams to choose where to hang their cleats in July and August each year.
CHANGING LANDSCAPE OF TRAINING CAMP SITES
Thought most of the NFL’s history and into the early 1990s, the vast majority of NFL teams held camp on a college campus. Many of them were nearby, some were in a different area to expand the team’s footprint, and occasionally, a team went a long way from home to escape unproductive weather.
In 1990, only the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions held camp at a team facility, while the Los Angeles Raiders used the practice fields in Oxnard, California that the Dallas Cowboys now call home.
General Direction Trend Since 1990:
2017 Training Camp Hosts:
Many of these relationships are still in place today. As of the 2017 NFL season, two old guard franchises and an expansion team from the 60s have remained in the same place the longest:
- 60 years — Green Bay Packers (since 1958) at St. Norbert College in DePere, WI
- 52 years — Minnesota Vikings (since 1966) at Minnesota State in Mankato, MN
- 52 years — Pittsburgh Steelers (since 1966) at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA
After that, the longevity of relationships looks a lot different:
- 25 years — Miami Dolphins (since 1993) at team facility in Davie, FL
- 23 years — Carolina Panthers (since 1995) at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC
- 22 years — Jacksonville Jaguars (since 1996) at team facility in Jacksonville, FL
Note: Cleveland has held camp at their team facility in Berea, OH since 1992
Many long-term and well-received relationships have been broken over that time. Relationships like the Patriots and Bryant College, the Broncos and the University of Northern Colorado, the Jets and Hofstra University, and the Redskins and Dickinson College have all succumbed.
Now, in fairness, many team facilities are spectacular places for fans to take in practice. Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton, Washington has long received high marks as host for Seahawks practices to the point where allotted tickets were sold out within minutes this year. Browns fans have no issue making the trip to their longtime team facility (before and after the team moved) in Berea, Ohio.
ADVANTAGES AND CHALLENGES OF HITTING THE ROAD
Taking the show on the road has its clear advantages.
For one, it allows the team the opportunity to build relationships further between players. By training away from the facility, players stay at a hotel or other accommodations near campus.
In Los Angeles, for example, a lot was made last year of quarterback Jared Goff and tight end Tyler Higbee being roommates and how that might play out on the field. It also simulates the away game experience for players from a focus and mental preparation standpoint and gets them away from distractions.
This year, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers remarked about the benefits of staying in a hotel room near camp in Costa Mesa, California versus driving from home to the San Diego facility. It was unique for him in that he and his wife have eight children at home!
Additionally, there are advantages in community outreach and partnership with local businesses and schools. Teams can use training camp to reach out to other geographic areas of their fan base and expand ties. Many baseball teams and college football programs conduct offseason fan tours, and this provides similar benefit.
In the case of the Buffalo Bills, they come from a smaller market in NFL terms. Serving upstate New York, they have played regular season games in Toronto to attempt to broaden their footprint. Training camp has been no different as they have moved their operations east down the New York State Thruway to the Rochester area at St. John Fisher College since 2000. This location better enables them to attract fans there as well as nearby Syracuse.
The location also provides a more intimate setting for fans and players to interact and build bonds where that relationship is essential in smaller markets.
Having said that, this year at camp, there were rumors that the Bills may relocate soon. Their new coach, Sean McDermott, adjusted their practice schedule for a more team-friendly design as reported by WGRZ-TV in Buffalo. WGRZ’s Lee Roth believes this schedule and two practices at their stadium in Orchard Park during training camp are trial balloons for moving the experience under new owner Terry Pegula.
The Dallas Cowboys first set foot in Oxnard, California in 2001. After several years of alternating camp between that Channel Counties location and San Antonio, the team has settled on Oxnard before holding their annual Silver & Blue Debut practice for fans back in the Metroplex.
In arriving each year, the Cowboys even send the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders to Oxnard to meet fans and enhance the experience.
This year, however, with The Star in Frisco fully functional, the team returned home to a few, additional practices for fans. The plan involved playing preseason games against west coast teams and then returning home.
But with perhaps the league’s most state-of-the-art facility, how tempted will the Cowboys be to keep things closer to home in the future? It’s an open question, but for now, it appears the Cowboys will continue to enrich fans of theirs closer to the Pacific Ocean.
Another far away arrangement has involved the New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans in the past several years. From 2014–2016, the Saints held training camp at The Greenbrier in West Virginia to escape intense humidity and heat off the gulf coast. They returned home to Metairie (suburban New Orleans) this year, and in their place, the Houston Texans left their facility for the first time.
The Saints were no stranger to long-distance training camp relationships. Through the entire decade of the 1990s, the team traveled to LaCrosse, Wisconsin for camp. While owner Tom Benson praised officials and staff in West Virginia, he noted the decision to return home this year was to benefit fans in the Gulf South and capitalize on their facilities — including an indoor practice space.
The weather is real in Houston. Not only can it hit 100 degrees in the middle of summer, but humidity can fog up your glasses stepping out of the car at 7am in the morning. The Texans facility near NRG Stadium has also been prone to local road flooding at times.
In replacing the Saints at The Greenbrier, team general manager Rick Smith noted, “It’s a wonderful place and the facilities and climate combine for an ideal environment as our team trains, bonds, and prepares for the 2017 season.”
Much of the $250 million in renovations the hotel and resort have undergone have been put to use in their involvement in the new professional football minor league, The Spring League, that began this year.
Sometimes, holding camp on the road can be an advantage when the team itself isn’t settled. That unique twist in the last two years has been the relocation of the Rams and Chargers to Los Angeles. Both teams had held camp at home.
The Rams moved into a relatively tight area in Agoura Hills within the San Fernando Valley and needed a location, so they reached a three-year agreement with their old home, UC Irvine (from 1990–1992 and 1994). This past year, the team partnered with UCI to create a beer garden alongside shading for half the seats for practice.
The Chargers are building a new team headquarters in a real estate development in Costa Mesa off the 405, so they reached an agreement with the city to host camp at the rented out Jack Hammett Sports Complex for the next ten years. As a bonus, car parking will also get you into the nearby OC Fair which runs at roughly the same time.
ADVANTAGES AND CHALLENGES OF STAYING HOME
Staying home certainly has its advantages as well.
As alluded to above, holding training camp at team facilities serves as a major cost savings. The team can avoid accommodations while players stay at home and commute in. All the equipment is already in place, and improvements to existing facilities are more easily justified.
Additionally, the team has more control over the experience — from fan interaction to potential ticketing to extra opportunities for partners like concessions.
The Arizona Cardinals moved training camp to their stadium in Glendale after nearly 25 straight years (one exception) up north in the cooler climate of Flagstaff at 7,000 feet above sea level.
In returning home, the team was able to reward concession partners, open the team shop to larger crowds, and provide substantial activities for younger fans including opportunities to meet the mascot, cheerleaders, and various athletic challenges.
Parking is provided free to fans, who then are able to sit in stadium seating while the dome is closed to 100+ degree temperatures outside and watch the team practice from a distance before a select number of Cardinals walk to the wall to sign autographs at the event’s conclusion.
The Miami Dolphins have the longest, continuous training camp held at a team facility. After years at St. Thomas University, the team reached an agreement with Nova Southeastern University to build a practice facility to use year-round.
The Baptist Health Training Facility at Nova Southeastern University added an indoor bubble under Nick Saban’s brief reign in 2006. Built to combat the high probably of rain in the area and actually leased to the Dolphins, the bubble is only used when weather dictates and all training camp practices open to the public are outdoors.
A parking garage is available for fans on campus within easy walking distance as well as a year-round team store (which has more in stock during practices than other times of the year).
Davie is a short drive north from the team’s stadium home in Miami Gardens, so it is commutable for all players.
This season, for the first time since the Mayflower trucks arrived from Baltimore, the Colts did not travel to a local college for training camp.
Between Terre Haute and most recently Anderson, Indiana, the Colts have long used the opportunity to reach out to fans in their Hoosier State home.
In explaining the move, Colts CEO Jim Irsay stated, “The dynamics of NFL training camps have changed through the years, and more teams are staying at home. Last summer, with weather being a factor, we practiced only 11 times in Anderson. While our camp plans beyond 2017 are uncertain, staying home this summer should help us with future determinations.”
The move was substantial for fans. Only two practices were staged locally in Indianapolis for fans to attend during training camp.
That’s not unheard of for training camps, however. The San Francisco 49ers only offer one public practice for fans at Levi’s Stadium while the team trains next door in Santa Clara. Their Bay Area brethren, the Raiders, do not open any practices to the public at the resort they train at in Napa. Only season ticket holders are afforded the opportunity.
FUTURE TRAINING CAMP CHANGES
In 2018, the Minnesota Vikings will be the next team to leave their longtime campus home to return to a team facility.
After 52 consecutive years in Mankato at Minnesota State University, the team will move into its state-of-the-art TCO Performance Center facility in Eagan that will house team headquarters. This is a facility the team hopes someday may serve as a candidate to host an NFL Draft as well.
The change will be tough for many, as the more central location limits those from the Dakotas and Iowa who are used to a smaller drive to Southwestern Minnesota for camp.
Many local businesses have relied on the additional income for years and will have to adjust. The Mankato Free Press spoke with several local business owners including Jake’s Stadium Pizza. The local institution has team and player memorabilia on the walls from generations of camps.
Owner Wall Boyer shared, “We had a good relationship with the front office people and a lot of the players over the years. Chuck Foreman sells memorabilia every year on our patio. Those are the things I’ll miss most.” Additionally, he noted business went up 20 percent with the team there, and additional opportunities for free press were abundant.
The Mankato Free Press also reported that a study in 2010 determined that training camp created $5 million in extra spending in the city each year.
The change leaves only the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers as longtime road warriors for training camp at a continuous location.
There are real benefits and tradeoffs involved and relationships to build and realign as teams consider where to host training camp.
The economic realities of building and using team facilities have put additional pressure on NFL clubs to move training camp home with benefits at the expense of others.
The trend looks permanent, but there are still ample opportunities to explore the way training camp used to be for past generations of fans.
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