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Zulgad: From free to a fee: Vikings fumble with plan to charge for four training camp practices

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Dallas Cowboys
Nov 10, 2019; Arlington, TX, USA; Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf on the field prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back Vikings fans, now open up those wallets.

That was the message delivered by Minnesota’s most popular sports franchise on Thursday morning when it announced training camp will be open to the public this summer after being closed last year because of COVID-19. For now, the Vikings are designating four of their 14 practices as “premier practices,” which is a fancy way of saying, “If you want to watch, it’s going to cost you.”

This will include the TCO Stadium night practice on Saturday, July 31; a scrimmage at U.S. Bank Stadium at noon on Saturday, Aug. 7; and joint practices with the Denver Broncos on Wednesday, Aug. 11, and Thursday, Aug. 12, at TCO Performance Center. The ticket prices will be $10 for adults and $5 for children under 17 for each of the three practices in Eagan. The scrimmage will be $20 for adults and $10 for children under 17. But, hey, children under 36 inches will get in for free.

The timing of this move couldn’t be worse and it’s surprising owners Zygi and Mark Wilf approved of it given the circumstances. Fans were shutout from watching the Vikings in person all of last season because of the pandemic and many took a financial hit because of it. Seems like an odd time to tell people looking for things to do with their family that they should pay to watch a football practice.

The Vikings will say that there are still 10 training camp practices that will be open for free and that 4,000 free general admission tickets will be available for each. That’s missing the point. The NFL is a billion dollar business that puts its greed before everything; training camp has been the one time that every member of the fan base has had an opportunity to watch the Vikings.

“We’ve had a longstanding tradition of having open practices in training camp with free tickets,” Vikings chief operating officer Andrew Miller told the Star Tribune. “We wanted to preserve that tradition this year. We also want to give our fans options. We’ve created some new all-inclusive packages, opportunities to see practice with a combination of preseason tickets, [Vikings] museum discounts. Really, it’s about different experiences tailored to what our fans want. We tried to create a number of different options to try and do that.”

Does Miller think we’re actually buying this?

The Wilfs have gone down this path before and that was before they received help to build a new stadium and practice facility. That came in 2005 after they had bought the team from Red McCombs. The plan was to charge fans to attend practices in Mankato, but it was abandoned after ownership was criticized for the decision.

Do the Wilfs think there will be no pushback now? Do they not care? It doesn’t take much to see where this is headed. If fans will pay for four practices this summer, why not eight next year and eventually every single one? The Vikings will claim that they don’t make money off training camp and that this is simply a way to get some financial assistance coming out of a pandemic. The key thing: They don’t need the money — they’ve got plenty of it — and they do need the positive public relations. Plus, what do guys like Miller think the fans who show up in Eagan to watch practice do?

They buy team merchandise and food and, for kids, it’s a chance to become a lifelong fan. The more practices that the team charges for, the more they are telling many of those people to get lost. It’s not as if the Vikings aren’t already attempting to gouge the rich during camp. The team has charged for premium seats at training camp for a few years. This year there will up to 300 upscale tickets (that come with food and drink) offered each day for $50 apiece.

There’s another issue with charging for practices. While players certainly enjoy the far-more relaxed atmosphere than the one that existed even a few years back, the sessions have little value. The perfect example is the July 31 night practice at TCO Stadium. That will fall in what is called the ramp-up period of camp, meaning players won’t be in pads. Ten bucks to see a non-contact price? No, thanks.

That’s not all.

Because of the protocols that will be in place for NFL camps, in-person autograph sessions with current players will not be held this year. In other words, you won’t be getting near the players. Given the concerns that remain about COVID-19 and how many players might have yet to be vaccinated, that’s not a bad idea.

The bad idea comes from the Wilfs, Miller and anyone else with the Vikings who decided that you should pay to sit in the sun and watch players go through drills. Hopefully, just like in 2005, someone will realize the best idea will be to abandon this plan as soon as possible.