First-year Bills head coach Sean McDermott blew his whistle at 8:45 a.m. Sunday to begin day four of the team’s training camp at St. John Fisher College — and yes, Rochester-area fans know how to set their alarm clocks.
For the last 18 years the Bills have held training camp in Pittsford and for many locals, and some eager fans willing to make the drive, it’s become a tradition to come out and watch Western New York’s favorite football team in action.
But what motivates fans to take time out of their day to watch a team practice seven-on-seven drills, run kick returns, and weave around cones and hit practice dummies for two hours?
For one thing, fans are watching a new head coach in action.
“I think (former head coach) Rex Ryan was goofy per se," William Johnson of Amherst, Erie County, said during his first trip to training camp. “I think McDermott is going to bring a different energy to the Bills and we’re going to do really well this year.”
It’s that sort of optimism — and a chance to grab a couple of autographs — that brings fans to training camp to see the on-field product. But a lot of work is required off the field to keep the thousands of fans that shuffle through Fisher’s campus entertained when they’re not watching the team.
“Some of the changes this year (have been) enhancing the fan experience and providing additional space for the fan interactive elements,” said camp operations manager Andy Major. “We moved our fan experience to the Dorsey (Hall) parking lot area near the merchandise tent. … (Fans) wanted more things to be closer to the team store tent, where the restrooms are located and where all the concessions are located.”
In essence, it provided a more centralized area for fans.
In that “one-stop shopping” area, as Major calls it, there are a number of football and non-football-oriented games for kids, tables with giveaways and of course, the actual shopping area where hats have been all the rage since New Era took over as the team’s primary corporate sponsor.
Ithaca resident Amanda Marsha made a trip to camp for the first time in nine years and bought a Sammy Watkins T-shirt "just because."
Inside the retail area are a number of current and former players’ jerseys. The obvious top three choices have been Tyrod Taylor, Watkins and LeSean McCoy.
Fans can see the Bills play in their own backyard nine more times before the team heads back to Buffalo to gear up for the regular season. Of those nine scheduled practices, seven begin at 8:45 a.m. on weekdays. The other two, both on Sundays and requiring tickets, are sold out.
“Fans are great here in Rochester,” Major said. “They’re Bills fans and they want to come out. No matter what time we have practice, we still get a great crowd.”