My first trip to Wofford College for the Carolina Panthers training camp was in the summer of 1997. I was a rookie sports reporter for the Spartanburg newspaper, still trying to find my way around town. The Panthers were coming off a magical second season in which they went 12-4 and beat the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs.
I remember struggling to focus in the heat of the South Carolina summer, trying to figure out what I was going to ask the coaches following practice. How was Kerry Collins going to improve on a fantastic 1996 season? (He wasn’t.) Was this the year Tim Biakabutuka was going to stay healthy? (It wasn’t.) I recall a few dozen fans watching the proceedings and some autograph-seekers being rewarded by players on the long walk back up the hill to the Richardson Building.
It seems like a long time ago, because it was.
This summer, 20 years later, I brought my 12-year-old son to Spartanburg and Wofford College to watch the Panthers practice. But other than the dirt they are playing on, nothing is the same.
I was directed to my parking lot through land once occupied by houses.
I was welcomed to camp and Spartanburg by friendly ambassadors telling us to “Have a nice day!” Even the process of having our bags checked at the security checkpoint seemed friendly. Once inside, we were able to pick up a program with stories and roster numbers, grab a drink at the refreshment tent, shop for some souvenirs at another tent and use the restroom facilities without a long trek back onto “campus.”
“The physical improvements and other investments made over the years, especially the last three to five years, have transformed the way the camp experience feels for fans,” said Chris Jennings, the Executive Vice President of the Spartanburg Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The training camp area is beautifully landscaped, and all the ancillary amenities and how they are laid out within the camp is so well-designed. It’s a special event, and the space itself feels special. It creates a more exciting, and at the same time more comfortable, experience.”
We joined thousands of other Panther fans lining the fences to gawk at how big Cam Newton is. My son waited patiently for each opportunity for first-round pick Christian McCaffrey to get his hands on the ball. And I repeatedly looked around in wonder at how times have changed for the “hometown” Panthers.
The investment in facilities and the overall camp experience isn’t lost on fans. By the thousands they continue to come, year after year, from far and wide to this small liberal arts college campus to experience NFL football and hope for an autograph or picture with a favorite (Clemson’s Ben Boulware, perhaps?).
There are five NFL teams who leave their home stadiums in the rear-view mirror and travel more than 50 miles to “camp” at small colleges. The Bears head 55 miles to Olivet Nazarene. The Chiefs journey 60 miles to Missouri Western State. The Bills travel 75 miles to St. John Fisher. And the Vikings drive 80 miles to Minnesota State.
But the Panthers, with their 76-mile trip to Spartanburg, outshine them all in attendance. For the past three years, more than 75,000 have visited the Spartanburg training camp, including more than 135,000 in 2016 (following the team’s Super Bowl run). While that number dipped this summer, the Panthers still brought in more than 100,000 fans.
By contrast, the Vikings drew 68,000 this year, while the Bears drew approximately 35,000, the Chiefs 32,000, and the Bills 24,000
Even the Broncos, who defeated the Panthers in Super Bowl 50 and camp just 10 miles from their home stadium, drew just 54,013 fans this year. And that was a record.
On my first visit to Panther training camp, the experience was built for locals from the Upstate to come say hi to pro football players. It made for a nice detour from a normal day. But the Panthers training camp has become an event – a unique event worth traveling with your family from hundreds of miles away.
If it’s been awhile since you experienced training camp, plan to mark your calendars for July 2018. You won’t forget it.
“The Panthers and Wofford College have collectively raised the bar each and every year,” Jennings said. “The connections that fans are able to build and deepen with the team and the organization at training camp are important. It is a unique opportunity to do that. You can’t do that on game day at Bank of America Stadium or sitting in your living room watching a game. That promise is what entices fans to come in the first place, and the way they are treated and the experience they have once they are here is what keeps them coming back.”
By CHRIS WINSTON