Camp is Valhalla

I'll always remember the day I walked into the Woodbridge, Va. Food Lion grocery store some years back and saw pocket packs of Kleenex sponsored by NASCAR. I bought a couple packs figuring I could win some kind of prize, like a new stock car, or at least a Dale Earnhardt trading card, which I imagine would be so valuable now, I could afford a mansion with it.

But when I opened up the packs, I found nothing – not even checkered flag-colored tissues. I was dumbfounded. Sports marketing finally went too far, slapping a logo on a product without bringing any kind of real benefit to the consumer. No prize. No "Sorry, try again." No nothing.

And if I had to blow my nose, I sincerely doubt that someone would have noticed the pack and said, "Hey, man, where'd you get that hip NASCAR Kleenex Pocket Pack? That's freakin' awesome."

No. Sports marketing definitely took it too far with that one. Of course, I realize Shout! is a by-product of sports marketing because its existence stems from the world-wide interest in pro sports, largely generated by sports marketing – which makes my criticism here teeter on hypocrisy. Hey, I'll be the first to admit, without sports marketing, I'm just a meat clerk at Wegmans.

Still, because we live in America, it's our civic duty to draw lines (that's because we're all gifted students of geometry). We obviously need some kind of federal law regulating sports marketing. What the heck are lawmakers waiting for? Someone to personally bankrupt himself by buying all kinds of crap having to do with his favorite team? Government has shown us that its single most important obligation is to save us from ourselves. That's why we call it "Big Brother" and "Uncle Sam." Come to think of it, it's kind of gross that big brother is also our uncle, which would basically mean that big brother married our father or mother's sister. There all all kinds of problems in the family.

Anyway, until we regulate the industry, sports marketing will keep growing – like the size of large drinks at fast food restaurants; you want large, you better order small, because nowadays a large drink is the size of the truck that the soda came in (we need some kind of federal law regulating that too – you sit down to have a couple cheeseburgers and you end up running to the toilet 10 times). So consequently, the Bills' training camp keeps growing too. It is the Valhalla of sports marketing, and it's not just about football practice anymore.

Children come to camp and play at the Bills Experience, a carnival celebrating NFL football. They can run through a line of dummies, kick a field goal as time expires, throw a football though a target, and most important, get their parents to buy hundreds of dollars worth of Bills merchandise at the merchandising tent every visitor must walk through just to get to the Bills Experience and the football fields.

Yes, the merchandising tent is what camp really is all about.

The Bills aren't doing anything different from their corporate partner Wegmans, when you buy a dairy product. You go to the farthest corner of the earth just to get it – the stores are that big – so Wegmans can ensure that you're spending the maximum amount of time and money in the store. Before you know it, you've traveled seven days for a dozen eggs, and you discover that you've left with 4,127 carts of groceries and a bank foreclosure on your house.

Following that lead, the Bills concluded that it would be smart marketing to have people walk in and out of camp through the merchandising tent. There's a good chance they'll buy something if they spend enough time exposed to it. I've bought many useless things at the supermarket, like a 99-cent contraption that was designed to keep fizz in a two-liter bottle of pop. It worked as well as Joe Pendry's offense.

Look, the merchandising tent is about exposure, a captive audience and maximizing profits.

I figure Ralph Wilson Jr. will make his own players walk in and out of camp through the tent. All those rookies with fresh signing bonuses, and all the authentic Bills jerseys they can buy for the long-lost relatives they never knew they had until an NFL team signed them? Eventually, I even expect the Bills to iron out an agreement with New York State dictating that Thruway traffic passing Rochester must be diverted through the merchandising tent too. That's something state lawmakers can pass. I mean it's not like they're busy passing the budget.

Oh well, it's inevitable. Every year commercialization's tentacles grow and tighten around professional athletics. Famed sportswriter Grantland Rice saw that back in 1953. He wrote, "Sports today is much more commercial and much more stereotyped than in my heyday . . . The almighty dollar, or what's left of it, hangs high. A ball player who, when asked to race Mickey Mantle against time before a recent Yankees-Senators night game, replied, ‘I'll do it . . . for five hundred dollars,' is a testimony to the times."

That was 48 years ago. Today's player would want $5 million guaranteed, a limo ride to the starting line and 50 percent of the pay-per-view gross.

Plus, he'd still want to race against Mantle.

Hey, if you can stand the MTV-ization of football — this unabashed over-marketing, with corporate logos everywhere, corporate tents filled with big hitters, the constant barrage of people trying to sell you stuff and a well executed marketing plan in which the only spontaneity occurs when there's a thunderstorm — the Wegmans Buffalo Bills Training Camp is very enjoyable.

Players sign autographs for free. You can talk to them, pat them on the shoulder pads, tell them to kick the Dolphins' butt.

And even though the Bills don't have the draw of Doug Flutie — who commands crowds the way Aquaman commands sea animals, and was a primary reason why a franchise-record 122,000 attended last year — you should come anyway because it will be fun. Perhaps you'll even get to see my hip NASCAR Kleenex Pocket Pack. I carry it with me at all times. Just give me a shout.

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