By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
The Morning Kickoff …
Get ready to register: Manziel Mania is changing Browns training camp, possibly for the worse.
But that’s a small price to pay for the buzz Johnny Manziel has brought to the blandest NFL franchise over the past 15 years.
The Browns are girding for an unprecedented fan invasion on their quaint practice facility at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. in Berea. For the first time, they will ask fans to register online to regulate free admittance to training camp practices. Details will be announced at a later date.
The problem is capacity. The Browns can accommodate about 5,000 fans in makeshift stands and VIP tents erected specifically for the three weeks or so of open practices at their facility. My guess is that throngs would routinely double that figure if space allowed.
Yes, the team is better, expectations are higher and there is a blast of new energy flowing from a new management regime that has been on a roll since March. But let’s get real. Manziel is the reason interest has spiked like an oil gusher.
The sleeping giant: In truth, crowds at Browns training camp have been rather sparse since the franchise was reborn in expansion in 1999.
I attribute that initially to the NFL-sanctioned move of the Browns in 1996 and the subsequent three-year hiatus, which almost severed the bond with fans. The resulting expansion product has been bad – a litany of double-digit loss teams bereft of exciting and excitable stars, and a revolving door of quarterbacks, coaches and management regimes.
Even the two successful blips of the expansion era – the lone playoff season in 2002 and the unexpected, high-scoring, 10-6 season of 2007 -- produced nothing more than yawns at the following training camps.
Unofficially, the record average attendance at the Berea training camp is 2,652 in 2012. Last year, the figure was 2,475. A flash crowd of 4,466 showed up last July 28, on a Sunday, and that stands as the record attendance at the Berea facility.
That’s a far cry from the crowds that would descend on Lakeland Community College in the Bernie Kosar era in the late 1980s. More than 10,000 was a regular occurrence on the weekends.
The sprawling athletic fields on the Mentor-Kirtland border off I-90 and Ohio Route 306 easily accommodated the joyous, big crowds. Those were the days.
The new era: In their history, the Browns have held camp at Bowling Green, Hiram College, Kent State, and Lakeland.
They moved camp to Berea when their headquarters facility was built in 1992 – the second year under coach Bill Belichick in the pre-expansion era.
The convenience enjoyed by holding camp and open practices at the team’s year-round facility was irresistible.
It saved money and the logistical problems of loading up everything – gear, weight-training equipment, IT and office work space – and trucking it to a college campus for three weeks.
The trade-off was that bleacher seating was cramped for fans and standing room was even limited. Parking limitations required fans to be shuttled from nearby lots. It was a culture shock early on. Fan attendance dwindled.
At the time, the Browns were one of the few NFL teams able to stage training camp at its year-round facility. In the old days, coaches favored taking their squads to remote destinations to use camp as a bonding experience. As NFL teams built new year-round facilities, the trend switched to keeping camp at home.
Last year, 16 teams stayed home for camp and 16 moved to colleges or other destinations.
The Browns thought about moving camp out of Berea a number of times for marketing purposes, but they never saw it through. Part of the problem was the team’s perpetually dismal record made it a bad draw the farther away it got from Cleveland.
But now that Manziel Mania has taken off, the idea of moving camp again is on the front burner. The Browns already are researching future sites with more space for fans.
They haven’t had to worry about such things for a long time.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to email@example.comFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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