INDIANAPOLIS — Back in 2000, 10 of the National Football League's 31 teams — or 32 percent of them — hosted training camp at their own facilities.
Twenty seasons later, that number has increased significantly.
By the time all 32 teams report to their various training camp locations next week, 22 of them will have "stayed home," which, according to a league release, means they will "hold camp at their respective practice facility, home stadium or at a site within 10 miles of their team headquarters."
So with more than two-thirds of the league now electing to hold most, if not all, of their training camp practices behind closed doors, why do the Indianapolis Colts remain one of just 10 teams this year who are "going away" for camp?
That answer, according to Colts general manager Chris Ballard, is multi-faceted. But as the team gets everything moved over once again to Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield, Ind., for its second of a 10-year training camp partnership, Ballard said two factors, above all others, remain top of mind when it comes to the Colts' camp plans.
"No. 1, any time you go to training camp, it's gotta be for the team to get ready for the season. That's gotta be No. 1 priority," Ballard recently told Colts.com. "But No. 2 is for our fans to be able to get an up-close-and-personal look of our team and really make a connection with our team."
Grand Park in Westfield, a booming community about 25 miles north of downtown Indianapolis, provides everything the Colts need to accomplish Ballard's No. 1 training camp goal. The 370,000 square-foot Events Center serves as the team's training camp headquarters, where the Colts enjoy the use of three full-size indoor football fields, locker room, weight training and medical facilities, cafeteria and plenty of meeting and office space.
Grand Park also has more than enough outdoor field space to accommodate the Colts' practice needs.
From a purely team standpoint, Ballard said the move to Grand Park last year provided the Colts with a "unique" training camp experience that he considers the best in the league.
"It's just a unique time for the staff — both coaching and scouting — and all our players, and really our entire operations, to get over here and be together," he said. "Sometimes when you're in the office it's hard to get that camaraderie because we're all going a million different directions. Here, the one focus we have is football. That's it. There's nothing else."
And what's really special about the Colts' training camp, Ballard said, is the opportunity to connect with the fanbase.
Every single one of the Colts' training camp practices are free and open to the public. The outdoor practice fields feature plenty of seating, and the team can even accommodate fans indoors at the Events Center in times of inclement weather.
While digital and social media initiatives in recent years have brought teams closer to their fans than ever before, Ballard said there's nothing better to him than letting those who support your team get every chance to watch it build momentum into the start of the regular season with their own eyes.
"I mean, social media's great and getting updates all the time on Instagram and Twitter, Colts.com — those are great — but there's nothing like being able to meet your favorite player, to watch Andrew (Luck) throw balls to T.Y. Hilton, to watch Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly practice one-on-one against (Denico) Autry and Justin Houston, to see that up live, close and personal, to be able to meet players, to see them in a different setting than you do on gameday," Ballard said. "I just think it's a way to connect that's different. And it's free to the public and they're able to come out each and every day as much as they want. I'll see the same kids out here every day, which I think is tremendous."
The Colts' rookies officially report to Grand Park for the start of training camp on Sunday, while the rest of the veterans will join them three days later, with practices starting next Thursday. You can download this year's camp schedule by clicking here, and get your free general admission tickets by clicking here.