It seems that when something is on the NFL’s offseason schedule, it has the potential to become a big deal. From free agency to the draft to the schedule release, NFL offseason events often and usually do outdraw actual games played in other leagues.
For example, the NFL Draft averaged over 10 million viewers this year for the first night of its Las Vegas edition, whereas the NBA the weekend before averaged less than half of that for first-round playoff basketball.
The NFL abides by a “bigger is better” motto and has worked to create these so-called “tentpole” events in the offseason, ensuring America’s football addiction is a year-round habit. To secure the late-February NFL Scouting Combine for another year, for example, longtime host city Indianapolis pledged to stage a fanfest.
Now comes the next platform the NFL aims to transform into a mega-national-happening: training camps.
Can the NFL turn what for years was a hyperlocal news story, that often occurred in sleepy, remote locations, into the next pillar of its offseason marketing ambitions? While training camps are already opening, the league is heavily promoting and teams are scheduling fan events around July 30, the first day players are in pads, under the brand “Back Together Saturday.”
“Back Together Saturday (BTS) is the kickoff of everything on the field for the NFL for the upcoming season,” said Mike Konner, senior coordinating producer at NFL Media. “So I would relate it to how the NFL Draft was held in a hotel until 1994. And it was built out to be bigger and now truly is a spectacular event. … Back, you know, just 30 years ago, no one would think twice about it.
“This (training camp) is an event that already has a built-in fan base, people are already excited about players on the field. And now it’s our responsibility to showcase this and to build it.”
The season starts here.
— NFL (@NFL) July 16, 2022
NFL Network is planning 13 hours of coverage on “Back Together Saturday” and deploying 50 reporters and analysts to all 32 camps. Konner said the network would likely use 90 cameras to cover the day. ESPN and ABC plan five hours of coverage on July 30, with reporters at a minimum of five camps.
NFL Network plans to mic one player each at around 25 of the camps, and even allow players between camps to talk to one another.
“We haven’t announced yet who they are, but I can promise you they’re good personalities, we’ll get some trash-talking,” Konner said. “So it’s not just showing practice, but we are bringing them (viewers) inside the huddle.”
Only NFL Network will have access to the mic’d players.
The league is strongly encouraging teams to ramp up their fan activities around training camp, which in the past have often revolved around occasional spectator nights and autograph signings (that will be back this year after two years of a COVID-19 hiatus).
“We view the NFL’s Back to Football leaguewide initiative as a great opportunity to celebrate the start of a new season with our most loyal fans on a grand scale,” Brian Ford, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ chief operating officer, wrote in an email.
Laura Lefton, the NFL’s vice president of club business development, said two teams — the Panthers and Chiefs — will have local kids come on the field July 30 after practice and, paired with a player, carry their helmets off for them. Ninety players are still on the roster that day, so the initiatives involve a lot of kids.
Many teams had already promoted around training camp and staged fan events (the Packers have a long-cherished tradition of players riding bikes alongside local kids carrying their helmets from the practice field across the street to Lambeau Field). But the league is pushing for more, branded under one BTS banner and covered relentlessly by the media.
“It’s a great idea that, especially through the NFL Network, that they kind of tie it all to one day and tie it all together,” Packers chief operating officer Ed Policy said. “I don’t think it will ever be necessarily a one size fits all because everybody does training camp in a slightly different way. And the league’s been great and working with us to make sure that they’re not going to impose upon us a certain format, and especially when you have the kinds of traditional assets around training camp that we have, like our bike tradition and things like that.”
Some teams are building their July 30 activities around military themes. The Eagles’ entire day revolves around uniformed personnel.
“So they’re going to do a player high-five line that their military is going to be participating in,” Lefton said. “They’re having on-field flag-holders.
“We will have coaches, GMs, owners, players address the crowd, that’s kind of what we’ve asked clubs to do,” she added. “And then they can kind of do what they want with the event. So we have a ton of teams leaning into youth and youth football specifically.”
The Jaguars are inviting local high school football teams to practice, the Colts are hosting a girls flag football clinic, and a local flag football team will attend Titans camp. The Giants plan to give four high school grants that day.
Of course, the NFL is about making money, too. The league’s marketing campaign around BTS will transform July 30 into one pitching tickets. Creating a new hyped day on the NFL calendar should generate new sponsorship and advertising for teams, the league and NFL Network. The league has a sponsor, Wilson, for the day (last year’s training camp sponsor, Gatorade, did not renew).
“They actually are going to have their (ball-making) machine on-site in Chicago for ‘Back Together Saturday,’ and they’re going to be creating their new Metallic youth balls,” Lefton said, referring to the Wilson football brand Metallic. “And they are sending customized balls to each club for ‘Back Together Saturday’ to give away, too.”
Customized balls have a team’s logo.
BTS actually started last year as a way to invite fans back to training camps after the COVID-19 isolation of 2020. The positive response to that initiative, Lefton said, led the league to view training camp as another opportunity to create a new annual touchpoint for fans and viewers.
Frank Supovitz, the former head of events at the NFL, said there is little doubt that if the NFL wants to make training camps a major marketing and business platform, it can.
“The NFL has a limitless set of opportunities here,” said Supovitz, who has his own event consulting company, Fast Traffic Events & Entertainment. “They can invent almost anything and appeal to some subset of the fans, whether it’s avid fans when it comes to sort of the combine or the draft, or the more casual fan when it comes to things like fan festivals and stuff like that. They’re a marketing machine, and they’ve developed a market over the course of time, over the course of decades, where fans are just waiting for the next thing they’re going to do at any time on the calendar.”
The question Supovitz asks is whether the NFL can nationalize training camps, the way it has the draft. Connecting 32 geographically dispersed locations into a common platform obviously creates challenges.
Konner argued training camp coverage is akin to the draft in some regards. If you are a Cardinals fan, the draft is not just about your team’s picks, he said. And similarly, training camps interest fans no matter the team focus.
“This is the RedZone on overdrive,” Konner said of NFL Network’s July 30 programming, referring to the popular in-season TV channel that shows games when teams are at or inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. “We are 13 hours, bouncing around different camps, showcasing, you know, all the storylines, interviewing the biggest names. If you’re an NFL fan, you get your fill that day, on a day that is not necessarily a must-tune-in sports day on the calendar. We’ll turn it into that.”
(Photo of Patrick Mahomes signing autographs for fans at 2019 training camp: Denny Medley / USA Today)