The recent trend of some NFL teams to drastically limit or even eliminate the general public from attending their training camp practices is a discouraging and short-sighted development that best reverse itself some day soon. Open and free training camp access serves as a boon to franchises when it comes to fostering good public relations, and it's absolutely the best time of the year to stoke excitement about the team and jack up anticipation for the coming season.
Instead we get the Raiders announcing they'll hold zero practices open to the public in Napa Valley, selectively inviting only season ticket holders and sponsors to attend. Hard Knocks indeed. But only for the average Raiders fan who wants to see their soon-to-be-relocated team up close and personal in late July and the first half of August.
The Eagles are conducting just one open workout, and it will take place at Lincoln Financial Field (not the most intimate setting for fans), at the price of $10 per person, with all proceeds going to charity. Once upon a time not all that long ago, Philadelphia had 18 open camp practices, at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. The New Jersey-based Jets this year are conducting just four open practices plus an intra-squad scrimmage at Rutgers. All told there are at least seven teams (not all clubs have released their practice schedule yet) that will allow fans to attend fewer than 10 practices this summer.
The inevitability of this new reality has its roots, of course, in the practice of clubs switching from holding training camp remotely at some nearby college to staying home to work out in their own facilities. That's a trend that has been going in only one direction for years now, and there's simply not enough room or parking for thousands of fans to attend in a team-complex setting. Which is a pity.
The Patriots are fortunate — and prudent in my estimation — to be able to stay home for camp and still accommodate throngs of fans almost every workout thanks to having plenty of space and Gillette Stadium parking to offer up. That's the ideal combination most teams simply can't reproduce, but it's to New England's great credit that it leads the way in the training camp-experience department, too.
It's just common sense. When the enthusiasm for your favorite team is at its highest, just as football season is returning, what a waste of potential goodwill to tamp that down in any way. For plenty of losing teams, once the preseason is over and the real games starts, the air starts leaking out of the balloon on the excitement front almost immediately. Which is all the more reason those franchises should be taking full advantage in July and August when it's all hiccups and giggles and everyone's still undefeated.
I absolutely loved what Colts general manager Chris Ballard had to say this week on the value of open training-camp practices. The Colts hold camp in nearby Westfield, Ind., just north of Indianapolis, and will have all 16 of their practices open to the public. That's tied for third-most in the NFL, as of now, and the last two of those sessions will feature the Colts and the suddenly red-hot Browns in joint workouts for two days before their subsequent preseason game on Aug. 17.
As a guest columnist for Peter King's "Football Morning in America'' column on NBCsports.com on Monday, Ballard weighed in with conviction on why he thinks it's counterproductive for NFL teams to isolate themselves more and more during the summer.
"I am a big fan of going away for training camp, but this is something that is disappearing from the NFL,'' Ballard wrote. "I understand that teams want to eliminate distractions. But there is nothing like human interaction. Sure, teams can provide minute-by-minute updates on social media, but the ability to connect with our fans has to be more than looking at their computers and phones. Training camp allows fans to see their favorite team up close and personal. They get a chance to connect and make interactions that they are not able to make on game day.
"It is also important that we continue to connect with our fans who are not season ticket-holders. Young fans are able to get an autograph, shake hands, catch a football, and make a connection that will last a lifetime. I don't care what anyone says — you cannot build trust through the internet and social media. Nothing will ever replace human interaction or the ability to look people in the eye and connect.''
Exactly. Ballard totally gets it, and explains perfectly why training camp access is so important in building — and keeping — a rapport and connection with a fan base. There may be good reasons for staying home and keeping your fans away, but there will be no good outcomes because of this depressing trend. Fans can have one type of experience on an NFL game day at the stadium, and it can be unforgettable. But training camp affords an intimacy and closeness to the action that brings the game down to a scale that even a little child can relate to. Losing that league wide would be an act of pure self-inflicted harm.
Season ticket-holders and corporate sponsors are critically important to the financial machinery that is the NFL behemoth. They will always have a level of access and privilege that their money brings. But you can't continue to take steps to discount the fervor of the average die-hard fans who are willing to come out and swelter in the summer heat, all to watch their favorite team's players do their thing before the regular season starts.
The games may not count at this time of year, but the weeks spent in training camp still have far-reaching meaning and value beyond the benefit of the work for a team's players and coaches. The NFL should be wary. In this notable case, less is definitely not more.