How Eagles training camp lost its magic.
When I was a boy, I knew that my summer vacation was coming to a close when the excitement of Eagles training camp filled the radio and TV news. Each year, I hoped my Dad would come home from work or sit down at dinner and tell me we were going to Eagles training camp. On one special year, that is exactly what happened.
My Dad worked in medical education, so time off from work was tough for him in the summer. He came home from work on a Monday afternoon and announced that we would see the Eagles later that week. With my summer camps ending, all my excitement turned to this trip.
In the early morning hours, we picked up some fast food and headed up the turnpike to West Chester University. We covered every part of the Eagles roster in the hour-and-a-half drive. I hoped to see every player that we discussed.
I was overwhelmed almost as soon as I got out of the car. We picked up program guides and headed toward practice. I was right up close to Seth Joyner, Randall Cunningham, Fred Barnett, and Keith Byars.
For 90 years, the Eagles have begun preparing for the season in the summer heat. Like other teams, early training camps helped Eagles players to get back into shape after an off-season of working other jobs. Chuck Bednarik, for example, was an off-season concrete salesman (hence his nickname, “Concrete Charlie”). Eagles running back Abisha “Bosh” Pritchard was a disc jockey and TV master of ceremonies when not playing football.
The Eagles spent their first two summers of existence in Atlantic City practicing at Bader Field. Over the years, the Eagles’ location for training camp has moved to Hershey, then to Albright College, then to Widener University, then to West Chester University, Lehigh University, and finally the NovaCare Complex in 2013, when Chip Kelly made the decision not to travel each July.
Today, the fan experience around Eagles Training Camp has changed completely from the days of my adolescence. Like many NFL teams, the Eagles no longer travel and sequester themselves in an area university. The team practices are at the Novacare Complex, with training and support facilities onsite. This year, the Eagles held only one practice open to the public. Tickets were $10 – $35, and registration was required in advance, with a limit of four per household (due to high demand).
Although I could name many, here are my top two reasons why today’s modern training camp experience falls short for the fans and community that supports the team:
- Community benefits. The area around Lehigh University (like other camp sites) regularly saw an economic upswing when the Eagles arrived. In July of 1996, for example, the camp attracted 10,000 fans! Obviously, Bethlehem and surrounding towns took a significant financial hit (and never saw the same tourism $$$ again) when the team began training in South Philadelphia in 2013.
- Fan experience. Training camp was for the fans. When Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder tried to charge for admission to training camp in July of 2000, many were outraged. Summer was the time for Eagles fans could see their team up close without being charged an admission fee.
With the average Eagles ticket at $308 and the average season ticket at $1,712, Eagles fans have long enjoyed the complimentary training camp experience (minus the food and the merch, of course – I could never escape the merchandising tent without indulging.)
Training camps allowed fans an up-close connection to the offensive, defensive, and special teams units during practice sessions. Standing behind the caution tape, you could literally feel the impact of players going through offensive and defensive line drills. Today’s “training camps” have most fans seated at a distance in the stands. More like an “in-game” experience than a “training camp” experience, IMO.
Undoubtedly, we live in a different time when NFL teams must take all available security precautions. And sure, fans this year could pre-register and pay $35 a ticket for an “on-field” experience, but it’s nothing near what West Chester was. (Although that camp is gone, it seems the old tradition isn’t dead. Eight NFL teams still have destination training camps – including one by some guy named Andy Reid.)
Back at West Chester, when Dad and I piled into the car after a day of seeing all of my idols up close, my brain was overloaded by the excitement. With my new Eagles t-shirt and shorts and the aroma of fast food still in the car, I was so happy I didn’t care if the Eagles played a down that year.
All I wanted was to go back next summer.