For many football fans, training camp used to be as much of a late summer ritual as back to school shopping and Labor Day picnics.
It was a chance to see players on our favorite teams up close and personal. We could watch them pile into college dorm rooms, trading in lavish mansions for extra long twins for a few weeks of sweltering heat in front of intimate crowds. But recently this tradition has gone the way of four-day old cole slaw for many NFL teams.
This summer, only 11 teams are holding training camp outside of their in-season practice facilities. That’s 15 less teams that traveled for camp in 2000. It’s a trend that’s partly driven by convenience and partly by the coaches’ desire to eliminate distractions.
Lost in the shuffle are the fans, who miss out on the chance to rub elbows with the players they’ll raise their arms for in the next five months.
The Philadelphia Eagles are one of the teams that chose not to leave the nest this season. The Birds broke a 17-year tradition of holding camp at Lehigh University - located 60 miles north in Bethlehem, PA - opting for the familiar confines of the NovaCare Complex instead.
In years past, thousands of fans flocked to Lehigh to watch practices from several sets of bleachers placed around a field. You were close enough to hear players’ conversations and often times get a reaction out of them. After practice the autograph tents were flooded with parents and kids waiting for signatures from their favorite players.
There were the really good times - a Friday morning practice where 20,000 people crammed the stands to get a first look at Terrell Owens; and the really bad times – the death of Andy Reid’s son Garrett last season.
In between, there were hundreds of little moments. Arriving early to grab a parking spot and seeing a player getting out of his car nearby; watching a rookie first round pick carry a veteran’s shoulder pads off the practice field; yelling a favorite player’s name and having him acknowledge you.
For the fans of the 21 teams with closed practices at private facilities, those moments are gone.
While attendance numbers dipped over the last few seasons, training camp still gave fans a unique level of access to the team any day they chose to make the drive.
This season only five Eagles practices were open to the public and all are being held at Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles play their home games. While the draw is a bit larger, the experience isn't the same.
The intimacy of practicing in an open field tucked on a college campus is lost in an NFL stadium, where natural barriers exist between players and fans. It’s not a few feet to an autograph tent and you can’t smell the sweat. The small things are lost.
It was those things that made training camps so great. And while Twitter and other social media has made it easier to interact with our favorite players, its just not the same as those late July and early August mornings spent in close proximity with them.
This article was written by Lou Rusnock who is a eCommerce copywriter for www.sportsunlimitedinc.com, a leading supplier of football helmets.