CORTLAND, N.Y. — Welcome to Tebow Town, USA.
At least that's what one of the handful of T-shirts devoted to Tim Tebow on sale around town proclaims this quaint spot in central New York to be.
It's a sentiment that's hard to argue with. It's been all Tebow, all the time at New York Jets camp and local business owners are cashing in more than ever. Fans have been flocking to the area since the Jets rolled into town on July 26 — many wanting to get a glimpse of the NFL's most popular backup quarterback.
"Oh, definitely, he's the main attraction," said Ajay Patel, general manager of the Days Inn in McGraw, 2 miles from the camp site at SUNY Cortland. "The last two years the Jets were here, we were busy, but it's been double the occupancy this year. We usually don't get this much on this side of town."
Training camp drew about 41,000 fans to Cortland in 2010, the Jets' second summer there after 40 years at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. After the Jets (No. 17 in the AP Pro32) chose to stay at their facility in Florham Park, N.J., last summer following the NFL lockout, the team is back in Cortland and expected to draw about 12,000 more than it did two years ago. Jim Dempsey, director of the Cortland County Convention and Visitors Bureau, also said the town could see more than $5.8 million pumped into the local economy.
"We were looking at about a 30 percent increase (in visitors) and it'll be interesting to see if it actually works out that way," Dempsey said. "It's hard to say at this point, but I would definitely say we'll see an increase because of Tim Tebow's presence here. And it's not only the fans, but the media. We've seen more media here than we ever did the previous years."
That's another Tebow-related effect.
The Jets are normally a big draw for the media, with the always entertaining Rex Ryan and various stars such as Darrelle Revis, Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes. But ESPN set up shop in Cortland for nearly a week, broadcasting from Jets practice — complete with live look-ins of just about every move Tebow made. Of course, there was also that shirtless jog through the rain after practice last weekend that was replayed around the clock and has had tens of thousands of views on YouTube.
"It was almost like it became Jets training camp central," Dempsey said. "'SportsCenter' led every day with Jets camp, and that was just unbelievable coverage for us. If you had to put a dollar amount on that type of coverage for our town, it would be astronomical, just getting our name in front of that many people."
ESPN wasn't alone, as media outlets swarmed to Cortland during the first few days of camp to see how the Sanchez-Tebow dynamic appeared.
With more reporters in town, that meant more people heading to the area restaurants for dinner every night.
"Business has definitely been better, and it was already really good the past few summers when the Jets were here," said Mark Braun, owner of Doug's Fish Fry, located right around the corner from campus. "A lot of people come in because we're labeled a Jets restaurant, but I think with Tebow here, there's even more media and fans here."
Doug's Fish Fry is a Jets shrine, with memorabilia wallpapering the restaurant. Braun, 44, has been a die-hard Jets fan all his life — "ever since I saw Mark Gastineau do his sack dance, I was hooked" — and players, coaches and front-office personnel make his place a regular stop during camp. From Ryan to Revis, Braun makes sure they all stop and sign the huge Fathead Jets helmet — he has one for each camp so far — that's on display in the restaurant for all to see.
Tebow hasn't stopped in for fish and chips yet, but there are still plenty of days of camp left.
"We've definitely benefited from the attention Tebow is getting," Braun said. "People want to come here to see the guy."
A mile away in downtown Cortland, store fronts are decorated in Jets green and white, with signs welcoming the players, coaches and fans. At Bernard's Custom Logo and Trophy Shop, a full window display is dedicated to Tebow with a huge picture of the quarterback and the words "TEBOWMANIA!" blaring out at everyone walking by. There are also at least a half-dozen different T-shirts dedicated to Tebow that customers can choose from — a marketing touchdown for Steve Wineberg, president of Bernard's.
"He saw an opportunity there and ran with it, and I think he's glad he did," Dempsey said. "For him, it's been Christmas in August, literally, with the sales from that promotion he's done there."
Across the street, Hairy Tony's restaurant greets diners with a huge fierce-looking blowup of the Jets player. Owner Tony Caruso knew this summer might be a little different when he heard the Jets acquired Tebow from Denver in March.
"It wasn't a unique reaction, that's for sure," Caruso said. "We were like, 'It's going to be a big circus here.' And, I have to say, yes, Tebow being here has had an effect. We're having a steady, strong year. It's been predictable."
George Seibel, owner of the Dark Horse Tavern next door to Hairy Tony's, also said business has been terrific with Tebow in town. He even heard from a niece in North Carolina, who wanted a favor.
"She asked me that if I see Tebow, if I can get her his autograph," Seibel said, laughing. "And she doesn't even care about football."
Fans are allowed to watch most of the Jets' practices, and other than a handful of hecklers who mocked Tebow for his penchant for holding onto the ball too long, there have been mostly big cheers for him. Especially when he takes off and runs with the football — something the Jets will surely take advantage of this season.
Tebow is a rock star, and the people of Cortland can't get enough.
"He's doing really well with it and they are, for the most part, great people," said Sanchez, who compared the attention Tebow gets to a Grateful Dead concert. "They come out and support us and him, so it has been fun for all of us."
And, especially, for the town of Cortland.
"It's so great," Tebow said with a huge smile. "You have a lot of great, passionate fans out here."
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