Redskins are still the biggest game in town

The crowds for training camp at Redskins Park have been smaller than usual this summer. So what, if anything, does that mean? Many explanations have been offered:

●1. It’s hot and humid.

●2. Fans are waiting for everyone to get on the field and in pads so they can actually see something more than just drills.

●3. Because of the lockout and the uncertainty about when camp would start, it was harder for fans to arrange time off work.

●4. Been there, done that.

●5. The fans who’ve been threatening for years to boycott this franchise because of poor performance, anger with ownership, whatever, are finally following through.

While I’m not convinced the small crowds are a problem, the Redskins seem a little worried, issuing e-mail invitations to a camp that’s already open to everyone for free. If Saturday’s Fan Appreciation Day is a bust, then we’ll have to re-evaluate, but meantime, let’s look at these excuses.

●1. It’s always hot in Washington in August, and it’s never a dry heat. Weather has never kept away fans in the past; why would it this year?

●2. It’s true that Thursday’s the first day you’ll see most or all of the 2011 Redskins. I did think, however, that fans would want to get a look at John Beck throwing a football. After all, it’s hard to get your hands on game film from 2007. I assumed there’d be a curiosity level; apparently, I was wrong.

●3. Valid reason. If you have to take a day off work and get the kids out of camp and plan your real August vacation, you need to know early when training camp will start and what days will be open to fans. The lockout made scheduling more difficult; perhaps some fans decided to just skip it this year. The Redskins aren’t the only team whose numbers are down: The Giants, Steelers, Broncos and other teams have reported fewer spectators on the first few days of camp.

●4. Another valid reason for some longtime fans, although with all the new faces on the roster, this year won’t be the same old, same old. Just sorting out all the wide receivers could take one practice. A lack of big-name stars is a bigger problem. Eagles camp must be packed; they are loaded for bear in Philly.

●5. Maybe. There is a chance these fed-up fans are finally going to make good on their threats to drop the Redskins, at least financially — to stay home on Sundays, to contribute to the City Paper defense fund and to forgo the yearly shopping spree for new jerseys (and in this economy, we may still see a lot of McNabb No. 5s running around town this fall) .

But I’m not buying the training camp attendance dip as a sign of the apocalypse for the Redskins. Like it or not — and some of you definitely do not — the Redskins move the sports needle in this town, and their fans are amazingly loyal. Amazingly. This is my 19th year in Washington, and the Redskins have been bad for quite a bit of that time. Yet every year, the fans come back, in droves. They dominate talk radio, chat rooms and my inbox. This kind of loyalty in the face of almost constant disappointment is rare in the age of instant gratification.

And that’s why I don’t think the sparse training camp crowds mean much. Because even the angriest Redskins fans will get sucked in by one surprising upset or by someone special on the roster — remember Brandon Banks and Anthony Armstrong last season? You had to watch, even the beatings, just to see what was going to happen. Until I see a half-empty FedEx Field, the boycott argument doesn’t hold water for me.

This franchise may not be great at fielding a decent football team, but it’s aces at making money. The Redskins still rank No. 4 on Forbes’ list of the 50 most valuable sports teams, worth $1.55 billion, behind Man U, the Cowboys and the Yankees. You can’t do that without fans.

That Redskins will continue to flourish financially, and the fan base will continue to attend games and buy jerseys. And perhaps someday, that faith will be rewarded.

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