Summer camp: New Orleans Saints draw fans, dollars to West Virgi - WTRF 7 News Sports Weather - Wheeling Steubenville

Summer camp: New Orleans Saints draw fans, dollars to West Virginia

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Saints quarterback Drew Brees is one of the most popular players among fans at the new training camp at The Greenbrier. Saints quarterback Drew Brees is one of the most popular players among fans at the new training camp at The Greenbrier.
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The New Orleans Saints have not just marched into West Virginia — they’ve taken up residence here.

The National Football League team is holding its training camp in White Sulphur Springs in brand new facilities, the $30 million Advocare Sports Performance Center. Staff and players are staying at The Greenbrier resort.

The way that it happened, and the short amount of time in which it was pulled off, is as amazing as the fact that an NFL team calls the Mountain State its summer home.

The Saints announced March 13 it would split its training camp locations between its Louisiana location and The Greenbrier beginning this year. The bulk of the team’s preseason work will be within West Virginia’s borders.

A week later, on March 20, Saints head coach Sean Payton and James K. Nagaoka, Saints director of operations, joined Greenbrier owner Jim Justice in an official announcement in Charleston.

 

Invaluable relocation

 

Payton said the Saints organization, particularly owner Tom Benson, has been very supportive in his mission to win another Super Bowl, which includes hosting training camp in West Virginia.

“The great thing about working with our owner, Mr. Benson, is that all he asks is ‘Will it help us win?’ And if the answer is yes, we have his support,” Payton said. “We’re always looking to improve our team in any way, shape or form. There’s an expense in coming instead of staying at home for training camp.”

Payton was deeply involved in the camp plans in the off-season.

“When this thing got closer to the goal line and James (Nagaoka) had a chance to meet (with officials at The Greenbrier), it became apparent that this was going to be something that was certainly going to happen,” Payton said. “Quickly, (Saints general manager) Mickey (Loomis) said ‘Wait a minute, this was my idea three years ago.’ So it’s important that he get credit.”

Payton said that Nagaoka’s experience in relocating a team was invaluable.

“We’ve traveled, having been displaced after (Hurricane) Katrina,” Payton explained. “All of a sudden we were in Indianapolis for a week to practice. Two years ago we were in Cincinnati (for practice).

“That falls on James. He is the advance guy and handles everything and knows what we’re looking for from a field standpoint and from a logistics standpoint.”

It was a positive review after visiting The Greenbrier by Nagaoka that set the wheels in motion.

“We all waited for James to come back from his first visit to (The Greenbrier),” Payton recalled. “After that happened, I think we all felt confident.

“Our team and our organization is extremely excited. We think this will give us a chance to get another one of these Super Bowl rings,” Payton said while flashing the shiny hardware on his hand that came with a win in Super Bowl XLIV following the 2009 season.

Like most big developments in West Virginia, the West Virginia Legislature was involved. House Bill 4184, passed during the 2014 regular session, extended the Tourism Development Act, to allow tax credits to go toward the camp facility and a medical center. It could mean as much as $25 million in credits over a 10-year span.

Justice invested $30 million toward the completion of the camp project alone, which opened July 25. The initial agreement for the camp between the Saints and The Greenbrier covers three years, though Justice expresses hope the relationship will last much longer.

The camp includes three practice fields, (two natural turf and one synthetic grass), along with an approximately 55,000-square foot multi-purpose building, equipped with meeting rooms, weight rooms, locker rooms, training and physical therapy accommodations along with kitchen and dining facilities.

 

Taking it in

 

During a camp practice and fans picnic July 26, Justice was still taking it all in as a sold-out crowd of 5,000 fans milled around the camp fields, taking photographs and collecting autographs with Saints players and munching on hamburgers and hot dogs.

“The crowds have been great and everyone’s been enjoying themselves and having fun,” Justice said. “Coach Payton and the whole Saints organization have been great and great to work with. They’re having a ball and getting work done, so it’s really good. They’re blown away by the people that have come out.”

The crowds create the vision Justice expressed when he purchased the then-bankrupt resort some five years ago. He said at the time the resort needed to retain its elegance, but amp up its energy to bring people back to “America’s Resort.”

Saints fans, and football fans in general, are checking out the camp in droves. The division can be seen in the unspoken dress code of Saints’ black and gold, mixed amid jerseys representing other NFL teams, such as the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns. There have been a fair share of West Virginia University Mountaineers jerseys among the fans, too.

Fans are coming from all directions, spending money both on The Greenbrier property and off during their visits.

Jeremy Adams of Barboursville and his sister Stefanie Armstrong of Winfield brought their children Kohen Adams, 10, and Parker Armstrong, 5, to The Greenbrier for an afternoon. The family checked out the Saints training camp and browsed the many shopping options in the hotel, including Fizzy’s Land of Oz toy store.

“It’s been really nice,” said Adams. “We were able to get a lot of autographs — Drew Brees made sure to sign for plenty of fans.”

“My sister is a Saints fan, but I’m a New England Patriots fan,” Adams admitted in a hushed voice. “But it was nice to see an NFL team practice, to see what it’s like.”

Armstrong said she was excited to hear the Saints would be in the Mountain State, especially since her husband’s cousin, Heath Evans, an NFL Network analyst once played for the Saints.

“We had a lot of fun,” she said of her visit. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the little ones. They were really excited — and the players were awesome with them. They even thanked us for coming.

Armstrong said the family purchased Saints merchandise at the camp’s souvenir and merchandise tents.

“We ate at Drapers (restaurant, at The Greenbrier) and my son will be buying a toy here (at Fizzy’s),” she said.

Lifelong Saints fans Wayne Lewis and Shawanda Lewis drove about two hours to the camp from their home in Christiansburg, Virginia. But their fandom roots go back to their days when they lived in New Orleans, before moving north about 16 years ago.

“We were born and raised in New Orleans, lower ninth ward,” they proudly proclaimed simultaneously.

“I couldn’t believe the Saints were coming to train in West Virginia,” Wayne Lewis said. “When I heard about it, I immediately put in for my vacation time for this week so that we could come down here.”

 

Economic impact

 

The economic impact of hosting an NFL team over a three week span is significant.

A January 2014 report published by the City of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University and Richmond Region Tourism following the Washington Redskins camp there in 2013 reported “In all, the 2013 Washington Redskins Training Camp had a total economic impact of $10.5 million on the Richmond Metropolitan Statistical Area.”

West Virginia could see roughly the same impact this year with the Saints training in White Sulphur Springs.

Both summer camps are about three weeks in length.

“It’s a multi-, multi-, multi-million dollar impact,” Justice said. “The eyes of the world are on West Virginia and the Saints camp in this area of the country. It will bring a lot of good things to West Virginia.”

The Richmond report cited lodging, restaurants, groceries, gasoline, rental cars and parking as camp attendees’ expenditures, as well as merchandise and food purchases by attendees at the camp itself.

Positive publicity for West Virginia is another benefit of the camp, Justice said.

“It has been reported that the Redskins camp, through print media, social media, radio, TV, everything — they had a total number of hits of something like 2.5 billion during the entire camp (in 2013),” he said. “If we’ve got 2.5 billion people looking at us in West Virginia, we ought to have some good stuff happen out of that.”

And it’s not just a three-week shot at infusing the Greenbrier Valley with dollars and goodwill. Justice said the Saints aren’t the only team planning to use the facility.

“There are lots and lots and lots of things that can happen here,” he said. “We’ve been contacted by a lot of colleges, U.S. ski teams, national and international soccer teams … we’ve even been contacted by two Major League Baseball teams.”

The Advocare Sports Performance Center will be a place for education and training health care professionals and athletes as well.

“People will be coming through and go through the performance center; they’ll be training and learning about what they like to do, jogging, walking, riding a bicycle, tennis, golf, whatever it might be,” Justice said. “There will be experts here that will be able to teach them to prevent more wear and tear on their body.”

Despite a few players taking to their social media accounts to decry the pink, flowery Dorothy Draper décor of The Greenbrier, Saints defensive back Champ Bailey, a 15-year veteran, 12-time Pro Bowl selection and probable future Pro Football Hall of Fame member, said the training camp facilities and The Greenbrier experience is as good as any he’s seen in his career.

He expressed his amazement that the camp facility and fields came together in about 90 days, from groundbreaking to ribbon cutting.

“I don’t know how they got the fields looking this good,” Bailey said. “This whole building … they could (relocate) a team here and be good. The practice facilities are great. You’ve got everything you need.”

Bailey played with Washington and the Denver Broncos before signing a free-agent contract with the Saints in the off-season.

“There’s not one thing that’s second-class here (at The Greenbrier and the Advocare center),” he said. “It’s all first class. These guys do everything first class around here. It’s just amazing. I’m impressed. It’s beautiful.”

When Justice was told about Bailey’s comments, he simply called it “good stuff.”

“Doesn’t that make you feel good?” Justice asked. “That’s happening in West Virginia. That’s good stuff.”

 

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