When the economy crashed, the Brien family of Springfield, Ohio, started cutting.
“We cut out eating out,” said Kevin Brien, who works at a Ford dealership. “We cut out going out. We’ll be at home more. We watch a lot of movies.”
What they didn’t cut out? Training camp.
Brien, his wife and two children brought their blanket, spread it on a hillside and watched the Cincinnati Bengals practice at Georgetown college one afternoon. All it cost was $15 for parking to catch a few hours of football and maybe a few autographs, too.
“It kills a couple of hours, and it’s pretty cheap,” Brien said.
With money so tight for so many people, training camp has become an attractive way to get an affordable — and sometimes free — fill of sports for a day.
“And it’s neat because you’re so close to the players,” said Brien, sitting about 50 feet from the sideline. “The atmosphere is nice, too. There’s no cursing. It’s more family friendly.”
Attendance at camps around the country this summer seems to be following the first economic law of sports: winners draw, losers don’t. Few teams keep attendance figures, so it’s guesswork about how NFL training camps are drawing overall.
In some places, it’s obvious.
In Florida, fans are caught up in a Dolphins team that unleashed the Wildcat offense last season, went 11-5 and reached the playoffs for the first time in seven years. They drew an estimated 3,152 fans for their first practice, their largest crowd at training camp since the Dan Marino days.
They’re also packing them in at St. John Fisher College in suburban Rochester, N.Y., where Terrell Owens — the outspoken receiver with his own cable TV reality show — has joined the Buffalo Bills. An estimated 5,000 fans turned out for the team’s first two practices, many wearing his No. 81 jersey or carrying boxes of a cereal named after him.
The Vikings estimate their attendance is up 60 percent over last year, fueled at the start of camp by thoughts that quarterback Brett Favre might come out of retirement. Favre stayed retired, but the fans kept coming.
On the flip side are teams like the Bengals, who are coming off a 4-11-1 season. Attendance at their annual scrimmage was down by a few thousand from two years ago, and the economy wasn’t the culprit.
During the scrimmage in front of 6,500 fans, an airplane pulled a banner overhead that read: “101-187-1 ... HIRE A GM!” It was a reference to the Bengals’ record since 1991 under owner Mike Brown, who functions as the team’s de facto general manager.
In other places, the mood is more serene. Some Kansas City Chiefs fans made time to be part of the 19th and final training camp in River Falls, Wis., about seven hours north of Arrowhead Stadium. The team moves to St. Joseph, Mo., next year.
“There are a number of people who have basically taken their summer vacation and planned to be up here,” team president Denny Thum said. “And with this being our final year, we’ve seen more folks that have been up here early on in camp.”
Some teams, like the Chargers, Raiders and Lions, have limited or no fan access to practices.
The league is watching to see how much the deep recession affects attendance at games and other events.
“I’m sure there are people that aren’t able to come because of economic consequences,” commissioner Roger Goodell said at the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, this month. “On the other hand, I’ve always said that at times like this and these kind of economic uncertainties, people really need to have emotion, we need to feel that connection to the game. They need to get away from everyday troubles, and this is a great example of it.”
One of the best draws of training camp — aside from the price — is the chance to interact with players. After the Bengals practice, they sign autographs on their way to the locker room. The same thing happens at other camps, allowing fans to feel closer to their team.
Sometimes, very close.
During a 49ers workout in Santa Clara, Calif., kick returner Allen Rossum spotted a boy in the stands, ran across the field and handed him a football.
“Here you go, little man,” Rossum said to 5-year-old Jalen Angus.
The boy’s mother beamed.
“You happened to be in the right place at the right time,” she said.