Time for Bourbonnais to tackle big ideas for Bears Camp

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


By Dave Wischnowsky

With the season opener just two weeks away, most Bears fans are wondering if Marc Trestman is actually an NFL coach or just a CFL coach posing as one and whether Jay Cutler can finally win more than he scowls.

In Kankakee County, however, Bears boosters are pondering a different question: With a new agreement to keep the team’s summer training camp at Olivet Nazarene University through 2022, can leaders finally figure out how to use the Monsters of the Midway to scare up more revenue for the region?

As a Bourbonnais native who lives in Chicago and has traveled the state, I can verify that the Bears have made my hometown rich in name recognition. But since there never has been an in-depth economic impact study done during the 12 years that the team has camped at ONU, no one knows for sure how many actual dollars the Bears bring into the area.

With the team’s nine-year commitment, Kankakee County should commission such a study to start thinking long-term about ways to better capitalize on the estimated 100,000 fans that annually attend camp. In the meantime, I reached out this week to my community of nearly 7,000 Facebook and Twitter followers to ask what ONU and the community could do to make training camp a better experience for fans.

Among the suggestions was more bleacher seating (“Half the seating is corporate tents. Not kid or senior friendly,” one friend said). Another suggested setting up a small area for adults to seek autographs (“Plenty of love for the kids, none for the adults who spend the money,” he argued).

Others asked for more access points to the field, decrying the traffic jam through the pro shop, a greater number of community events with players, and the return of Bears Family Night to ONU from Soldier Field.

The key to raising more revenue for the area, however, is convincing fans to stay in town for longer than an afternoon. That’s proved tricky for other camps too. After playing host to the Philadelphia Eagles camp for 17 years, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., saw the team this summer elect to stay at their own stadium.

Lehigh Valley tourism officials told the Allentown Morning Call that most tourists drawn to the Eagles camp were day-trippers who didn’t add much to hotel receipts, but did buy gas and food. Officials lamented that Bethlehem’s business community never was able to create partnerships with the Eagles that would get visitors to venture beyond campus and and spend more time in the city.

In Mankato, Minn., where the Vikings recently agreed to a contract with Mankato State University through 2015, a city spokeswoman said that the team generates $5 million annually for the area. This year, Mankato timed a flurry of events – a “Blues on Belgrade” concert, the Blue Earth County Fair, and Ribfest – to coincide with training camp. Attendance spiked from 52,000 fans in 2012 to 69,000 this year.

The longest tenured training camp is at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., where the Steelers have summered since 1967. Camp includes “The Steelers Experience for Kids,” which involves simulated practice sessions, games and exhibits for young fans, as well as a Traveling Great Hall memorabilia trailer where fans can “broadcast” a play-by-play call of a great moment in Steelers history.

Those are cool contributions by the team, but what can the community itself do to get more fans to stay in town longer? Spit-balling ideas this week, I wondered about constructing a football-related museum – perhaps something honoring the history of NFL training camps, especially since they’re fading away as more teams stay home? Football Movie Nights on the ONU berms could be fun (“Brian’s Song” would be a natural).

In Latrobe, they have “Chuck Noll Field.” ONU and Bourbonnais could really embrace their Bears identity and brand more things in honor of the team. A statewide advertising campaign marketing “Bearbonnais” and appealing not only to Bears fans to the north, but throughout the state also could be a hit. ONU could host a “Chicagoland Day,” a “Central Illinois Day,” a “Southern Illinois Day” and so on.

With Bears camp, the possibilities are endless. And with the new nine-year deal, Kankakee County now has reason to really tackle them.