The contemporary history of professional sports largely involves franchises and leagues becoming increasingly corporate, seeing themselves less as public institutions and more like businesses geared towards making money. At the same time, fans are just as devoted to their favorite teams as ever, which creates an odd predicament: teams want to make money off their fans, but they have to do so in a way connected to this emotional relationship.
Enter the fantasy camp, a days-long vacation in which fans pony up obscene amounts of money to pretend they are athletes employed by their favorite teams. It's the middle-aged person's Halloween, except everyone wears the same costume and the candy is meeting a childhood idol who's put on 25 pounds. It's a dream come true!
Baseball and basketball teams have put on these camps long enough that they featured in an episode of "Seinfeld." However, the newest basketball fantasy camp belongs in a different category altogether. As announced on Tuesday, USA Basketball will holds its first fantasy camp this summer to coincide with national team practices. From the press release (via SLAM):
Many of the biggest names in coaching will be on hand to give the ultimate basketball enthusiast the exclusive opportunity to experience being a member of the USA National Team during the inaugural USA Basketball Fantasy Camp from July 23-25 in Las Vegas.
Participants will have three full days of intense on-court action at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center and receive hands-on instruction and coaching from the likes of Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Kentucky’s John Calipari, Florida’s Billy Donovan, Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Miami’s Jim Larrañaga, Grand Canyon’s Dan Majerle, Washington’s Lorenzo Romar, Villanova’s Jay Wright and camp director P.J. Carlesimo.
“This is about being a part of the ultimate team and experiencing what it feels like to represent your country,” said Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball Chairman. “The Fantasy Camp will provide a select few with a real-life opportunity to be a part of the preparation for 2016.”
Included in the fantasy schedule, participants will have access to watch a session of the private annual USA Basketball National Team training camp as the NBA’s elite players train for future international competitions. The culmination of the three days will be the camp’s championship game and medal ceremony held as part of the USA Basketball Showcase in front of a crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center.
As mentioned in small type on the website's registration page, this experience runs $7500, although that does include accommodations at the Wynn in Las Vegas. Clearly, this camp is geared towards the elite, the precious few basketball fans who can pay thousands of dollars to hang out with Jim Boeheim and improve their deep connection to Team USA.
The odd thing, though, is that Team USA has occasionally struggled to build that same relationship with its own players. Since taking over the organization in 2005, Jerry Colangelo has preached about the importance of getting players invested in representing Team USA at a young age. In the absence of big-money contracts, players need another reason to get involved. In a way, he needs to turn them into fans, to get them to take pride in an association with the organization and their country.
In a typical situation, a fantasy camp allows fans to become part of the team they follow religiously on an everyday basis. The Team USA camp is altogether different, both because the team plays so rarely and because the concept of the team is not quite so clear. Will campers attend because they love America? Because they respect the coaches? Because Las Vegas is the most American city of all?
In a way, it's as if USA Basketball is trying to create a high level of fan investment by mimicking the experiences of a hardcore fan of a city's franchise. I'm not sure it will work, but it raises some interesting questions about how a national team becomes a part of the broader basketball culture.