On a sunny autumn day, the University of Miami Field House was buzzing with the sounds of basketballs dribbling and whistles blowing. Inside, playersran the length of the court, as their coaches paced alongside it chiding them to compete harder. Training tables ran the length of the room, ready to assist players should they tweak something while playing. On this sunny autumn day, it wasn’t the 2013 ACC Men’s Basketball Champions, University of Miami, pacing the court under the guidance of head coach Jim Larrañaga. Rather, it was a group of 35-year-old to 70-year-old men with net worth’s over $1 million seeking to live out the fantasy of being a college basketball player.
Founded in 1998 to provide summer sports camps for children and assist professional athletes in hosting camps, in 2012 Pro Camps entered the fantasy camp market. Fantasy camp attendees are told they can “live their ultimate fantasy” at the five fantasy camps Pro Camps hosts: the Bill Self Basketball Fantasy Experience at the University of Kansas, the John Calipari Fantasy Experience at the University of Kentucky, the Tom Crean Fantasy Basketball Experience at the Indiana University, the Jim Larrañaga Fantasy Basketball Experience at the University of Miami and the USA Basketball Fantasy Basketball Experience in Las Vegas.
At each experience, the camp’s adult participants are treated to a fantasy version of what being a student-athlete is like. For starters, there aren’t any classroom activities. Rather, there are hotel stays at places like the Ritz Carlton and dinners at steakhouses like Ruth’s Chris. There are swag bags filled with items including t-shirts to jerseys from basketball’s biggest merchandisers. There are team meetings, film review sessions and personal coaching opportunities by each school’s head coach and his staff. No fantasy camp would be complete without behind-the-scenes access to each team’s locker rooms, training facilities and offices, with the ability to compete in the arena that each team calls home.
What the promotional material for each fantasy camp fails to advertise, though, is what each camper is the most willing to spend big dollars on to receive: high-level basketball competition and camaraderie. For these men who work high-stress jobs, those two factors justify the $2,995-to-$10,995 price tag Pro Camps charges for its fantasy basketball camps. “Participants of our fantasy camps will tell you that the best thing about them are the friendships and relationships they build. It’s not about the gear. It’s not about the good food, hotels and events we provide them. It’s about the relationships they build. When they first started going, guys didn’t know each other and now they’re building relationships with them. Guys are recruiting other guys to go to different camps with them,” Pro Camps’ chief operation officer, Andy Danner said.
The enjoyment the camp’s participants receive from participating in the camps has led to the creation of a businessman basketball counterculture of sorts. Fantasy camp participants traverse the country throughout the year participating in Pro Camps’ fantasy camps and other fantasy camps organized by individual coaches or other entities, like Jim Boeheim’s at Syracuse or Mike Krzyzewski’s at Duke. Many of the men have built basketball training facilities into their homes, with some adding facilities to their offices. Most have personal trainers and some have shooting coaches.
Even after the camp ends, the fantasy lives on. Throughout the fantasy camp “off-season,” they email each other talking smack and scouting to see who has improved the most away from camp. One camper at the recent Jim Larrañaga Fantasy Basketball Experience who wished to remain anonymous for fear over how investors in his business may react to what he called his “$100,000-per-year basketball habit” noted, “There’s a bunch of type-A personalities who are unbelievably successful here. There are 50 millionaires, multimillionaires and more, who are competing at the highest level and they share a passion for basketball. It’s an amazing experience to suspend reality and come into an environment, have coaches come and work with us, and come together with a common goal in this very temporary bubble of fantasy. You can’t get this in other facets of life.”
Pro Camps notes that the market for fantasy basketball camps is niche and as such, growth must be slow, steady and intentional. The number of men with net worth’s over $1 million limits the pool of participants from the outset. Add to that the fact that not every man with that net worth wants to spend his money traveling to play basketball. On top of that, realize that there are only a handful of coaches in America who could draw a large enough crowd committed to paying thousands-of-dollars to learn under them. Quickly, one realizes the market for fantasy basketball camps is small. “What’s unique about fantasy basketball camps, is we feel there’s only a certain number of camps we can do. The camps have to be tied to very elite programs–the Camelots of college basketball,” Danner explained.
That fact hasn’t dissuaded Pro Camps, however, from entering the market. In fact, the company is looking for ways to expand its fantasy camp experience, through the addition of other sports that may be more attractive to a wider audience, like golf and tennis. If its fantasy basketball camps are any indicator, it’s likely that if Pro Camps makes the move, it’ll have golf courses and tennis courts filled with millionaire businessmen eager to live the life of their favorite golf and tennis stars.
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