Redskins consider their first training camp in Richmond a success

The Washington Redskins are scheduled to pack up and leave their first training camp in Richmond after Friday’s practice. The team considers its three-week stay at its new camp home a success, with the large and enthusiastic crowds that regularly circled the practice fields signaling that the Redskins achieved their goal of making themselves readily accessible to a different segment of their fan base.

It wasn’t all positive, as some fans continue to complain about the crowded conditions on fan appreciation day in the middle of camp. But most of those interviewed about attending camp described their overall experience as pleasant and worthwhile.

“This is my first training camp,” one fan, Mike Eckler of Richmond, said this week. “I’m a lifelong Redskins fan and just never made it up to Ashburn. So this has been a great experience. Hopefully it’s been good for them. I think it’s great for Richmond as a whole. I used to be a season-ticket holder for years, made it to the Hall of Fame when Art Monk and Darrell Green got in, so this is something I had to make sure I crossed off the list.”

Total attendance for the camp has surpassed 155,000, including a crowd of more than 25,000 for fan appreciation day Aug. 3. The average daily attendance has been more than 10,000, according to the Redskins. On most days, there has been a long line of fans waiting when the gates were opened to the team’s facility. The merchandise tent set up just inside the front gate appeared to be doing a brisk business much of the time. Crowds were vocal and supportive, particularly whenever quarterback Robert Griffin III was in view.

“Just the accommodations at this facility and the crowd support, it makes it a lot more fun than just standard every day,” 11th-year quarterback Rex Grossman said. “The fans make it more fun and make it a little more competitive. That’s always a good thing.”

Griffin clearly was the leading attraction, as fans chanted, “RG-III! RG-III!” practically whenever he was spotted, and waited long after practices to try to get his autograph. Griffin was accommodating, with regularly lengthy signing sessions. The Redskins made a fan-friendly gesture when they had some of the children in attendance walk off the field with players after practices.

The Redskins moved camp from their regular season facility in Ashburn to Richmond in part because they wanted to attract and cultivate fans from areas of Virginia and further south who are too far from the D.C. area to make a training-camp visit there convenient. They appear to have succeeded in that regard, a marketing victory for a team already estimated to be among the league’s most valuable franchises.

“One of the reasons I came was because it was close,” said a fan from Norfolk, Carnell Marsh. “It’s wonderful. The weather’s holding out. It’s the best thing to happen to this part of town.”

Said a Williamsburg-based fan, Brian Freeman: “We’re only an hour away from here, so it’s obviously much more convenient. We wouldn’t go if it was up there” in Ashburn.

General Manager Bruce Allen declined to be interviewed this week about the team’s first summer in Richmond. He’s scheduled to address media members Friday.

Redskins officials seem to regard the camp as a major success, but appear to believe it’s too soon to know whether the increased exposure to this portion of the franchise’s fan base will result in significantly bolstered ticket and merchandise sales among followers further from the Washington area. It does appear to be a highly positive business and marketing development for a team that must compete for fan loyalties in some areas inside its own market with the reigning Super Bowl champions just up I-95 to the north, the Baltimore Ravens.

There were glitches. Anyone who attempted to negotiate the frequent I-95 traffic snarls to reach this camp from the D.C. area quickly discovered that could be a maddening experience.

Approximately 100 fans were treated for heat-related symptoms on fan appreciation day. Some of those who attended said they found the experience to be memorably unpleasant. Freeman, the fan from Williamsburg, said: “It was mobbed! That wasn’t too great.”

Al Seaforth, a fan who’d attended previous training camps in Ashburn, said: “I’m still getting used to the environment. I’m used to going in Ashburn. This facility is a little bigger and more accommodating, so that’s a plus. If I had to say, I think Ashburn was a little better.”

The Redskins generally had good luck with the weather. There were only a few truly steamy days. There were some rainy days, including one soggy stretch that prompted the team to have a helicopter fly low above the practice fields to help dry them. The fields generally drained well, although some of the surrounding areas encompassing tents for VIPs and radio and television stations were left muddy messes. The team has an indoor practice facility in Ashburn but lacks one in Richmond, although there are tentative plans to add one at some point.

Players said they didn’t mind riding shuttle buses between the practice facility and the team’s hotel a few miles away. The team’s still-glistening new facility includes a locker room, trainer’s room and weight room. But meetings and midday naps took place at the hotel. Players said being away at camp created a bonding experience that might be helpful during the season.

“I think it’s been good,” defensive end Stephen Bowen said. “It gives guys a chance to focus in more, I think. It’s only us out here. Nobody really knows anyone. We just stick together.”

Said tight end Fred Davis: “It’s a different environment, a different feeling. I feel like it’s definitely a good situation for everybody to have that camaraderie. ”

The Redskins will spend the remainder of the preseason based in Ashburn, bidding farewell Friday to Richmond until next summer. There’s no way of knowing whether they’ll be met with the same level of enthusiasm here next year, or if this year’s fan passion was attributable to the novelty of the situation. But clearly the Redskins, who have an eight-year deal to hold camp in Richmond, were made to feel welcome in their first year.

“I don’t have to go on the road,” said Miles Lofton, a fan from Richmond. “It’s wonderful. I hope they’re here forever and ever and ever. This is my fourth day out here. Parking was smooth. The only tough part is getting to RGIII! I want to get an autograph.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
Chelsea Janes covers high school sports for The Washington Post.
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