Tim Tebow brings surge to Cortland economy

Jets quarterback Tim Tebow signs autographs for Jet Jets quarterback Tim Tebow signs autographs for Jet fans during training camp. (July 29, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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CORTLAND, N.Y.

The first sign that something crazy big was headed their way came in March when two churches called the Cortland County Convention and Visitors Bureau to ask about parking and accommodations for the busload of parishioners they wanted to bring to Jets training camp.

The next came the day before the Jets and backup quarterback Tim Tebow opened training camp in this once- sleepy college town of nearly 20,000 about four hours north of MetLife Stadium.

The owners of Bernard's Custom Logo and Trophy on Main Street had to bring in an extra employee to help print up its "Tebowmania" T-shirts. They also began doing a brisk mail-order business for the shirts, fielding calls from as far away as Florida and Tennessee, states not traditionally considered hotbeds of New York Jets fans.

Finally, after a manic first week of media coverage and news highlights that included numerous photos of Tebow's wet pectoral muscles as he ran shirtless through the rain, President Barack Obama jumped into Tebowmania, telling an Ohio radio station that he "didn't like the idea" of a quarterback controversy at the start of the season.

All this fuss for a backup, sandlot-style quarterback who has never taken a snap in a Jets game uniform?

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"It's bizarre only if you let it be," said Nick Sanchez, father of Jets starting quarterback Mark Sanchez, as he dined at Hairy Tony's, a restaurant on Main Street directly across from a window filled with Tebow paraphernalia.

Credit the Sanchez family for not letting it be, for finding a way to shrug off the evangelistic force of nature that has surged through the Jets' training camp at Cortland.

Because it can't be easy. Though the flesh-and-blood Tebow says "it's not in the plan" for him to venture off the Cortland campus and into the town's main business district, his presence couldn't be bigger if he decided to peel off his shirt and take a slow- motion jog up Main Street.

The clean-living heartthrob -- thanks to his devoted fans -- is projected to inject an additional $1 million into the Cortland economy during the Jets' three-week training camp, according to Jim Dempsey, director of the Cortland County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Two years ago, the last time the Jets held a training camp here, the team generated $5.8 million for the economy and drew 41,000 fans, Dempsey said.

"A million dollars is some serious money for a community this size," Dempsey said, "but at the very least, we're seeing that with an increase in 20 percent in fans. It's hard to imagine one individual having that kind of impact. He's quite a little economic engine."

Leslie and Steve Wineburg, the mother-and-son owners of Bernard's Custom Logo and Trophy, were quick to see the financial upside of Tebow's addition to the team. Last March, the day after the Jets completed a trade with Denver for Tebow, Steve began designing T-shirts.

The T-shirt-filled front window of his store is a virtual shrine to Tebowmania. T-shirts proclaim: "This is TebowTown, Cortland, N.Y." and "Tebowmania: Training Camp, Cortland, N.Y. It's here." The most popular shirt features an image of the quarterback kneeling in prayer, aka Tebowing.

To be fair, the store also sells Sanchez T-shirts and inexplicably even has a jersey featuring the image of Peyton Manning. It's the Tebow shirts, however, that have been flying off the shelves, going to a different sort of customer than the type to which the store usually caters.

"I had a gentleman in yesterday from Ontario, and before he bought a shirt, he wanted to know if I was religious," Wineburg said. "I told him I believe in God . . . Usually, when someone comes in and buys a T-shirt, they don't want to know those sort of things."

The owner of Hairy Tony's has noticed that this year's Jets fans are more of a "family crowd." And the owner of The Bling Store, a women's clothing accessory shop, said there has been an uptick in female Jets fans visiting her store this year. To cater to them, she is selling rhinestone-decorated T-shirts and pennants.

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"We're seeing a lot of foot traffic," Bling owner Jodie Wainwright said.

Next door, at Indulge, a bakery and coffee shop, owner Lisa Crupe has been running a "Who's the Most Popular Jet?" contest based on the sales of her jersey-shaped cookies, which she customizes with the number of a customer's favorite player. Through the first week of training camp, the results are: Tebow 55, Sanchez 22 and Santonio Holmes 1.

Up at the Jets' training camp, Sanchez seems to have a slight edge among the more vocal Jets fans. There even were some vocal Tebow hecklers during the first practice, though all seem to be forgotten Thursday when Jets coach Rex Ryan told his defense to "go live" and put Tebow in for some goal-line work. Fans of all persuasions, however, went wild when Tebow took a direct snap in a Wildcat-type play and ran the ball up the middle to score.

Sanchez said after that practice that he admires how well Tebow is handling all the attention.

"It's like a cult following, like the Grateful Dead are playing here," Sanchez said of the Tebow-ites. "He is doing really well [dealing with the attention] and for the most part, they are great people."

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People whom the Jets certainly will be seeing a lot more of this year.

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