Why watch when you can play ball with your idol?
Watching the World Series on TV—or even in person—is fine for a certain kind of sports fan. Other fanatics want to meet their larger-than-life heroes, a goal usually accomplished by elbowing through a like-minded throng for a postgame autograph or attending a book signing. Then there’s a whole other level: those who want not only to meet, say, Michael Jordan, but to play basketball with him as well.
For these die-hards, the world of fantasy sports camps beckons. While decidedly not summer camp, these are not exactly training camps either. Instruction from the pros is mixed with competition—and a healthy dose of schmoozing. Still, for anyone who’s had childhood dreams of wearing a pro jersey and going up against a sports legend for the last-second shot as time expires, this is the real deal.
Getting in to the camps of true sports idols, however, can be as difficult as dinner reservations at Rao’s—and much more expensive. The same stars that command (or commanded) millions of dollars each year in salary can now charge upwards of $4,000 per day per person for the privilege of playing with them. Waiting lists can be months long.
Baseball camps are some of the most accessible, since virtually every professional team holds them during spring training. At the Minnesota Twins’ camp, for example, you can take a cut at Bert Blyleven’s still-ferocious curveball, get in the face of veteran umpire Rich Garcia, and listen to legendary Twins announcer Dick Bremer booming out your every whiff. Or sign up for Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr.’s week-long camp, which offers tryouts and a draft, as well as instruction from the Iron Man himself. Participants mix action on the diamond with long chat sessions, golf, and outings to the historic Baltimore neighborhood of Fells Point.
But fantasy isn’t limited to America’s pastime. Basketball camps abound as well, led by legends like Rick Barry and Bill Russell. Anyone who’s ever played Naismith’s game, however, couldn’t pass up the chance to go toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan at his camp, held each August at the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. It costs a premium to challenge His Airness, of course: $17,500, to be exact. For that, you’ll get 3-1/2 days of March Madness-style basketball, sweating with Mike under the watchful eye of PAC 10 referees and Hall of Fame coaches like Larry Brown and Chuck Daly.
And Jordan isn’t the only legend cashing in. At Wayne Gretzky’s five-day hockey camp in Glendale, Arizona, enthused participants enjoy schmooze-fests and ice-time with the Great One, including a practice session and three games. Or you can sign up for the 2008 Chris Evert Fantasy Camp at the Boca Raton Resort and Club, where, for $7,200, you can hit the hard courts in two half-day sessions with the winner of 18 Grand Slam titles—and get a spa treatment and farewell dinner as well.
Even golf, that sometimes haughty pastime, has democratized. While well-connected amateurs have long had the opportunity to swing with experts in Pro-Am contests, it’s largely a privilege reserved for corporate sponsors and other bigwigs. But now anyone can mangle a 3-wood tee shot with a PGA Tour pro: A company called the Tour Experience can match you up for a dream round with one of the world’s top golfers. For something more experiential (and less celebrity-driven), the PGA Tour Experiences replicates a day in the life of a playing pro, with a round at Florida’s TPC at Sawgrass, which includes a professional caddie with your name on his bib. It’s just like being in the pros, which is of course what fantasy sports are all about.
Here’s our list of eight fantasy camps where you can swing, shoot, skate, ski, and more with those who do it for a living.