RICHMOND — The line of fans was mostly one deep, maybe two at times, running down the sideline. The end zone was empty. The hill overlooking practice was dotted with onlookers.
Washington Redskins training camp opened Thursday to a sparse audience. Maybe 1,000 over two combined sessions. No screaming of players’ names, especially with Robert Griffin III now in Cleveland. No jockeying position for autographs since there was room for everyone. No loud cheers for every long completion.
What happened to camp in Richmond? Have the Redskins worn through the central Virginia fan base that was once overflowing with diehards?
After drawing 165,571 fans in 2013 to average more than 10,000 per day, the reported numbers even improved to 167,749. But there was no hiding a downturn last year when reporting 80,888. And this year? The team won’t announce figures this summer. Gee, wonder why?
So what has happened to training camp crowds? The team is coming off an NFC East title. It has two new players – rookie Josh Doctson and All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman – that fans should want to see up close.
But there was little juice in the crowd for the first day. Granted, walkthroughs are pretty boring and the heat index was 108 degrees for the afternoon workout, but morning workouts are always boring and summer heat is no newcomer.
The stands now seem barely more filled than the far-flung days of Frostburg (1995-99) when few Redskins fans ventured to Western Maryland and locals were mostly Pittsburgh Steelers fans. Carlisle saw big crowds during the Super Bowl run of 1983-91, but even the return of camp to the small Pennsylvania town in 2001-02 attracted decent numbers. And Redskins Park crowds over a decade before moving camp to Richmond were far bigger.
The Redskins are only midway through their eight-year deal with Richmond, and unlike Frostburg, there’s no leaving early. The team needs to remain in good standing with the state capital and its legislators while considering Virginia for its new stadium site. Given the training site is well designed, there’s really no reason for the team to depart just because of small crowds.
But why aren’t the stands filled? It’s probably a combination of factors.
Camp is only three weeks nowadays, down from eight in the 1960-70s and six weeks through the ‘90s. For three weeks, Washington fans will just wait until the team returns. It doesn’t seem worth the two-hour plus trip south for many fans.
Many Richmond to Virginia Beach fans were excited to see the team come to the region for the first time. But getting them to return regularly seems problematic, on weekdays at least. The been-there, done-that attitude has seeped in.
Griffin is gone and so are the nonstop calls of “RGIII.” It’s like people came just to yell it. Regardless of his diminished play, Griffin brought an audience. Indeed, there were still many No. 10 jerseys in the crowd on Thursday.
Maybe the downward trend is simply temporary? Most likely, the crowd counts will probably grow to halfway between the first two years and the third.
But the buzz in the stands has been replaced by banging from an adjacent construction site. The times of practice noise mimicking games are done.
Rick Snider has covered Washington sports since 1978. Follow him on Twitter @Snide_Remarks.