Many things may have changed now that the Minnesota Vikings are hosting training camp at their new team headquarters, but there will still be plenty of things that will be the same. At least that’s what I kept telling myself as I prepped to attend training camp at the shiny new Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center in Eagan, Minnesota.
The yearly trip to Mankato had become a sort of family vacation, even for the media. Sure, we were crowded and fighting about people creeping onto our side of the metaphorical car (yeah, you shameless man sprawlers in the media center, you know who you are), but there was a sense that, despite the short-comings, we were all happy to be there. There was a camaraderie for fans, media, and players as we descended on the college town and took it over for a few weeks of summer.
But for the team, there was the issue of wealthy starters having to go back to living in cramped dorm rooms, resorting to bringing in their own mattresses so they could get a decent night’s sleep. There was the issue of housing not just all the players, but also the coaching staff, trainers, equipment people, media and public relations staff, and an army of interns. And there was the issue of the logistics of carting so much equipment to another location only to have to cart it back home in a couple weeks.
The cost and massive inconvenience is why most NFL teams had already abandoned the practice of having training camp away from their facilities at a university campus. Minnesota was a hold out for the old way of doing things. At least they were until they moved from cramped, Winter Park to TCO Performance Center.
No longer would the team have to contend with a yearly logistical nightmare. Finally, the Vikings could do exactly what they wanted to do.
As I passed through metal detectors that made me live to regret wearing an underwire bra while I watched a member of the security team prod my bag with a wooden dowel, I couldn’t help feeling that the power to control the training camp experience had gone to the team’s head.
Maybe that wasn’t fair of me. Balancing safety and security with access cannot be easy for a team, so I fought down my knee-jerk annoyance, just glad I hadn’t had to remove my shoes.
Past security it was easier to appreciate the Vikings’ new home. Built in the 1980s, Winter Park had become hemmed in by surrounding development, leaving the team no space to grow or improve the facility. In Eagan, the team had the space to plan a facility that not only suits the team’s current needs, but has the ability to grow as the team’s needs change. Just strolling the grounds it was clear that careful planning went into creating a facility based on how differing groups of people would need to use it. See, while media, players, and fans can view of each other, like that line from the chorus of The Offspring’s “Come Out and Play” there is an obvious plan to keep us all separated.
I entered the media center through an easy-to-miss side entrance designed to prevent us from having contact with anyone associated with the team who didn’t expressly want to talk with us. Once in the media center it was beautiful and just as thoughtfully designed as the outdoor areas of the campus. It set the tone for all of the buildings on the campus, beautiful and so pristinely new that you almost feel uncomfortable because you don’t want to be the first one to mark the carpet or scuff the walls.
Blustery, wet weather forced the morning walk-thru indoors to the field house, a cavernous place that could easily have accommodated the team’s former field house with room to spare, guaranteeing that the team’s specialists can kick and punt without hitting the ceiling. I was happy to simply have made it to the field house, I had managed to get lost a few times en route. Apparently, that’s been a pretty common occurrence there as all the permanent and event staff learn to navigate the new facility.
Walk-thru was just as animated as the name implies, leaving time to over analyze the body language between Kai Forbath and Daniel Carlson while we waited for the post-practice press conferences. The pressers following the walk-thru were huddled against a wall. Coach Mike Zimmer assured us that, not only was the team not looking to trade Anthony Barr, but that there was no rift there—gotta love a good schism rumor. Dalvin Cook said he was excited for that first carry of the regular season. Everson Griffen used the words compete and competition more in five minutes than I have ever used them in my life.
During the break between morning and afternoon practices we browsed the team museum, me wandering slowly to try to get a feel for the ambiance, Andy like a gecko with a short attention span. The museum is part of the team’s effort to create a sense of history at a place so new you can almost still smell the fresh paint.
There were displays featuring images of the Vikings’ original ownership group and the famed 1970s defensive players the Purple People Eaters. Recent history like the Minneapolis Miracle and U.S. Bank Stadium held its own next to Randy Moss, Fran Tarkenton, and Bud Grant memorabilia. A father and his two boys excitedly mugged with cutouts of current players and a kid of about six-years-old sat on a bench staring at a display of items from the franchise’s earliest days, museum staff offered up interesting factoids about the displays and the team history. It was part children’s museum with displays kids could touch and climb on, part a sports history junky’s dream with items from the 1920s, and all of it a shrine to everything Vikings. Much has been said of the cost of admission at the museum being $20 and whether it’s worth it. Since that’s pretty subjective, I can only say that I didn’t hear anyone in the museum complaining that it wasn’t worth it—maybe they were keeping their opinions to themselves.
By the afternoon, the clouds and rain of the morning were gone and we were left with hazy sunshine, heat, and humidity. Fans filled the general admission area, the covered seating, and the VIP tent. Pink-cheeked kids, clad in purple and sticky with ice cream started lazily at the practice field while their tired parents flashed desperate smiles for pictures destined for Facebook and Instagram.
Again, I was struck by that ever-present sense of space at TCO Performance Center—it is huge. Practice fields were fenced by a wide margin of green space guaranteeing that a fan who didn’t wait in an autograph line would get no closer to a player than about 25 yards. In between each of the fields is a wide avenue of turf, spreading the practice area out and giving lots of room for coaches, trainers, hydration specialists, and special guests to mill around. Players emerged from the facility way down the field from where the stands of fans sat and it was all without ceremony or attention. In Mankato players had to cross the street from the training facility to the practice fields running through a gauntlet of waiting fans who roared for their favorites, like audible proof that a player had made it. In comparison to the fun of hearing crowds cheering to announce players, the new method, although it might have been good for focus, felt clinical and lackluster.
While fan access to players was vastly different from how it had been in Mankato, the actual practice was the same as in previous years. Players practiced drills and techniques as the sun beat the moisture from our bodies and the humidity spit it back on us. Route running, blocking, tackling, catching, players and coaches focused on the task of being in the best shape of their lives and completing for a place on the roster as the hot afternoon wore on. Random bursts of applause came from the fans every time Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen were anywhere near the ball, which was no easy accomplishment with Mike Zimmer’s hellfire defense often getting the better of an offense that was missing key starters on the offensive line and has a new quarterback working in offensive coordinator John DeFilippo’s new system.
At the close of the sultry afternoon practice, sweat dripped off players like a soaker hose making media members lean back slightly as they interviewed them. Media hustled to get quotes and content, unsure what would happen on Saturday when more wet weather was forecast.
Saturday weather forced the walk-thru indoors again, but by late afternoon the skies were clearing. Fans began arriving more than two hours early to shop the team store, nosh on fairly affordable food from the concession stands, play games, and soak up the experience. For their part, the Vikings sought to make the experience festive with smiling cheerleaders, a DJ spinning upbeat music, and performances from the team’s percussion group the Skol Line on the patios and wide walk ways while videos about Randy Moss played on the big screen at the far end of the practice field.
At first I just took in the scene, but then I looked past the fans to how the stadium actually worked. Public areas were staffed with security staff, event staff, Eagan police officers, and emergency medical staff. And it was so cleverly done that they were everywhere and yet the team had found a way to keep the event feeling festive and not like a military base. Fans of all physical abilities finally had good seats now, with lots of ADA seating throughout the stadium. Its the kind of thing you usually only notice when you or someone in your family needs ADA seating and it was nice to see that the team had made it a priority.
Plus, the way the stadium and open plazas were designed, if a fan were to have a medical emergency, it was streamlined so medical personnel could move the ill or injured fan quickly to one of the ambulances that were standing ready. For as much as I missed the small-town charm of Mankato, I couldn’t find any fault with how the team had built security, accessibility, and emergency preparedness into the new facility. Charm is great until there’s an emergency, then you want responsiveness and speed.
As the minutes ticked down to the start of practice, I noticed that the stands were not completely full and it was hard to say if it was the policy of needing tickets that had affected attendance or if it was the threat of rain that kept people away. But the fans who were there were in the mood to party, performing a deafening SKOL chant to christen the stadium and cheering as players traipsed down the stairs and onto the field through lines of cheerleaders rustling pompoms.
Linval Joseph, like a badass cyborg with a brace and tape on his right arm, flashed subtle dance moves during the warm-up portion of the practice, as did Terence Newman. Seemed that despite the distance between the players and the fans, the brights lights and cheering had everyone feeling good.
Again, the defense looked the way a unit who has a consistent core of personnel and has had the same coach for a few years should look—like they knew what they were doing. And, again, the offense was playing catch-up as a shuffled offensive line tried to play as one and a quarterback used to having so much time to throw that he could eat a sandwich in the pocket had to speed up his delivery. Despite the offensive challenges, receiver Brandon Zylstra flashed brilliance with two catches that had fans gasping.
Eventually we ventured from the field up to the press box to get video of the entire field. From up there the stadium was lit as perfectly as a Broadway stage. I can’t imagine how great it will be for high school players to take the field under those bright lights this fall.
That perfect view of the perfect stadium under perfect lighting at a perfect new team facility made Mankato seem like a million miles away.
The Vikings had traded that county fair feeling in Mankato for a purpose-built experience—one that they could completely control. Players could prepare for the season in comfortable luxury, but lost closeness with their fans. Fans lost that relaxed experience, but had gained improved accessibility and safety, as well as new entertainment features. Media gained a snazzy media center and press box, but lost that casual, incidental contact with players and coaches where they could build a rapport for the coming season.
Contact has been swapped for creature comforts and it will be up to fans to decide whether it is worth it.