Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti remembers very clearly going to McDaniel College as a kid-or at that time Western Maryland College-and getting dozens of autographs from numerous Colts greats.
Bisciotti usually left the Colts training camp with what he came for, and went away with a smile on his face, autographs in hand, and great memories that have lasted his entire lifetime.
But now, in the present day, with ten thousand Ravens fans flooding the little town of Westminster and McDaniel College each day in an attempt to get an autograph from the Raven greats like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, or Joe Flacco, there are tons of fans, especially little kids like Bisciotti was, who are not only missing out on an opportunity to grab an autograph from their favorite player, they are getting hurt by the flood of adult fans who are fighting to get their Raven gear signed by their favorite player.
And with training camp less than two weeks away, the Ravens event and coordinating staff doesn’t want to hear any more this year about kids getting hurt, and they are tired of seeing dozens of kids leave McDaniel College disappointed, hurt and empty-handed.
So it was announced earlier this week that the Ravens’ new autograph policy would go into effect when training camp starts on July 26, with fans only between the ages of 6-15 would be able to get signatures from the Raven players at the end of the morning practices.
Kids will be issued an armband and taken by Ravens and security personnel about 10 feet onto McDaniel’s practice fields in an area visible to the parents but away from the crowds, much like the Ravens Rookie Zones over the last several years. It will be there that Raven players will accommodate as much of the kids’ requests before they are escorted back to their parents, and another group of kids will take the field to repeat the process.
Ravens Senior VP of Public and Community Relations chairman Kevin Byrne came on “The Morning Reaction” Wednesday to answer questions regarding the decision, and to defend the Ravens’ already controversial decision.
“It is clearly a safety issue,” Byrne said to WNST’s own Drew Forrester. “That is 95 percent of the decision. We’ve talked about it for years. Our people involved with security…were all saying we had a dangerous situation. [But] we looked past the thing. We love the spontaneity of our camp. We send people to other camps, and its a little too structured.”
It wasn’t until last year when several incidents popped up where kids were continuing to get hurt by the floods of fans fighting to get an autograph from a Raven player that it forced the event staff to make this decision.
“We spent a lot of time the last couple of years talking about it. We almost did it last year, and then midway in camp we regretted we didn’t do it cause we had some isolated situations where kids got run over, a kid got hit in the head and got cut, and another kid got stepped on. We just started getting too many of those reports from our security people.”
Byrne said it was a real shame they had to make this decision, because in reality, this problem stems from the fact that they are doing the right things when it comes to the fan experience at McDaniel College. It just that the crowds kept getting bigger and bigger, and there is only so much room for those people.
Byrne said that this is not a permanent solution, and he feels like there will still be opportunities for the rest of the fans to get autographs. They had to do something at the moment, and this was their band-aid to stop the bleeding of the problem, so that they aren’t putting real band aids on young Ravens fans anymore.
“I think our players will still go to adult areas and sign…we’re not going to restrict that. But we’re going to try and take care of the kids and put them in a safer environment. Basically just bring the kids 10 feet out in front of the parents, so that the parents who have the kids arent too far away from them, and do it that way.”
In reality, Byrne said they really didn’t have any other solutions out there other than making more time for accommodate autographs, which was not an option, or moving away from McDaniel College, a transition that would take a lot of time, effort, and money to achieve.
“Is this the best solution? We’ll find out if this is the best one while we experiment through this camp. We’re trying to take care of the most people we can, and the first people we want to take care of are the kids. We’re going to have PSL holders and people who invest say ‘I’m paying the freight not the kids, how come I can get up there?’ I don’t think there is a solution beyond having a camp just for autographs. And we’re not there for autographs, we’re there to get ready for the season.”
And Byrne said that the Ravens this year have a chance to be dominant this year in the NFL, and if Ravens fans really stop and think, isn’t it better for the players to spend time on football so that they can be the best they can when they suit up against the Jets the first week of the season?
“It’s exciting. I think it reflects reality too. We had a chance to be pretty good. But it doesn’t mean its going to happen. I think Coach Harbaugh will manage those expectations well.”
“For John and his coaches, it’s always about the next meeting, the next lifting session, the next practice, or the next game, so I dont think our players will be leaping to February in Dallas once they get with our coaches at the start of training camp.”
At the facility in Owings Mills, there is a sign that says “W.I.N“. It’s an acronym, meaning “What’s Important Now“.
And that’s what Byrne wanted to reiterate. The players are not there to sign autographs, they are there to prepare for the 2010 NFL season, and their time for those three-weeks is already filled to the brink in advance of that goal.
“Training camp is really filled for the players. They don’t have a lot of time. And they have a lot of obligations, including working with the media. You run of time with players. You have to protect what we’re there in the first place for.”
“We’re taking the players to a special environment for a three and a half week period, a concentrated period for education and tough training to get ready beat the Jets on Monday Night in that regular season opener. That’s why we’re out there. All the other stuff is secondary to us helping the football team achieve what it wants to achieve.”
But Byrne did not want to deter fans from coming out to camp just because of the inability to get an autograph. The Ravens have always looked out for their fans and taken care of them over the years, such as having events and activities at camp on top of having free parking. More than half of the NFL teams in the league don’t even allow fans at their camp anymore or have any sort of fan experience. Byrne said that Bisciotti and the rest of the entire Ravens staff wanted to keep that part of the fan community intact.
“That’s the one thing we didn’t want to lose. We think through the years, we have a fan magic up there. Let’s not lose that.”
And Byrne also wanted the focus of the camp for the fans to still to be on the Ravens’ actual practice, because some people asked, “Why not have players sit in a tent with a line after camp and let a certain number of people sign?” That would just open another Pandora’s Box.
“We had some staff people who said to do a tented thing and do a couple players a day. I said I don’t want to do that. I also brought up the owner. The owner didn’t have to do that…go to a tent area and be in a line. And if only 200 people are going to sign, [you wonder] ‘what number am I in line?’, then you’re going to have people fighting to get in front of the line or not watching practice because they’re getting in the line before practice starts. With that, you lose the interaction with fans to begin with.”
And Byrne said that training camp is all about being close to the players while they’re practicing, and he guaranteed that no other team in the league allows their fans to get this close to the practice fields while the Ravens are running their drills.
“Surely there are adults who collect autographs and love that and want to be close to the players, but if you come to training camp, you’re close to the players. You’re only 20 feet from practice from Derrick Mason running an out and up right in front of you.”
And the Ravens want fans there because it puts the players in a more comfortable game-like situation where fans will react to touchdowns, missed tackles, picks, or dropped balls.
“That happened to us in Cleveland,” Byrne said, who held a similar title up with the Browns. “When we moved to our facility in Cleveland, it took away the magic of training camp. Even though we shuttled people in, the crowds went way down. It wasn’t fun. They weren’t having fun with practice. It’s great when Derrick Mason catches a pass over the middle, scores a touchdown, and you have a crowd reaction. It helps inspire practice.”
Critics might respond to that and say, why not move it to that big facility known as “The Castle” in Owings Mills? That should be able to hold all the necessary space with those 3+ practice fields all right next to each other. But Byrne said that there is too much history involved with McDaniel College, it being the home of Baltimore training camp since the Colts were in their hayday.
“I don’t think so. In some ways I think you can say that,” Byrne said when asked if they are outgrowing the little town of Westminster. “[But]it’s such a tradition, and I would hate to lose that. We have the ultimate fan. Our owner went there as a kid. Our owner didn’t come from a family that could buy tickets to games like that. His father died when he was young, so whenever he went to a Colt, Oriole, or Maryland game, it was because the parish priests took him or a neighbor did. He helps us keep that perspective. I think we like going out there. Is there a time when we’ll come back and train here and not go to McDaniel? I guess that could happen someday.”
In reality, all this comes back to trying and making sure the young kids like Bisicotti was coming to Western Maryland College-content and happy when they leave home at 12PM every day from the home of the Green Terror.
“We have an owner who bought the team because he has great memories of going out to camp and getting players’ autographs. But when he went out to camp, he didn’t have to fight anybody. There just weren’t very many people out there, so its easier to handle. On slow mornings for us, we have four thousand people. And we’ll have morning where we’ll have 8 to 10 thousand people, so it becomes hard to manage this process. So you try and find the best solution and the best solution for us is “Lets Take Care of the Kids Lets Give them that special experience.”
“The fans who come out there and have a five-year old, or an eight-year old, or a ten-year old, they’re going to have a chance to get their autographs.”
WNST Thanks Ravens Senior VP of Public and Community Relations chairman Kevin Byrne for coming on “The Morning Reaction” on such short notice to explain these new rules. Stay tuned to WNST and WNST.net as Ravens training camp 2010 begins on July 26th. WNST-We Never Stop Talking Baltimore Sports!