Fewer eyes on Redskins at camp

August 01, 2011

ASHBURN, Va. (AP) — His autograph cards in hand, 19-year-old Joey Partin was able to walk right up to the wooden burgundy railing and get a prime viewing spot for Monday morning’s Washington Redskins training camp practice. No jostling for position. No need to elbow an interloper trying to steal his spot.

“Oh, man,” said the 19-year-old from Leesburg, Va., “it used to be a struggle to get these spots.”

That’s because the crowd was all of one-deep, if that. Where there once were claustrophobic clusters of humanity, there was instead room to lounge on a blanket or chill out on a deck chair. The picnic tables had plenty of places to sit, and there was no line at the hamburger stand.

“It is probably a fifth of what I’ve seen on a normal day,” said tight end Chris Cooley, who’s starting his eighth season with the team.

Monday’s turnout was one of the sparsest — perhaps the all-time smallest — in the 10 years the team has been holding camp at its own facility in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The team doesn’t release attendance figures, but a club that usually draws them in by the thousands could now count them by the hundreds. Even the first open practice on Saturday didn’t pack them in; the number of fans paled in comparison to opening weekend crowds of years past.

The reasons are plentiful. Start with the lockout.

The camp schedule wasn’t released until the NFL officially went back to work a week ago, so the team didn’t have time to do a marketing blitz or set up the usual deals with local hotels for out-of-town visitors. Also, free agency has been such a frenzy that it’s hard to keep up with who’s going to be on the team.

“A lot of people said, ‘The heck with it, I’m going to wait and see,'" said Frank Moffett of Warrenton, Va, sporting a “Captain Chaos” Cooley T-shirt. “For a long time, you didn’t know whether they were going to have a season or not.”

Other fans pointed out that it was a Monday. And that was hot, with temperatures heading toward the 90s. But the Redskins have held numerous practices on hot August Mondays over the years, and it never seemed to deter the masses.

Others conceded a more fundamental problem. The Redskins’ popularity, as hard as it is for the die-hards to admit, just isn’t what it used to be, the result of consistent losing and an unpopular owner. The team that likes to brag about a sellout streak dating to 1966 — and has claimed to have as many as 200,000 people on its season ticket waiting list — has this year removed some 10,000 upper-deck seats from FedEx Field. Stadium vice president of operations Lon Rosenberg told ESPN980 last month those were seats that people on the waiting list “were not wanting to buy.”

People who aren’t on the waiting list apparently didn’t want them either. Partin says he never signed up for the list, but he’s been solicited multiple times with what in theory is supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to secure seats.

“They like to say the waiting list is really long, but I’ve gotten two or three calls this summer already,” he said. “I’d rather just watch the game on TV.”

Justin Caballero from Emmitsburg, Md., a long-time training camp regular, said it’s surprising to see the shine taken off a proud franchise that has always been so overwhelmingly popular throughout the region.

“I know some who have gotten rid of their tickets,” Caballero said. “The owner — that’s the biggest one I get, they don’t like the owner. And they don’t want to give him no more money.”

The Redskins have missed the playoffs in nine of 12 seasons since Dan Snyder bought the team in 1999 and have finished last place in the NFC East for three years running, despite the owner’s free-spending ways. Snyder declined a request to comment.

“The Redskins are just as popular. We remain a global franchise,” team spokesman Tony Wyllie said. “TV ratings were up 12 percent last year, merchandise sales were up, and we are on target to extend our sellout streak. Everyone is affected by what has happened recently, but we still remain popular as one of the most storied franchises in the NFL.”

Another factor in the training camp turnout is the lack of star players. Donovan McNabb was an automatic draw last year, as was Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs a few years back. A roster overhaul has left coach Mike Shanahan as the biggest name on the field, but it takes a while to warm to his no-nonsense demeanor. Plus, he’s still primarily thought of as the coach who won Super Bowls in Denver — and not yet really one of Washington’s own.

“Is it that there’s no one everyone wants to see?” Cooley said. “The first couple of years, it was just everyone came to see Joe. People went crazy when Joe was here.”

Cooley has invested his entire professional career in the Redskins, so it rankles a bit that the state of the fandom has been on the wane. His solution is the same as everyone else’s: The team needs to win.

“It’s frustrating to hear a negative side of the fan towards this team,” Cooley said. “I’ve been fortunate that I’ve always had so many people support me, but it’s hard to listen to the radio and have anyone dog us. No one likes that. It all comes down to winning.”

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