- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2000

They came, they saw, they opened their wallets.

And with no food or water unless they paid, a lot, for it. No bringing in anything from home.

The Washington Redskins began training camp at Redskin Park in Ashburn, Va., under perfect skies Thursday before a crowd of about 2,800, some of whom had driven hundreds of miles to become the first National Football League fans ever to pay to watch practice.

Dozens lined up before the gates opened at noon, and within minutes hundreds were trekking through the concession stands and interactive football games. Few appeared deterred by the $10 parking fee, the $10 admission fee or sky-high prices for food and apparel.

"We're having a blast. This was absolutely worth the drive," said Michael Williams, a former Alexandria resident and current season ticket holder who brought his three school-aged sons and nephew from Charlotte, N.C. "Actually, I'm glad they're charging. If I'm going to drive these guys up for seven hours, I want to know we're getting in and that we'll have a controlled environment."

The attendance was less than the team expected and was boosted by 2-for-1 ticket vouchers distributed throughout Loudoun County. The attendance also was larger than the team usually drew at their old camp in Frostburg, Md. Team officials said heavy criticisms over the unprecedented admission fee were overstated.

"All of the discussion about charging can be put to rest," said team President Steve Baldacci. "The fans have decided. This was not a business decision. We believe we have delivered value to the fans."

The Redskins trained at Frostburg State University in Maryland the past five seasons but broke their contract to move to the D.C. area for the first time since 1945.

The Redskins are the only one of 31 NFL teams that charges admission; three others charge for parking.

When the Redskins announced this spring their intent to move camp to Ashburn and implement the admission fee, the team was widely vilified by government officials and fans. The United Sports Fans of America, the country's largest fan advocacy group, wrote a scathing protest letter to Redskins owner Dan Snyder.

Team officials said the camp will not be a money maker and will simply offset more than $2 million spent to move the camp and build facilities, including a wooden grandstand seating more than 5,000. Sports industry experts expect the Redskins to become a model for other NFL training camps. Baldacci declined to say whether other teams have called to express interest in following the Redskins example.

Although a full evaluation of the much-debated decisions won't be possible until camp ends Aug. 17, Loudoun County officials also praised the team's work. The county granted a one-year permit for the Redskins to hold camp at their permanent headquarters at Redskin Park on several conditions. Attendance will be limited to 7,500 on weekdays and 15,000 on weekends. The team was required to urge fans to avoid congested Route 28, and the county mandated the team to make improvements to Smith Switch Road near Redskin Park.

"[The Redskins] have done everything to the letter," said Melinda Artman, Loudoun County zoning administrator. "They've worked hard to do everything we've asked."

Fans arriving to camp yesterday were greeted with two 140-foot-long tents, one for food and drink and the other a giant Redskins merchandise store. While the food prices were similar to those at FedEx Field ($5 beer, $3 soda), fans faced sticker shock in the other tent. The $25 T-shirts, $60 replica jerseys and $75 polo shirts all posted prices that exceeded those at the stadium or most other retailers. But some were cheerful and willing to spend.

Most popular, of course, was the access to the players. A retaining wall leading up to the entrance to the locker room was lined with fans three-deep waiting to get autographs.

"I like this. Obviously, it's a lot easier to get to than Frostburg," said Tom Kalinowski of Ashburn. "I don't mind paying the $10 because they're obviously spending the money to get players."

The team recruited stars such as Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders and Jeff George over the off-season and has more than $100 million committed this season in player salaries.

The training camp also included the NFL Experience, a series of interactive football games seen in a more limited form at FedEx Field and also at the Super Bowl each year. Fans can kick field goals, get timed in a 40-yard dash, throw footballs and play other similar games.

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