Washington training camp is a business flop

Joey Matthews | 8/15/2014, 2:11 p.m.
If success means attracting people, then the Washington NFL franchise’s training camp is a winner. But if success is measured ...
Only a few fans line up for food at Croaker's Spot and Big Herm's at Training Camp. Photo by Sandra Sellars

If success means attracting people, then the Washington NFL franchise’s training camp is a winner.

An estimated 165,000 apparently visited the Richmond facility on Leigh Street and watched football practices before the camp closed Monday.

But if success is measured by economic activity, the camp does not appear to make the cut.

For the second year, most of those visitors kept their wallets closed when it came to spending money with food vendors and other city businesses.

Instead, most merchants in and around the camp spent a lot of time twiddling their thumbs — instead of gaining any boost in sales.

The city businesses surveyed by the Free Press reported little if any spike in sales from the nearly 165,000 visitors that City Hall estimates attended the camp behind the Science Museum of Virginia.

The merchants’ view that the facility failed to deliver an economic boost contrasts with city claims that the facility is a business winner.

The city reported only a slight increase in taxable sales last year, and based on the reports from merchants, is likely to do so again this year.

One of the big problems for merchants was the revamped timetable for practices that was in place this year.

Food vendors, restaurants and fast food establishments complained that the twice daily practices were held in the early morning and late afternoon, giving fans — those that did not bring their own packed coolers — little incentive to buy lunch.

Practice began about 8:30 most mornings and ended well before the lunch hour. The players did not return to training until after 4 p.m. and the workouts ended before the dinner hour.

Even the arrival of quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for three days of practices with the D.C. team sparked little additional spending.

“The four-hours (between sessions) killed us,” said Herman Baskerville, owner of Big Herm’s Kitchen. “It’s been slow most days.”

Neverett Eggleston Jr., owner of Croaker’s Spot, agreed. “I’ve been doing this for 64 years, and this was the worst I’ve seen,” said Mr. Eggleston, whose booth sat side by side with Big Herm’s inside the camp’s entrance.

Big Herm’s Kitchen and Croaker’s Spot, local black-owned businesses, say they were thrilled to be inside the camp after local vendors were not granted space inside the taxpayer-supported facility last year.

Mr. Eggleston said his food booth was not the only one that suffered. He pointed to idle employees at booths operated by four national chains, Papa John’s, Famous Dave’s, Buffalo Wild Wings and Johnny Rockets.

“They aren’t doing much business either,” he said.

Mr. Eggleston said it didn’t help when he turned on the radio and heard advertisements telling fans they could bring their own food and drinks into the camp.

Croaker’s Spot and Big Herm’s sold fish and chicken plates priced from $8 to $12 apiece.

The two eateries each staffed their booths with about six employees the first few days of practice, anticipating big business. The number of workers had dwindled to three at each booth by the Aug. 2 Fan Appreciation Day that attracted an estimated 20,000 people and provided a small boost to business.

By the last day of training camp, each booth was down to two mostly idle workers.

Mr. Baskerville and Mr. Eggleston reported selling from 80 to 100 plates each on Fan Appreciation Day, but far less on most other days. Business increased a little, they said, during the three days of joint practices with the New England Patriots.

Both business owners said the city asked them to turn over 25 cents of of every dollar they took in as a fee for being allowed inside the facility.

Meghan McClure, general manager at Gus’ Bar and Grill on Broad Street across from the camp, complained, “Last year, there was a 2½-hour gap between the end of morning practice and the walkthrough that began around 2 p.m.

“This year, there is a 5½-hour gap between practices. Since the (late afternoon) walkthrough isn’t as alluring as the morning practice, people are leaving the area to either go home or return to work. The tight schedule last year kept people in the area and almost forced them to enjoy this end of Broad Street.”

Ms. McClure recalled seeing “droves and droves of fans” flooding out of the team’s camp last year, proudly wearing the team’s colors. She reported seeing far fewer decked-out fans this year.

“This year, Broad looks no different than it did two weeks ago,” she said.

“Whether it was the bad season they had last year, the hype from training camp being new is now gone,” she added. “Or it could just be that with it being more of a morning event that people don’t want to make into an all-day event. The flow of people just isn’t there this year.”

Mr. Baskerville said fans at the camp didn’t show much excitement as the players went through mostly half-speed drills with little hitting or tackling.

Outside the camp, most vendors and other businesses also had lots of down time.

An inspection of nearby Broad Street eateries Arby’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Pane e Vino Wine Bar and Trattoria found few D.C. team fans before and after camp sessions.

Restaurants in nearby neighborhoods reported scant additional business as well.

Along the Boulevard, CVS and 7-Eleven, both stocked with D.C. team memorabilia near the front of their stores, reported modest upticks in business from Washington fans.

The D.C. team stayed at the Omni Hotel in Downtown. The hotel offered them breakfast, lunch and dinner, so there was no reason for the players and coaches to spend money at other city restaurants.

The Hilton and Marriott hotels in Downtown reported modest gains in bookings during the team’s stay in town.

Four vendors lining a walkway to the camp entrance saw few paying customers, despite a steady stream of fans walking past their booths.

One of those, Gary Lombardo, traveled from Tampa Bay to promote his Internet-based travel agency and provide rides on a Gyrosphere.

He pulled out his calculator Monday and grimaced as he said, “I saw a little over $700 in spending since I’ve been here.”

He said that did not include the set-up cost or the man hours he spent at his booth. “I’ve been doing this 22 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.

In contrast, Mr. Lombardo said he netted a profit of $350 giving rides on his Gyrosphere at Sunday’s Watermelon Festival in the West End and also fared well at the Filipino Festival.

Mr. Lombardo said he paid the city $3,500 to rent his space and would come nowhere close to recouping his investment.

He said he had much more success when he worked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football training camp last year.

The only long lines at the entrance to the camp were to a venue offering free personalized Coca Cola cans and fans buying D.C. team memorabilia.

Profits from Washington team memorabilia sales go to the team owned by billionaire Daniel Snyder.

City taxpayers also must spend $500,000 to host the team each year of the eight-year contract it signed in 2013.

The six vendors who paid the city $2,500 apiece to sell food and drinks from their food trucks outside the camp on Leigh Street also saw only a smattering of customers.

Their trucks were blocked from the view of fans inside the camp by partitions and no signage alerted fans to their locations.

“This is not what I was hoping for,” said the vendor of one truck, asking his name not be published.

John Morrison, owner of Boardwalk Hot Dogs in Henrico County, said his sales improved as the camp progressed and estimated he would about break even.

“They worked with us,” he said, noting the firm in charge of the vendors, SMG of Richmond, allowed him to move his food truck closer to the intersection of Leigh Street and DMV Drive near the camp entrance.

He said he was the lone vendor to remain at the camp through its entirety. He said selling bottled water for $1 helped him entice fans.

Most of the other food trucks had abandoned their positions along Leigh Street by Monday.

The city closed Leigh Street from Broad Street to DMV Drive to accommodate the food trucks.

That caused a small uproar from Sugar Shack Donuts two miles down Leigh Street. The popular business complained via social media it lost business as a result of the street closure.

Mr. Baskerville summed up his experience of being inside the camp for the first time.

“I’m a fan of the team,” he said, “so, yes, I’d love to do it again, but I’d like to make more money next time.”