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Annual visit by Chiefs provides more than just a team

October 9, 2008

The Kansas City Chiefs have, for 18 years running, made UW-River Falls their summer home. For roughly four weeks in each of those past 18 summers, the Chiefs have used the University for their offseason training camp.

The Chiefs first came to River Falls in 1991, after they had toured three other colleges looking for a campus to practice at, according to Mark Kinders, the director of public relations at UWRF. Kinders said he recalls pitching the idea of having an NFL team train on the River Falls campus to the chancellor back when he was first hired in the 1980s. He was given the go-ahead to scout out different teams. Twenty-five of the 28 NFL teams at the time were contacted. Kinders got in touch with the Chiefs through an inside contact he had with the Chicago Bears, who were practicing on the UW-Platteville campus.

“The Chiefs had a new coach in Marty Schottenheimer who wanted to make a big change to the practice schedule,” Kinders said. “It was serendipitous we were looking. We dazzled them!”

Larry Testa, the committee chair for student affairs, said he remembers attempting to recruit a professional football team. According to him, the Chiefs had an easy decision when choosing between the campuses they toured.

“We made it quite obvious we wanted them,” said Testa. “We have a great practice facility, we’re close to a major airport and hospitals and we have very conducive weather. They just felt welcome.”

The Chiefs arrive on campus roughly near the end of July and stay until the middle of August, when NFL preseason begins. The team’s training staff arrives one week earlier to prepare the facilities.

The only exception is the Chiefs’ head groundskeeper, Andre Bruce, a nationally renowned sports field manager with 33 years experience with the Chiefs, who arrives in May to hire two university students to a summer internship helping prepare and manage the four football fields the Chiefs use.

According to Steve Stocker, the director of the Hunt/Knowles complex, Bruce budgets $30,000 strictly for grounds maintenance – materials and labor.  The fields are rolled, seeded, over fertilized up to four times and every divot gouged into the fields is filled in with sod.

“All this adds up,” Stocker said. “The Chiefs don’t just pick up and leave. Andre leaves those fields looking spectacular. We would have gone to turf fields years ago if the Chiefs didn’t keep our fields in such great shape.”

The exceptional care given to the fields also serves the student populace, giving them professional quality practice and game fields.

“They want to take care and they want to leave [the fields] better than when they showed up,” Ben Fraser, assistant director of Hunt/Knowles, said.

According to Stocker, there is no drawback to the Chiefs visit from a recreations viewpoint. The training camp gives the University a chance to generate outside revenue by utilizing practice facilities that would otherwise sit dormant.

The Chiefs utilize four football-sized fields, including Ramer Field, as well as the Hunt Arena field house, training rooms, locker rooms and three offices in the complex.

The Chiefs also occupy two residence halls. In the past, they have stayed in McMillan and Grimm Halls, but this past summer the Chiefs players and coaching staff stayed in South Fork Suites. The administrative staff remained in Grimm Hall, where they converted one of the wings on first floor into a bank of offices.

The team also utilizes the University Center, holding meetings in all the rooms and theater on the third floor as well as converting an area on second floor into a satellite training room. The Falls Room outside the Riverside Commons is used as a press conference area.

Testa pointed out that the Chiefs pay for everything they use.

“Anything associated with them being here they pay for,” Testa said. “They pay a fee for food services and facility rental, as well as paying a housing fee.”

Stocker was quick to point out that students in no way supplement the Chiefs.

“We utilize these fields through outside teams to supplement the facilities so students don’t have to,” he said.

With their arrival on campus every year, the Chiefs bring with them over 70 summer job and internship opportunities for students.

“There is quite a bit of employment for students,” Testa said.

A recent survey put out by agricultural economics professor David Trechter estimated that the University paid roughly $138,000 to summer student workers during the Chiefs training camp.

Avid football enthusiast and UWRF student Blake Karas had the opportunity to be a courier for the Chiefs last summer. His primary responsibility was to shuttle players and staff to and from wherever they needed to go.

“Working for the Chiefs this summer was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” said Karas in an e-mail interview. “The town was a lot more vibrant with the Chiefs there. I could feel River Falls being busy and more of a fun place to be when they are here.”

Not all students share that same optimism, however.

Dan Scott, hall manager for South Fork Suites, said he is frustrated by the Chiefs presence. Part of Scott’s HM duties require him to arrive on campus several weeks before classes begin. His building was not ready for any early arrival students to move into as a result of the Chiefs stay.

“When coming to campus for training I, among many other students, was unable to move in to the building I was assigned because the Chiefs had stayed there and it wasn’t clean yet,” Scott said.

It is not just the delay on moving into the building that Scott said hinders UWRF. He said he is also concerned by the apparent disrespect for the building in general which, in turn, leads to more stressful work for the custodial staff.

“It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the Chiefs are slobs and make a huge mess when they go to camp, which gives the custodians a ton of extra work and makes cleaning the halls the Chiefs stay in longer to clean. Which, in turn, makes it a huge inconvenience for professional staff members to find temporary spots for involved students who then have to move in to temporary housing before they can move into their spot for the year.”

When asked about the Chiefs’ respect for the buildings they stay in, Testa said there was “absolutely no truth” to any stories about the players being rough on the buildings.

“[The Chiefs] have been nothing but respectful,” Testa said. “As an organization they have been extremely professional. No problems whatsoever.”

Custodial Services was unavailable for comment.

During the Chiefs stay, they are kept extremely busy and are out of the res halls for most of their pre-planned day.

“They venture off campus fairly little and rest a lot,” Testa said with a chuckle. “They have breakfast, meetings, practice, lunch, meetings, practice, a snack, practice, dinner, meetings, etc… They have a curfew normally.”

But although they do not venture off campus too much, the Chiefs do bring a stimulus to the city of River Falls.

By playing host to an NFL team, UWRF and the surrounding community, have been placed into the national spotlight. A number of major media organizations have come to campus to cover the Chiefs, including The New York Times, USA Today and HBO.

Two summers ago, HBO made the Chiefs the focus of their program “Hardknocks,” a reality sports documentary series that follows an NFL team through their preseason, focusing on how they are preparing for their upcoming season. A good amount of filming was done in River Falls, exposing the city to a mainstream audience.

“[The] Chiefs made sure HBO highlighted River Falls in a positive way, really urging they capture the feel of the area,” Kinders said. It is this type of publicity that has the University staff so excited about the team’s annual visit.

“What other D3 school can be in USA Today or be on HBO?” asked Stocker. “The impact is priceless.”

When Kinders first became a staff member at UWRF, he said he could recall having to give “geography lessons” to anyone not from the area when mentioning River Falls.

“There is an enormous depth of media coverage,” Kinders said. “Since the Chiefs have come here, River Falls has been mentioned in national media millions of times. That brings tremendous name recognition. If you had to purchase that, it would cost tens of millions of dollars.”

The impact extends beyond the University and out to the town as well.

Brian Lee, the general manager of the River Falls Walgreens, said he saw a small rise in sales, mostly from the large amount of die hard Chiefs fans that comes out to watch the open practices.

“There wasn’t a great spike in general merchandising, but there was quite a pick-up in photo,” said Lee. “There were a lot of people from out of town… from all over the U.S. [that developed photos].”

The positive impact the team has on the city reaches far beyond more photo development. River Falls Chamber of Commerce CEO Rosanne Bump estimates that the Chiefs bring with them a $1 million economic stimulus to the city. The tourism businesses – hotels, restaurants and retail stores – see the most impact, Bump said.

Beyond that, the team’s presence helped form the creation of the St. Croix Regional Tourism Alliance – a committee that spans 20 communities over six counties. The Alliance brought together 15 partners between Wisconsin, Minnesota, various Boards of Commerce and UWRF to help promote the appeal and draw of the area to draw in revenue from tourism.

The most recent accreditation board that reviewed UWRF stated this alliance is an “excellent source of longevity of a community partnership between a University and the community in the service area,” Kinders said.

It is unclear whether or not the Chiefs will return again next year. Their contract has expired and the team is in year-to-year negotiations with the University. Complicating the situation is the fact that the Chiefs just completed construction on a new multi-million dollar practice facility in Kansas City. It is unknown by UWRF officials if that new facility will impact the Chiefs’ decision to return to UWRF.

“If they don’t come back it won’t be because they had a bad experience, they just wanted to stay home,” Testa said.

Even though some students and faculty may resent the extra amount of work that goes into hosting an NFL team for a month, there are still plenty of people that would like to see the Chiefs return again.

“We welcome the extra work,” said Fraser, “and would like to see it continue.”

An absence by the Chiefs may have a deep-lasting impact on the community and campus, putting an end to out-of-town tourism sales booms and leaving UWRF out of the national spotlight again.

“We want them back,” added Stocker. “Their absence would leave a serious void in revenue and publicity that might never be filled.”