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NFL Training Camps - oh, how they’ve changed

August 25, 2015 by Gary Heise

Virtually everything related to the National Football League – American’s most popular sport – is getting bigger and bigger year after year. With one exception:  training camp.

The age old NFL tradition of players packing their bags, leaving their families and normal life behind, heading to camp and spending weeks of grueling combat in preparation for the upcoming season is changing dramatically.  Unlike everything else related to the NFL, it is actually getting “smaller.”

For years, NFL training camp was the place and time where players came after a long off-season to get in shape, start the process of learning the playback and “toughen up” in preparation for the upcoming season.

In fact, many players even had off-season jobs to supplement their income between the end of the season and beginning of training camp. Or, in the case of super-agent Tom Condon, an offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1970’s and 80’s, the off-season meant going to law school to prepare for his next career.

As a young front office exec for the Chiefs back in the 1980’s, I remember heading to William Jewel College in Liberty, Missouri for six full weeks of camp. That’s right, almost a month and a half. Once the 4th of July hit, it was time to pack up and go. My job as a PR director was to be at every practice, every day, every week to coordinate our team’s interaction with the media. And it was quite an ordeal. Two-a-days. Players pounding each other.  The famous Oklahoma drill. Facilities that were, well, let’s just say “small college” in scope.

How things have changed.

Today, with the advent of off-season workout programs, OTA’s, incredible year-round training facilities, technology, and most recently, changes in rules that limited contact in practice due to long-term health-related issues, training camp has taken on a completely different role.

At last count, only 11 of the 32 NFL teams are even leaving the confines of their permanent training complex to another destination for training camp.

Most camps now last only three weeks. Players are already rock solid physically because of the off-season workouts. They’ve had the playbook in hand for months.

It’s conceivable that the next generation of pro football fans may not recognize the term training camp.  It may become extinct, giving way to a more robust system of year-round training that gradually steps up intensity heading into the preseason games of August.

From a fan engagement standpoint, NFL training camps have been a great opportunity for fans to enjoy a truly unique experience.  It’s been a place to see the players close-up, to watch the drills, practices and scrimmages that make them feel almost a part of the team.  Their team!

According to information compiled in a recently published “The State of Sports” white paper by Premier Sports, the NFL outpaces any other sport in the United States by a 2-to-1 margin in fan preference. And the popularity crosses all demographic groups.

As training camps continue making the transition into this new era of NFL football, franchises will need to create innovative ways to provide similar experiences for their fans – even if in a slightly different format than what we’ve enjoyed for years.

After all, it is the fans than have made the NFL the #1 sport in our land.