Recollections: Remember the Cheese League Part II
How Wisconsin hosted six NFL Teams
By Thom Gerretsen
Continued from last week
Former Bears’ coach Mike Ditka got the ball rolling for the Cheese League in 1984. According to a Fox Sports Wisconsin web article from 2012, Ditka wanted to get the players away from their families so they could focus more on football. After “Da Bears” won the Super Bowl in the 1986 season, thousands of Bear fans made the 2.5-hour drive from Chicago to Platteville to take in their teams’ workouts. Former Governor Tommy Thompson, a true cheerleader for Wisconsin, once held out the recruiting pompons for other teams – and I’m 90-percent sure he gave the Cheese League its name. Steve Zielke, the UW-Platteville staffer who recruited the Bears, represented UW schools at NFL meetings where he recruited the Saints in 1988 and the Chiefs in ’91.
Besides giving fans a sneak peek of their favorites, Cheese League teams enhanced their training opportunities by having joint practices with each other. Most also added at least one of the Wisconsin counterparts to their preseason game schedules. The Chiefs trained just a few miles from the Wisconsin/Minnesota border, allowing them to play an annual exhibition against the Vikings in Minneapolis. It was also a winning formula for the host cities. According to Fox Sports Wisconsin, an estimated 42,000 fans watched the Bears’ practices in 1993 in Platteville. The Saints said their annual economic impact in the La Crosse area was $2.5 million per year.
But it didn’t last. After the Jaguars’ first season, they moved their camp home to Jacksonville where fans across northeast Florida clamored for it. State lawmakers in Illinois convinced the Bears to move their camp back to the Chicago area in 2001. The NFL’s contractual safety rules reduced the numbers of camp practices, thus making it less lucrative for teams to practice away from their home areas. Teams also built new and more extensive training facilities close to home, plus assortments of revenue-generating fan amenities.
The Packers now have a 1,500-seat practice field west of Lambeau, and the Titletown play area for youngsters of all ages to east of the stadium. A pathway from the Lambeau locker room to Ray Nitschke Field lets players ride children’s bikes to-and-from practice; a tradition Vince Lombardi started in the 1960s. Other fun fan activities take place in the stadium’s parking lot. The popular Stadium Tour and Packers’ Hall of Fame are open. Year after year, friends & families make sure training camp is a must on their calendars.
It’s been that way for me and members of my family since 2006.