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Locked out? NFL training camp sites start to sweat

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 04:42 PM
MINNEAPOLIS -

Jake's Stadium Pizza has been a fast-food fixture on the Minnesota State University campus for nearly four decades. This summer, they're cooking that thin crust with crossed fingers in Mankato, Minn.

The NFL lockout, now headed toward its fourth month, is threatening a revenue-driving, profile-raising event for this small, family-owned business: Vikings training camp.

"We're hoping they get it done, because it's not just us. It's the whole state that will suffer," said Wally Boyer, the owner of the joint where players from Jim Marshall to John Randle have recuperated after many a draining workout. Fans, too, have long made that familiar walk down Stadium Road after watching practice to fill up and cool off.

If the work stoppage lingers long enough to keep teams holding traditional training camps, the hit would be felt far beyond Minnesota, and it wouldn't just be about losing money.

In upstate New York, the Jets have trained on the SUNY Cortland campus the last two years.

"Just their presence alone has stimulated people. It's just good for the mental health of the community," said Cortland State football coach Dan MacNeill. "For our people, it's been fun. It has impacted the football program. We don't have normal use of our facilities. But an NFL franchise, no matter where you go, there's a heck of a following."

Seventeen of the 32 NFL teams last year held training camp at their year-round facilities, reflecting a trend toward cost-and-time efficiency in an era in which chemistry is built and conditioning established well before the two-a-day grind in August.

But the other 15 teams still take their show on the road, many of them to slower-paced cities and small colleges where their presence is a big deal — and a big financial boon.

Some people make a summer vacation out of watching their favorite team run drills and scrimmages. Day-trippers at least stop for a bite to eat on the way out of town.

The Cardinals have held camp at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff since 1988, and the school's Rural Policy Institute estimated it brought $7 million to the local economy last year, with an overall impact of $10 million. There were over 38,000 visitors, 81 percent of those from out of town, along with 122 jobs created by the camp.

In southern Minnesota, a 90-minute drive from the Twin Cities, Vikings training camp makes a $5 million impact on the region, said Anna Thill, president of the Greater Mankato Convention and Visitors Bureau. Last year, it drew 60,000 visitors from at least 30 states, and a few foreign countries.

The university charges $7 for parking near the practice fields, but that's only part of the story. The school also receives tremendous exposure.

"They do bring people here, and young people are introduced to the campus. There's certainly a marketing value to the Vikings being here that is difficult to determine," said Michael Cooper, the university's media relations director.

Whether it's Westminster, Md., Anderson, Ind., or Spartanburg, S.C., the reflected glamour of having an NFL team in town for a few weeks can go a long way.

"You can't put a price on it, to be honest. Newspaper articles go out every day that have Georgetown, Ky., as the dateline. It puts the community on the map," said John Simpson, executive director of the Georgetown/Scott County Tourism Commission. The Bengals train at Georgetown College, about 100 miles south of Cincinnati.

The Vikings' presence was enough to get Jake's Stadium Pizza a mention in Sports Illustrated once. Boyer said his business spikes about 20 percent during camp.

"It's a lot of frosting on the cake," he said.

Even some of the teams that don't train off site, like the Washington Redskins, make a mark on local economies. Visit Loudoun president Patrick Kaler said his group estimates a $600,000 impact to the Virginia county during camp alone.

"It brings in a lot of people who just drive in. They're staying in the hotels, they're going to restaurants, doing other things while they're here, so it's a big deal for us. That helps put us on the map," Kaler said. "How many people know where Loudoun County, Virginia, is?"

Start dates are staggered by team, but generally training camps begin the last week of July — seven weeks or so from now. There is plenty of time for NFL owners and players to reach an agreement by then, but teams and their hosts need some lead time to make arrangements.

For the Jets, early July is essentially the deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement in order to commit to Cortland for 2011. Team spokesman Bruce Speight said that's "an internal point of reference. There is some leeway, and it is subject to developments."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league "has set no such date" for an agreement to ensure the opening of normal training camps.

So, at SUNY Cortland and several points west and south, they wait.

"Everybody is anxious," MacNeill said.

According to a report from the university, Jets camp drew 41,000 visitors last year, from 32 states and four Canadian provinces. Though nearly 90 percent were from New York, 59 of the 62 counties were represented. The overall economic effect of camp has been pegged at $5.8 million, and spectators at last summer's camp accounted for 82 percent of that spending.

"We think it will be even bigger this year if they can get the collective bargaining agreement done," SUNY Cortland president Erik Bitterbaum said. "From an economic perspective, it's an economic engine, and from a morale standpoint it lifts the community. People spruce up their neighborhoods. It really was a point of pride."

Doug's Fish Fry is a half-mile down the road from the practice field, and it's become a destination for fans. Owner Mark Braun has the place spruced up just as one would expect from a Jets season ticket-holder the past 15 years.

There are Jets photos and autographs at every turn. Welcome banners are nailed to all corners above the main dining area, and a "Hard Knocks" T-shirt in honor of the popular HBO documentary series hangs between two burnt-orange neon fish signs.

"I'm just nervous if we miss a year they might not remember us as easily," Braun said. "I'll miss it as a business owner, but more as a fan."

Then there is Green Bay, Wis., home of the defending Super Bowl champions, where fans would miss preseason football as much as anyone. The Packers train at their team headquarters, but an estimate by AECOM Technical Services put the impact of their 2009 camp at $7.4 million, based on 34,000 attendees.

More than 80 percent of them come from outside of Brown County, and they stay an average of close to two days, giving a lift to local restaurants and hotels.

"It's going to be a fairly significant hit in terms of impact, because we have a number of people where that is their vacation," said Fred Monique, the president of the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.

"The Packers organization and the city of Green Bay did not get a chance to celebrate like it should. They won the championship, then they went straight to the lockout."

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