Short road trip worth the effort for Bears, fans
The Chicago Bears are an outlier when it comes to training camp.
While two-thirds of NFL teams no longer travel to a college campus or other off-site location, the Bears still spend their summer on the road. Their camp is at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., an hour south of Chicago. The town has a population of just over 18,200 and the Christian liberal arts college boasts 5,000 students at its 250-acre campus.
The Bears are among 11 teams that still go away for summer camp even as most other teams prefer the creature comforts of holding camp at team headquarters and more teams cut down on open practices as they abide by practice rules in the NFL’s latest collective-bargaining agreement.
Two of those teams travel far. The Dallas Cowboys spend part of their camp in Oxnard, Calif., and the Houston Texans travel to The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia for part of their camp.
Traveling for camp like the Bears do every July and August requires players, coaches and football operations to travel downstate along with marketing, sales, logistics and other support staff.
“It’s no small thing to move as much as we do down there,” said Scott Hagel, the Bears’ senior vice president of marketing and communications. “But we get the return in spades in terms of benefits.”
Hagel, one of the team’s point persons for summer training camp, said 33,000 fans journeyed to Bourbonnais last summer. The team has attracted as many as 100,000 fans to camp coming off playoff and Super Bowl runs. Attendance also depends on the summer humidity, Hagel said.
Being at the school gives the Bears the opportunity to host more fans than teams that practice at their home facilities and can only accommodate a couple thousand fans.
“That’s the benefit of going away because we have the space for 12,000 to 15,000 fans,” Hagel said.
The Bears don’t charge for attendance or parking. “Training camp is the best way to reach the most people for the lowest price point. There is no barrier to entry,” he said. “It’s free. It’s easy.”
The Bears started the practice last year of having fans register online for tickets to attend practice. That gives teams a chance to better track and later market to fans. The Bears give fans the option to receive promotional emails when they sign up for tickets.
The Bears take over four full practice fields and will have 11 open practices this season.
Olivet Nazarene President John Bowling said playing host to the camp is no small undertaking.
“Resident hall accommodations for players, coaches and staff are prepared. Meeting rooms are designated and set in order for the various team meetings, which meet throughout the course of the camp. The practice fields are carefully groomed in keeping with the high standards set by the Bears,” Bowling said.
He said the school also prepares parking, bleachers and a kids zone for the camp. Olivet also handles food service, with meals served to players, coaches and staff in the main dining hall of the school.
The Bears put a big focus on kids activities at training camp, which provides a way to cement fan loyalties with families, and provides an opportunity for sponsor activation. Dr Pepper, for example, sponsors the Pad Experience, a player interaction activity for kids ages 6 to 12.
“Kids can carry a player’s pads off the field with that player,” Hagel said.
Dr Pepper Snapple Group has been one of the Bears’ biggest sponsors and its 7UP brand is the camp’s naming-rights sponsor this year. Verizon, PNC Bank, the Kankakee County Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Advocate Health Care and Goodwill are also major sponsors at the camp.
The Bears link giveaways to sponsors ranging from mason jars and kids caps to cooling towels, headbands, LED bracelets and pennants.
Bowling said the school has to make a quick turnaround from Bears camp and Olivet’s own student athletes and other students returning for fall classes. But he said it’s all worth it — and it’s not about revenue.
“There is no charge to the public for parking or entrance to training camp. Concessions are available at a modest cost. The Chicago Bears cover the direct costs,” Bowling said. “Apart from that, the university does not seek to make money from this endeavor. The primary benefit is the exposure the university receives through the media and the many guests who find a way to campus during the training camp.”