Few organizations do as well at turning events into capital-E Events like the National Football League.
It has major cities bidding to play host to the Underwear Olympics, a.k.a. the scouting combine. It has turned the NFL Annual Player Selection Meeting -- that's the draft to those uninitiated -- into a ratings juggernaut. The dang schedule release gets its own day on the calendar.
So it seems only natural that the league is finally turning the start of training camp for all 32 teams into an Event.
"Back Together Saturday" is what the NFL is calling this weekend's Event on July 31. Beginning at 8:30 a.m. EST and continuing for 13 hours, all 32 teams will play host to a training camp practice in front of fans. Broadcast partners and league-owned-and-operated media will have round-the-clock coverage of news and highlights throughout the day.
"It's something we've been talking about for a while as training camp has grown," says Peter O'Reilly, the NFL's EVP of club business and league events. "As the year-round calendar of the NFL has grown and then training camp specifically has grown, how do you create that real back-to-football moment? That moment where all's right in the world again and players are on the field and we're on the countdown to kickoff.
"Launching it this year, it feels really appropriate and important off the year and the season that we had, and [it's] the opportunity to safely bring back fans and create this kind of roadblock of a day on a summer Saturday where the first team will take the field at 8:30 in the morning and the last team will get off the field at 9:30 at night."
Craving even more NFL coverage focusing on previews, recaps, news and analysis? Listen below and follow the Pick Six podcast for a daily dose NFL goodness.
The NFL's year-old collective bargaining agreement is the direct reason for these plans finally coming together. Team ownership and players agreed last year to have a unified reporting date to camp: 47 days from the first regular-season game that's played on Thursday or Sunday and 48 days from the Monday night game. (Hall of Fame Game teams would report earlier.)
In our interview last week, O'Reilly repeated the term "authentic" when describing this and other NFL events. The CBA bringing uniformity to training camp allows for the league to authentically take what has been going on for years -- teams practicing in front of their fans at camp -- and consolidate it into an Event.
"The ratcheting up in this mid-summer window when people are starting to turn their eyes to football in a big way... I think we see it as this elevated launching pad," he says. "It's taken the essence that you've seen and lived and bringing it together in a more unified way."
And the day will be more than just players practicing in front of fans again. Teams like the Colts, Patriots and Saints will also hold free vaccination drives at their Saturday practices for fans. Several clubs will include a youth football element, like the Texans playing host to some of the best local youth teams. The Steelers will reveal their 2021 Hall of Honor class during their practice.
The true catalyst for the league's infatuation with apparent worldwide sports dominance via large-scale Events can be traced back to the decision to move the NFL Draft. From 1965 through 2014, the league had its draft in various venues in New York. The league moved it to Chicago in 2015 to incredible success and fanfare, and it's the league's second-largest event now as a traveling performance of sorts.
The combine was hardly a media consideration in the 1990s. By 2008 the league was handing out more than 450 credentials for it, and in 2020 fulfilled more than three times that many credential requests. The league moved it to prime time that year, and soon it will leave its longtime home of Indianapolis and head to another city (ahem, Los Angeles) or cities.
Even though we all know what teams will play each other for months, the NFL has found a way to successfully make a day out of the schedule release by pulling the Event -- said with a straight face -- out of the shadows of the draft in mid-to-late April and into the bright sunshine of early May.
Can there be too much football? I mean, isn't there something to exclusivity? Lesser spring leagues haven't worked, in part, because of oversaturation. Is there any way fans can actually have too much NFL football?
"I have so much respect and admiration for our fan base that has an absolutely voracious appetite for the NFL, so I'm not sure there is," O'Reilly says. "The lens that we look through on our team is authenticity. We don't do anything without connecting in with our fans and making sure that what we're doing, where more really is more and the opportunity to get access and get closer to the game and be a part of it."
The NFL and its employees will tell you it's a year-round league. For each offseason month there is some significant date the NFL essentially owns in the sports world. The creation of "Back Together Saturday" puts capital letters on an Event in late July that will serve as the bridge to the June Event of mandatory minicamps.
But there's this little six-week sliver where folks around the league take off and go on vacation. Sure, there's a franchise tag deadline, but those six weeks represent the biggest gap on the calendar.
And I get the sense that, sooner than later, that gap will narrow.
"We spend a lot of time thinking about that. There are not that many gaps in there," O'Reilly says. "But even thinking about that window between minicamps and the start of training camp there's a lot that players are doing in there -- youth camps and other things that are going on.
"I don't have anything to reveal here, but suffice it to say that we are spending a lot of time thinking about authentically building additional platforms in those windows that are in the quote unquote offseason."