CORTLAND, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — With fans showing up last summer by the thousands every day to catch a glimpse of Tim Tebow, the New York Jets were the talk of NFL training camps.
The stands and press box at SUNY Cortland were packed, and the town overflowed with visitors.
It’s a different story this time around.
With Tebow gone this summer, so is some of the buzz. And that’s not a bad thing for the Jets, whose focus is solely on football these days.
“It’s good to be out here,” linebacker David Harris said of Cortland. “The community treats us well. We love it up here, the weather’s good. You can’t worry about the media and the hoopla and all of that stuff. You just have to do your job.”
But part of that task last year was addressing the seemingly non-stop questions about Tebow and the “circus” label with which some branded the team.
“It wasn’t our faults. It was you guys,” Harris said with a laugh. “He’s a good guy and he has a huge following, so you can’t be mad about that. You just have to deal with it.”
For the Jets, that’s not their problem anymore. Tebow’s in camp with New England this summer after the Jets cut him in April following a disappointing and unproductive season in New York.
The NFL’s most popular backup quarterback’s time in Cortland, however, was a success for the city.
According to studies by Dr. Kathleen Burke and Timothy Phillips of SUNY Cortland’s economics department, and Dr. Wendy Miller of the geography department, training camp generated $5.5 million in economic activity last summer. Visitors spent $2.7 million, about $500,000 more than 2010 — the last time the Jets were in Cortland for camp after staying home in 2011 following the NFL’s labor lockout.
Hotel occupancy increased from 67.9 percent to 70.1, and revenues were up about $300,000 last August from August 2010.
Manish Patel, general manager of the Days Inn in McGraw, located 2 miles from the campus, said occupancy at his hotel was still solid in the first week of camp but acknowledged a slight drop from a year ago.
“With Tebow not being here, there are not as many people here or around so far. At least not yet,” Patel said. “Tebow was certainly a big attraction. I’m sure many people who came to see the Jets last year also came to see Tebow. I think compared to last year, if he were still here, there would probably be more families also here. The numbers will probably more like (2010).”
The first day of practice open to the public last summer drew a whopping 2,588 fans. This year? Around 800.
That’s still a respectable number that’s in line with Jets camps from previous summers, but far from the massive crowds shown on ESPN a year ago, when the network camped out for nearly a week and had live broadcasts from practice.
Also according to the study, 63 percent of the more than 35,600 fans who attended the 11 open practices had never before attended training camp.
The obvious reason most point to? Tebow was in town.
In fact, a mile away on Main Street in downtown Cortland, a full window display at Bernard’s Custom Logo and Trophy Shop was dedicated to Tebow with a huge picture of the quarterback and the words “TEBOWMANIA!” blaring out. There were also T-shirts on sale that proudly proclaimed: “This Is Tebow Town: Cortland, N.Y.”
“There was definitely a lot of talk and excitement last year, and it was even more noticeable with the presence of ESPN,” Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin said. “Every day, you’d turn it on and hear, ‘And, at SUNY Cortland, New York Jets training camp.’ On the national level, there certainly was a bit more exposure.”
In 2010, the Jets drew 41,000 fans but there were 14 days open to the public, with several of them consisting of morning and afternoon practice sessions. The NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement in 2011 did away with the two-a-days, so that has also had some effect on attendance.
“It’s too early to project any numbers, but I think people will see this: Jets fans are Jets fans, and they’re going to come regardless of whether there’s one or two people they’re looking for,” Tobin said. “The community and the people who are here, they embrace the Jets, and as much as we get people from outside the community, people here love the Jets as well.”
The city absolutely embraces the Jets, with green and white welcome signs at just about every corner. Tobin confirmed there is also an agreement on an extension that could keep the team training in Cortland for at least the next two summers.
“The Jets have been great as visitors,” Tobin said. “I think they’re really turning Cortland County into Jets County.”
Ira Lieberfarb, a 59-year-old lifelong Jets fan from Staten Island, has been to Cortland all four summers the team has trained in central New York and has seen a slight difference at practices this year.
“From a fan perspective, the crowds are less because I think Tebow put it over the top,” Lieberfarb said. “It really reminds me of the 2009 camp, when the crowds were really good but it was all about football. There was definitely more of a buzz last summer because the expectations were higher for the team and people saw ESPN here every day with Tebow. And, in 2010, HBO and ‘Hard Knocks’ were here.
“This is a lot more low key, and I think it’s really better for the team.”
There’s no talk about shirtless jogs through the rain after practice, perhaps the defining moment of Tebow’s tenure with the Jets. There are also no secret plans for the wildcat offense, or when Tebow will supplant Mark Sanchez as the starter.
About the only reminder that Tebow was ever in Cortland actually came in the form of a burrito. Hot Tamale restaurant on Main Street had its Tebow Burrito — chicken, rice, black beans, lettuce and a choice of hot sauce — as its special of the week earlier this month.
This year, it’s all about the quarterback competition between Sanchez and rookie Geno Smith, and the working relationship between coach Rex Ryan — considered by many to be on the hot seat — and new general manager John Idzik.
“He wants everybody to be focused on the field, in the classroom, in the weight room, and that’s it,” Sanchez said of Idzik. “He doesn’t say much. It’s just, ‘Hey, go put it on the film, we’ll evaluate it, we’ll play the best players we got, we’ll go win as many games as possible.’
“It seems like a simple formula, but sometimes when you get back to basics, that’s the most effective way to do things.”
Idzik has taken mostly a buttoned-up, businesslike approach to his first several months since replacing Mike Tannenbaum in January. Many of the players, despite outside expectations being low, insist that there’s a positive vibe running through the team — and last year’s frustrations are far behind them.
“There was so much going on,” wide receiver Braylon Edwards said. “That’s what that team was about: ‘What’s going on with this guy? What’s going on with this situation? Is he in charge of the team, or is he in charge of the team? Why is this player talking about that? Does this player not like this player?’ There was so much going on, it (even) made you guys sick at the end of the day.
“This year … it’s more where everybody’s paying attention to what they need to do to get this organization rolling on all cylinders.”
And it all starts with a quieter camp in Cortland.
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