It's no secret the Ravens have focused on connecting with their fans after seeing more empty seats than they wanted at M&T Bank Stadium last season.
The organization has reached out to thousands of season-ticket holders on the phone, invited some fans to attend closed practices, even permitted a couple to ask questions at a press conference. Concession prices are dropping. Major upgrades to M&T Bank Stadium and the game-day experience were unveiled this week.
Now comes what could be the most significant fan outreach: a training camp attended by easily the largest crowds since the Ravens moved their camp from McDaniel College in Westminster to the Under Armour Performance Center, their year-round training facility in Owings Mills.
That 2012 move generated grumbling, as fans had trekked to open practices in Westminster for decades, since the Colts played here, and the intimate setting helped forge a strong connection with the team. Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti cited his own fond memories from Westminster in acknowledging the move was especially wrenching for him personally.
But Bisciotti went along nonetheless, knowing he would field criticism, because the UAPC, eight years old at the time, offered state-of-the-art facilities and a more effective environment for preparing the team for the season. It was a football decision that didn't occur without context, as many other NFL teams also were (and still are) building fancy, year-round training facilities, offering too-attractive-to-pass-up training camp sites.
Many teams moved, mostly away from college campuses where they'd practiced for years, with the understanding that fans wouldn't have nearly as much intimate access to the team. But I'm guessing that was deemed a necessary evil that teams could deal with. The league certainly was riding high when the Ravens made their move. (They actually held camp at the UAPC for the first time in 2011, when the start was delayed by a labor impasse.)
The league is still riding high in the sense that pro football remains America's favorite sport by a wide margin, but a spate of recent controversies has, at the very least, challenged the institution's foundation, and empty seats became visible last season at stadiums in many cities, not just here.
That's a sight that can alter your thinking. I'm sure the Ravens aren't sorry that a $45 million UAPC expansion is being completed just in time for them to make good on their idea of significantly bumping up their training camp attendance.
They could only handle 200 fans per practice in 2012, with access gained through a lottery system. The average per-day crowd was just over 1,000 in 2016. This year, larger stands are in place, hundreds of parking spaces have been added on campus, and an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 fans could attend each of the 15 open training camp practices that will take place in Owings Mills.
The timing of the increase is right, for sure. I don't know how other NFL teams are feeling about their relationship with their fans in 2018, but it's clear the Ravens are concerned about it and focused on it. There may be no better evidence of this than the fact that a more popular training camp was one of the main goals of the UAPC renovation.
In another change, the team scrapped the lottery system this year and instead simply offered access to parking spaces on a first-come first-serve basis. The entire supply was lapped up almost instantly.
In other words, while there's no going back to Westminster, the appetite for this updated facsimile is extremely high.
Numerous other factors also will obviously play a continuing role in the Ravens' effort to satisfy their fans in 2018 and beyond, starting with whether they field winning teams. Nothing is more important than that.
But make no mistake, when a deep pass completion generates a roar from the stands at training camp this year, just as it once did in Westminster, that's the sound of a franchise recognizing that those seats that suddenly went empty a year ago need to be filled.