General

The Bears belong in Bourbonnais – with their fans

This weekend’s Wisch List newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

By Dave Wischnowsky

The WISCH LIST

After a decade between the berms at Olivet Nazarene, Chicago Bears Training Camp isn’t quite the experience that it used to be.

The NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement bans teams from two-a-day practices, meaning the Bears now spend as much time modeling shorts and T-shirts as they do bumping helmets.

Nevertheless, as I wrote last week in my sports blog at CBSChicago.com, I’m still glad that the Bears are camping in Bourbonnais amongst by their devoted fans rather than hidden away from them on their Halas Hall compound.

And it’s my hope that things stay that way for a long time.

On Wednesday, Crain’s Chicago Business sports blogger Danny Ecker reported that more than 100,000 fans visited ONU over the 3½ weeks of camp this year, the most since 2007 and the second highest total since the Bears began training in Bourbonnais in 2002.

That’s a good sign for 2013 when the team will be back at ONU. And it certainly can’t hurt talks between the Bears and Olivet, reportedly already underway, about extending the camp contract to 2014 – and beyond.

“Hopefully that is the plan,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said last week before calling ONU “great hosts” and speaking so glowingly about everything at camp being “good” and “excellent” that I started thinking he was talking about Brian Urlacher’s knee recovery.

Despite Smith’s praise, however, a friend of mine last week cast his doubts about whether the Bears will indeed continue to camp in Bourbonnais well into the future. His theory was that due to the NFL’s new CBA, which critics say has “watered down” training camps, the Bears might decide that traveling 90 miles from their Lake Forest HQ each summer is no longer worth it and they’re better off simply staying at home to train.

From my view, however, the Bears continuing to train at ONU is the correct play call, no matter if the practice schedule is more fit for Club Med than Boot Camp. And that’s because I don’t think NFL training camps aren’t about the players, anyway. Not really.

Rather, they’re about the fans.

Now, to be clear, the practices and football drills that take place during camp are indeed about the players. But the notion of “camp” is not. Last summer, in my CBS blog, I argued the same when Chicago Tribune NFL writer Dan Pompei also floated the idea of the Bears moving camp to Halas Hall.

“Nothing against Bourbonnais …” Pompei wrote about the Bears, “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.”

Now, NFL team facilities can of course accommodate their team’s practices – after all, isn’t that the entire reason why they exist? – but when it comes to camp, that’s not the point. Because what team facilities can’t accommodate are fans. And by training in Bourbonnais, the Bears unselfishly offer a unique experience for the thousands of people who pour out the money, time and passion that make the team – and the league – as popular as they are in the first place.

If the Bears were to someday yank training camp back to Lake Forest it would jerk away the fans’ opportunities to see the team up close as Halas Hall is not at all set up to handle big crowds.

And crowds are what training camp is all about.

Or, at least, it sure should be.

So, yes, camp may indeed be “watered-down” for the Bears players these days, but that shouldn’t leave the fans all wet, too.