Why Are NFL Teams No Longer Traveling for Training Camp?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJuly 27, 2015

AP Images

In 1999, there wasn't a single NFL team outside of the states of Florida and Ohio that held training camp at its home facility. At that point, only the Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns decided against traveling for camp each summer. 

Now, 16 years later, only a dozen NFL franchises continue to take training camp on the road, while a record 20 teams will use their regular facilities this summer. 

Brad Gagnon

Recent moves home

The New York Jets are back at their Florham Park, New Jersey, home after spending 54 of the last 55 years on the road. The Jets and their stadium co-tenants, the New York Giants, both got a taste for home when they ditched remote training-camp sites during the 2011 lockout, and now both appear to be home for good (the Giants returned to their previous camp home of 15 years, SUNY Albany, in 2012, but they've been in East Rutherford, New Jersey, ever since). 

The Philadelphia Eagles moved home in 2013 after 70 years at various remote locations (most recently a 17-year stint at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania), as did the Arizona Cardinals after 25 years in Flagstaff, Arizona. The year prior, the Cincinnati Bengals made the transition after half a century on the road, and in 2011 the Baltimore Ravens did so after spending 15 years at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.

Semi-recent moves home

2009: Tampa Bay Buccaneers after 22 years at remote locations.

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2008: Seattle Seahawks after 32 years at remote locations.

2005: Atlanta Falcons after six years at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, San Diego Chargers after 45 years at various remote locations and St. Louis Rams after 68 years at various remote locations (although St. Louis did return to the road for one summer in 2008). 

2003: New England Patriots after 27 years at Bryant College in Smithfield, Rhode Island, Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers after 21 and 57 years, respectively, at various remote locations. 

2002: Detroit Lions after five years in Saginaw, Michigan. The Houston Texans debuted with a home training camp and have not moved since. 

1999: Tennessee Titans after 39 years at remote locations. 

1996: Jaguars after spending their inaugural season in Stevens Points, Wisconsin.

1993: Dolphins after 27 years at remote locations.

1992: Browns after 47 years at remote locations.

Yet to move home

The Green Bay Packers (95 years), Chicago Bears (86), Pittsburgh Steelers (83), Indianapolis Colts (69), Buffalo Bills (56), Dallas Cowboys (56), Kansas City Chiefs (56), Oakland Raiders (56), Minnesota Vikings (55) and Carolina Panthers (21) have never come home for camp. 

That leaves just the New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins, who have bucked the trend by actually going back on the road in recent years. 

Why is this happening? 

What has caused a great NFL tradition to become so much less popular than it used to be? In search of an explanation, Bleacher Report reached out to several teams. Here's a look at the factors at play:

Factor 1: OTAs

John Bazemore/Associated Press

As Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay told us, the purpose of training camp has changed. He noted that in the old days, when his father, John, coached the Buccaneers in the 1970s and '80s, training camp was used to get players back in shape. 

"It was a six-week grind," McKay told Bleacher Report, "and people used the whole military idea of going away somewhere to get away from all the distractions, bond as a football team and get everybody in shape."

In those days, there was a real offseason. Organized team activities and minicamps weren't as prevalent, and players would take off for months at a time. Now, staying in shape is a year-round requirement. 

"As organized programs came along and as people began to train as a team in March, April, May and June, the idea of the traditional training camp was losing a little bit of its luster," said McKay, who hypothetically estimated that 87 of the 90 players on the field for the opening day of Falcons camp were "in the best shape of their lives."

Essentially, training camp is merely an extension of those offseason practices, all of which take place at team facilities, which explains why younger franchises like the Jaguars and Texans haven't even considered taking their respective shows on the road.

"When you go to training camp nowadays," Jags senior vice president of communications Dan Edwards told Bleacher Report, "it's like your OTAs and your minicamp—except you put on pads."

Factor 2: Fans at home

For years, training camp gave franchises a chance to extend their reach beyond their core markets, and that's still an advantage of holding a remote camp. But a lot of teams seem to be realizing that doing that actually robs diehard local fans of a unique experience. 

That's a big reason why Falcons owner Arthur Blank had McKay and the front office initiate a renovation of the team's Flowery Branch, Georgia, headquarters in order to shift camp back home in 2005, even if doing so might hinder the team's reach (prior to that they'd been camping at Furman). 

That represented a big change for McKay, who had always gone on the road for camp while working in the Bucs front office between 1993 and 2003. He thinks home camps are "a lot healthier," keeping players and coaches from developing travel-related fatigue while giving hardcore local fans, friends and family members the opportunity to more easily attend. 

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL - JULY 28:   Linebacker Shelton Quarles #53, L, and offensive lineman Davin Joseph #75 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sign autographs for fans after practice during training camp at Disney's Wide World of Sports on July 28, 2006 in Lake
Doug Benc/Getty Images

The Bucs have since come home, too, and the team's director of communications, Nelson Luis, said that shift had a lot to do with the fanbase. 

"The biggest advantage for us is the ability to stay in our primary market and showcase our beautiful facility to our fans and special season-pass members," Luis told Bleacher Report. 

And when the Bengals made the move home from Georgetown, Kentucky, in 2012, the same factor was front and center. The team's public relations director, Jack Brennan, said the move gave Cincinnati a better chance to offer open access to its "most loyal and core fans." 

"You like to appeal and get close to fans who might not have a chance to see the team, but by the same token, most of our fans are here in Greater Cincinnati, and training camp is really a special time for fans to get close to the players and have access," Brennan told Bleacher Report. "When we were training out of town, all of the access was in the out-of-town period, and that access wasn't there at all for the fans here in our core area."

Factor 3: Practicality 

This type of trend is significant in a league like the NFL, which has an immense appreciation for nostalgia and tradition. Bengals owner Mike Brown and his father, Paul, had what Brennan calls "an old-school football affection for the remote training camp," while Ravens senior vice president of public relations Kevin Byrne said that owner Steve Bisciotti developed much of his relationship with Baltimore football by attending Colts camps at the remote McDaniel College (then known as Western Maryland College) in the '60s. 

But this is a business, and from the standpoint of the Bengals and Ravens (and many of their counterparts), camp at home just makes too much sense. 

"I think more teams have come to understand that cost of moving and that cost of relocation," said McKay, who noted the Falcons spent lots of money on housing and improvements at their home facility but now avoid the annual cost of having to move every summer. 

Plus, nobody likes moving. 

Jim Bryant/Associated Press

As McKay noted, his team's facility has been redesigned to accommodate a 90-player camp, with rooms customized for positional meetings and all of the required IT in one place. And that's not unique to Atlanta. 

"In the last 20 years we've all kind of built new facilities," McKay said, "and we've done that with the idea of bringing training camp back. So I think that's the evolution of what's going on here." 

Edwards on the Jags: "It goes back to the facility. We've got all of our meeting rooms, all of our equipment, all of our training rooms here, along with three practice fields. Everything we need is here, so there's no reason to leave." 

Nelson on the Bucs: "We have all of the equipment and facilities that our players have come to expect at our disposal instead of having to come up with temporary facilities that just aren't as comprehensive as we are used to."

Factor 4: The new collective bargaining agreement

But it took something else for some of these teams to realize that they were better off camping at home. The Jets, Giants and Ravens all came home originally in 2011 when the lockout jeopardized the start of the season and they didn't want to commit to remote sites without knowing whether there'd be a camp at all. 

Now, all three of those teams remain home, along with the Cardinals, Bengals and Eagles, all of whom made the transition once the new CBA borne from that lockout took effect in 2011. 

The CBA limits offseason practices (no more two-a-days) and the amount of time teams can require players to spend at their facilities. 

"If they can't work the players out on the field two full times a day, then the worth of being down in that remote location all the time was diminished," Brennan said. "Since more sessions and time were going to have to be spent off the field, the feeling was that it was much better to be here where we have better training facilities, better video, better meeting rooms, better weight room. It didn't seem productive anymore to leave all of our prime facilities here and go down and use a more makeshift setup at a remote training camp."

Not for everyone

A dozen teams continue to spend all or most of camp on the road. For some, it's about that old-school camaraderie. 

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Take Pittsburgh, for example. When asked about the advantages of holding camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where the Steelers have been camping for 50 years, head coach Mike Tomlin told Bleacher Report through the team's staff that his squad has "a great deal of comfort" and a "home-based mentality" in Latrobe. 

"That free time in the evening is something you lose when you don't have a secluded campsite," Tomlin said. "You can't necessarily measure it, but you acknowledge it exists. When you get the opportunity to go away to camp, you're developing some hardcore intangibles."

And road camps can also be good for business. The Bills, for example, originally moved camp in 2000 to St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, as the first step in a "regionalization" process that has since helped the team increase its fanbase in cities like Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and—as part of a separate endeavor that has had the team playing games in Toronto—Southern Ontario. 

"We thought that there was really a market with Rochester fans that we needed to tap into, and the best way for us to do that was to bring the team to the fans," Buffalo senior vice president of communications Scott Berchtold told Bleacher Report. "So we made the decision to move training camp to St. John Fisher College, and it has been tremendous."

The Bills—a small-market franchise in NFL termsneeded to spread their reach in order to compete on paper. But on the other end of the spectrum, you have the league's most valuable franchise traveling to camp for very similar reasons. 

Later this week, the Cowboys will once again pack up and move 1,400 miles across two time zones to spend a month in Oxnard, California, representing the farthest camp expedition in the league. For Dallas, it's all about growing the league's most popular brand. 

"It's also an opportunity to extend our brand and our team's presence to another part of the country," Cowboys public relations director Rich Dalrymple told Bleacher Report. "The Cowboys trained for several years in Thousand Oaks, California, and a whole generation of Cowboys fans grew up going to training camp on a regular basis. And it's worked out neatly that those fans have grown up and raised children and are now taking them out to watch Cowboys practices in Oxnard."

Trend should continue

Home campers Bleacher Report spoke to indicated they couldn't be happier and weren't considering going back on the road.

The Jaguars' Edwards said it hasn't even occurred to them as a possibility, despite the fact that heat can be an issue that far south in July and August. In order to adapt, former head coach Jack Del Rio held practices at night, while current coach Gus Bradley schedules most of his practice sessions early in the day. 

Meanwhile, Byrne said the Ravens' decision to stay home after returning the year of the lockout was unanimous among team officials. He admitted it hurts the fans a bit because the Ravens could get 100,000 people to camp at McDaniel College and now only have space for 1,200 per day at their Owings Mills, Maryland, facility.

"Clearly we've lost a huge touch point for us," Byrne said. "Training camp was a way to connect with the entire community, and we understand that that touch point is gone."

But capacity numbers at the team's facility are growing as Baltimore makes efforts to expand and continues to hold special practices and scrimmages at places like M&T Bank Stadium and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

There are and will likely continue to be variations. Some teams, like the Falcons, keep all of their players on a home campus while making exceptions for married guys and allowing veterans to go home early. Others, like the Packers, sleep in dorms located off-site but practice, meet, train and eat at their facility. Many, like the Ravens, stay in a hotel.

In the past, teams have traveled for a part of camp before returning home for the majority of the preseason. Some teams treat camp at home like they would any other month of the year, with veterans showing up for work on a daily basis. 

To each their own, but expect home camps to continue to win out in the years to come. 

"I don't see it going back the other way," McKay said. "I think that as time goes by and more and more teams build new facilities with the idea of being able to accommodate training camp, more training camps will gravitate toward their home base."

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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