By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) If you flip open a road map, you’ll find it right there off Interstate 57 at Exit 315. If you drive 60 miles south out of the Loop, you’ll spot the road signs as you near town. And if you plug the place into a GPS, it’ll tell show you that its longitude is 41.16ºN while its latitude checks in at -87.87ºW.
Yes, if you’re looking for it, Bourbonnais is pretty easy to find. Yet, for many residents of the Land of Lincoln, the village of 17,000 in the heart of Kankakee County wasn’t on the map until nine years ago when the Chicago Bears came to town and put it there.
Today, Bourbonnais is known statewide as the “Summer Home of the Chicago Bears” having played host to the team’s training camp every year since 2002. It also happens to be my hometown. So, you’ll have to forgive me if I sound a bit biased when I’m writing about the place.
It’s because I am.
But the fact that I grew up in Bourbonnais isn’t at all why I became rankled last week when Chicago Tribune NFL writer Dan Pompei panned the notion of holding training camp in town this summer in his July 21 article, “Bears should stay home for camp.”
Rather, what bothered me was that in his piece promoting the idea of the Bears instead camping at Halas Hall this year (and every year) was that Pompei seemed to completely forget about the fans.
“Nothing against Bourbonnais, where the Bears likely will prepare for their season,” Pompei wrote, “but the best place for this team this August is Lake Forest. In fact, the best place for every NFL team during training camp is at home, assuming their team facility can accommodate them.”
Well, certainly NFL team facilities can accommodate said team’s practices – isn’t that the entire point of why they exist? – but that hardly means they’re the best place to hold a training camp.
That’s because, as Pompei surely must know, training camps aren’t just about accommodating a team (or members of the media). Just as importantly – and I’d argue even more so – they’re also about accommodating a team’s fan base, and unselfishly giving a unique experience back to those people who spend their money, time and passion to make the NFL as popular as it is in the first place.
In his article, Pompei seemed to recognize that fact when he wrote, “The downside with staying at Halas Hall is it would eliminate or greatly reduce fans’ opportunities to see the team practice,” but then immediately turned his focus back to the Bears’ potentially selfish desires by adding, “and it also would reduce the team’s ability to sell jerseys, car flags and foam Bearheads to those fans.”
Now, after a contentious four-month lockout that the NFL is fortunate didn’t last longer, I hardly think a franchise’s first thoughts should be about how much swag it can sell to its fans this summer.
Instead, it should be about making sure those frazzled fans are very happy campers.
Nevertheless, Pompei went on to write, “Halas Hall is not set up for big crowds. No one wants to trample the customer, but efficient operations that could make for a better team should be prioritized over stroking the fan base. And with some creative thinking, the team could make concessions to give fans chances to interact with the team in different ways.”
Well, my creative thought is that it’s an insult to Bears fans to write that allowing them their one real opportunity to interact closely with the players (i.e., training camp) should be considered a “concession” by the team.
Without the fans, there would be no multi-million dollar contracts, no Sunday glory, no NFL. And by essentially, excuse me, locking the fans out from training camp by sequestering the team at Halas Hall – during this preseason or any future one – is a poor idea in my playbook.
Unlike Lake Forest, Bourbonnais is centrally located for Bears fans from all across the state to visit and on another note – now, here’s my hometown bias showing – it’s hardly as affluent an area as Chicago’s North Shore. In this sluggish economy, Bourbonnais and greater Kankakee County need Bears Camp and the millions of dollars in revenue that it produces far more than Lake Forest does.
But that didn’t seem to register with Pompei as he wrote in his article, “Understand something – the Bears are swimming upstream by going on the road for camp. This year, they are one of only 10 teams that has committed to leaving home for training camp.
“Most teams have come to the understanding that no site can accommodate their players and coaches as well as they can themselves. If a team is filled with players who need to be removed from their normal environment to get their attention, it’s probably not going to be a very good team.”
I’d instead argue that if a team is filled with people who want to remove its training camp from the fans, it’s probably not a very good franchise.
Bears report to camp on Friday by the way. In Bourbonnais.
Right where it should be.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.