The 'Skins trade on fans' devotion

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ASHBURN, Va. - The main event didn't start until 3:30 in the afternoon, but there he was at 10:30 a.m., lined up and grinning and ready to go.

It was the first day of training camp for the Washington Redskins, reigning champions of pro football's NFC East, and Gregory Harrison, a 20-year-old college student from Fairfax, Va., was among the crowd of about 300 clogging the camp's public entrance long before it opened at noon.

"I want to see some of my favorite players up close," he said. "This is a great day. I wouldn't have missed it for anything."

That sort of zeal prevailed among the 3,000-odd diehards who would show up at the Redskins Park complex in this northern Virginia town to watch their team go through its earliest paces late last week. They wore $60 Redskins replica jerseys and waved burgundy-and-gold flags. They guzzled $6 beers and $3 Cokes. They jabbered brightly about new star players such as veteran defensive end Bruce Smith and fleet cornerback Deion Sanders. They got to glimpse and mingle with their heroes. And, perhaps most surprising, virtually none complained that, for the first time in the history of the club, they had to shell out money for the privilege.

Even in an era when pro sports teams make a virtual science of opening new revenue streams, no National Football League franchise had ever charged admission to regular pre-season workouts before this year. Only four - the Buffalo Bills, the Indianapolis Colts, the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers - even ask for a parking fee, with the Giants topping that list at $5 per vehicle.

The Redskins, holding camp for the first time at their suburban Washington training facility, are charging adult fans $10 each to get in, and $10 more to park in nearby lots. And from the look of things the first few days of camp, the new stratagem might just prove a success. Fans turned out to watch their heroes mostly stretch and sweat and run repetitive drills.

Redskins fans have long been some of the most rabid in the sport, from the glory days of Sonny Jurgensen in the 1960s to the coming season, in which the 85,000 seats at the Redskins' FedEx Field, as usual, are sold out.

But never before has watching preseason workouts carried a price tag. Fans like Harrison, long since accustomed to the ratcheting-up of dollars in pro sports, don't seem to mind.

"Dan Snyder has really shaken things up," he said of the dynamic 35-year-old businessman who paid $800 million for the team two years ago. "No Redskins owner has done as much to improve the team or bring it closer to the fans."

Indeed, as Redskins officials said Thursday, the transfer of camp from the campus of Maryland's Frostburg State University, its base for the past five years, to Ashburn represents their making the whole franchise more accessible to its faithful. And those there on Thursday seemed to see the entry fee as footing the bill for the winning team they all want.

Bill Sylvester of Annapolis, on hand with his wife, Dawn, and 4-year-old son, Kyle, said the team was good enough to be Super Bowl-bound. Nick Jones, who made the three-hour drive from Newport News, Va., predicted a 12-4 season at worst. "We all want to win," he said. "And we'll win this year. But that costs money. [Snyder] has to get it from somewhere, doesn't he?"

For their $20 entrance fee, fans got what might be a glimpse of NFL training camps of the future.

Redskins staff opened the gates 3 1/2 hours early, not just to let visitors stake out the best bleacher seats, but also to let them enjoy the features of a sort of NFL theme park. One air-conditioned tent housed a Redskins souvenir shop that peddled everything from $20 T-shirts to $130 barbecues. Another served as a dining area where fans could nosh on $3 hot dogs and $5 burgers. The "NFL Experience" area includes 12 booths in which participants - mostly the kids in the crowd - can practice their passing accuracy, run digitally timed 40-yard dashes and scoop up machine-generated punts, all included in the price of admission.

The NFL Experience alone normally cost $10 to enjoy, says Redskins president Stephen Baldacci; throw in the club's workouts and you've got "an incredible value for the money."

That may be a subjective call, but fans can certainly get close to the players, in spirit as well as in person. Mannequins, 6 feet tall and done up in full Redskins playing equipment, line the walkways; they are headless so that fans can stand behind them, put their faces in the right spots, and look like pros in family snapshots.

More fans took advantage of the chance to get autographs. Hundreds stood three deep along a barricade between the Redskins' locker room and the practice field, snagging players' autographs on footballs, pennants and seat cushions from the likes of Sanders, new quarterback Jeff George and head coach Norv Turner.

On a busy day under a warm sun, the workouts themselves, once they began, seemed almost anti-climactic. By the time players lined up for their stretching exercises on this bright, 80-degree afternoon, the spectators who filled better than half the 5,000-seat bleacher section seemed as sun-baked as they were spirited.

Linemen battered blocking sleds across an end zone. Wideouts jogged through pass patterns. Quarterbacks George, Brad Johnson and Todd Husak arched spirals. Fans oohed and aahed at a 70-yard punt from Rodney Williams and cheered as Sanders, a celebrated punt returner, camped under his first kick as a Redskin. And as offense and defense ran through plays on a light-contact basis, wide receiver Michael Westbrook snared a sideline pass over Sanders' head.

Was the action worth the $20 admission fee? "I guess so," said one fan, a bleary-looking fellow who called himself Heavy Duty. "It's fun to be here and see the fellas, but to be honest, what can you really tell from this?"

A lot, Baldacci hoped. When reporters quizzed him on the notion of charging admission, he waxed almost sentimental. "This wasn't a business decision," he insisted, "it was an emotional one." Not only is the team closer to Dulles Airport so that it can travel more easily to preseason games, he said, it's also more a part of the Washington community than it has ever been.

Baldacci downplayed the controversy caused by the team's pulling out of a 10-year lease in Frostburg - the two sides are still negotiating a settlement, and there have been satirical protests on the university's campus - and said the first day's turnout should be enough to satisfy skeptics.

"I just talked to Mr. Snyder on the phone," he said. "He asked me one thing: 'Do you see a lot of smiling faces?' I see a lot of happy fans here today." He gestured to the stands. "Look up there," he said. "The fans [have] decided."

He hopes for more of the same, of course. Citing concerns for their neighbors in Ashburn, the Redskins have placed a cap of 7,500 on weekday attendance and 15,000 for weekends, but Baldacci expected significant crowds for Saturday, when the team's cheerleaders made their 2000 debut, and yesterday, when the Redskins conducted their first intrasquad scrimmage. He got them. About 7,000 fans showed up. Camp will be open through Aug. 17,

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue says the Redskins model is not necessarily a prototype for the rest of the league, but other franchises will doubtless be keeping tabs on the outcome. And the enterprise's success will largely depend on fanatics like Harrison, who never thought twice about getting to camp, and Sylvester, who got three co-workers to cover for him at his NASA job Thursday and expects to bring pals back two or three more times.

"When I first heard about this, I thought $10 to get in and $10 to park was a little much," said Sylvester, fingering the gold Redskins necklace dangling below his collar. "But as training camp got closer, you know what? It seemed like a better and better idea. I live and die the Redskins," he said, brandishing a bag full of new souvenirs. "Always have, always will. When you get right down to it, it's only money."

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