The concept of a sports fantasy camp has always made me cringe. I picture middle-aged guys (like me) trying to relive their glory days against similarly-aging former pro athletes. Getting my weak jumper blocked by former Bulls’ center Will Perdue at some random gym didn’t seem like something I wanted to drop a lot of coin on.
A quality sports fantasy camp provides insider access and a true physical component. I can go to a batting cage to hit baseballs, but if I’m paying good money I’d rather have an at-bat against Fernando Valenzuela at Dodgers’ Stadium.
Here are some sports fantasy camps that offer very real experiences.
Imagine playing baseball in historic Wrigley Field and having the entire place to yourself. Two days of instruction and games are held each May at Wrigley with former Cubs players. Campers sign a 1-day contract with the Cubs, receive a full-personalized uniform and enjoy a Cubs game from a private luxury suite. Each year, such Cubs legends as Billy Williams and Ernie Banks serve as managers for simulated games. I like this camp for the private access to the nooks and crannies of Wrigley Field; peeking around Wrigley is like being in a baseball time machine.
This 4-day camp, usually held in June, is about history and tradition as much as it is about playing football. Campers get instruction from Notre Dame’s head coach, his assistants and former Notre Dame Fighting Irish players. Off-the-field features include tours of the locker room, stadium and other Notre Dame athletic facilities. Like a player, you will dress in blue and gold, have meetings with coaches and finally gear up for the Blue-Gold game in the actual football locker room. Try to keep control of yourself as you enjoy your “Rudy” moment and hit the “PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY” sign on the way out of the locker room.
One of the more successful franchises in Major League Soccer, the Los Angeles Galaxy, has their fantasy camp at their home pitch, The Home Depot Center near Los Angeles, for 5 days each December. Campers get demonstrations from Galaxy coaches and former stars like Cobi Jones and Alexi Lalas on the field, plus their own full Galaxy “kit” (soccer jargon for uniform).
This camp, held multiple times a year at the TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, is for a true golf enthusiast, not a hacker. Campers have access to a caddie and pro instruction, enjoy the pomp and circumstance of being announced on the first tee and receive personalized golf gear. The experience is as much about the setting as it is about the golf.
I took part in the experience last December at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Participants can choose from several options, which include driving 8 laps in a 600-horsepower NASCAR Cup car to 80laps of side-by-side racing against fellow fantasy campers. The fantasy racing camp begins with class instruction. Then you put on a fire suit and helmet and buckle into a car.
I chose the 40-lap experience. A personal instructor took the lead 3 car lengths ahead of the campers. As your driving improves, the instructor picks up the pace. On my first lap I reached speeds of 112 mph. I reached 150 mph on my final lap, which was my fastest and by far the most comfortable. Driving so fast in a real NASCAR Cup car on a real NASCAR track didn’t feel like a simulation or a pretend experience. The walls were real, as was the danger.
If you choose a fantasy camp, try to achieve a strong level of fitness geared to the activity. And If Jerome Bettis or someone of similar ability steamrolls toward you at a football fantasy camp, let him go. You don’t want to boast about your experience from a hospital bed.
Paul Pabst is the executive producer of DIRECTV’s The Dan Patrick Show and works out of the show’s “ManCave.”