GREEN BAY, Wis. – There is an axiom in sports that a team is usually only as good as its owner. If that is true, you have to wonder how the defending Super Bowl-champion Green Bay Packers ever lose.
That, in a nutshell, explains the seemingly unexplainable. In an age when sports teams are all about corporate alliances and market saturation, the Packers plod along with a very simple and highly successful plan:
Just be good at football.
As the lone publicly owned team in American football, baseball, basketball and hockey, the Packers lack for an agenda beyond winning. There is no owner looking for self-aggrandizement or even just a big chunk of cash. The Packers are ruled by the simple goal of achievement first.
“It’s the most unique organization I’ve ever been around,” said former Packers coach Mike Holmgren, who guided Green Bay to the 1996 Super Bowl title and another appearance the following season. “There’s no way you could do it now. It’s impossible. You’d have too many people angling for control, wanting to run everything. It would get in the way of the goal. Instead, you just have people who care deeply about football. Good football.”
The town of Green Bay is beautifully uncomplicated, an oasis of simplicity. Aside from some grain silos, the tallest building in town is 10-story St. Vincent’s Hospital, which you can see across town from the Packers' office. As you drive around, a few of the usual trappings of a city are apparent, such as the big Target store on the east edge of town.
Next door to the Target is a corn field.
On a beautiful, humidity-free summer evening, roughly a thousand fans are bustling around the Don Hutson Center across the street from Lambeau Field, waiting eagerly for practice to start.
That’s all they want. There aren’t any distractions to speak of. There isn’t a young marketing flunky walking around with an air cannon waiting to fire t-shirts to fans. There’s not music blaring to artificially pump up the crowd.
Across the street at Lambeau, the stadium is much the same. There are some restaurants, shops, an atrium and even a really nice hall of fame downstairs. Dance club in the stadium? No. Open bar where the players walk through before the game, at halftime and again after the game? No. Shopping center next door? No.
Instead, the good folks in Green Bay, many of whom are full-fledged owners of the team, complete with certificates to prove it, just want their football. The idea that there should be something else to go along with it is an affront to their sensibilities.
“What do you mean, ‘What else?’ ” said De Pere 50-ish resident Audrey Schlabach, seemingly annoyed by the question, insulted that someone would ask why she’s there for anything other than a good look at how the Packers’ nose tackle will handle gap responsibility this season.
“People always ask that question, ‘How does Green Bay win with such a small town?’ ” Schlabach said. “You look at all these teams everywhere else, like Houston or Jacksonville, that struggle to win and people wonder, what’s the problem? [Los Angeles] … doesn’t even have a team. But the Packers keep winning and we’re respectable even when we don’t. Why? It’s tradition and it’s about knowing what’s important. You don’t need all that other stuff you’re talking about. You need to be good at football.”
Sitting in his office at Lambeau, general manager Ted Thompson knows that all too well. At this time three years ago, Thompson was in the midst of a bitter feud with quarterback Brett Favre(notes) that divided Packers fans. Those loyal to Favre reviled Thompson. Even those who believed it was time for Favre to go weren’t sure if the moment was right considering Favre had led the Packers to an NFC championship game appearance the previous season.
Aaron Rodgers(notes) and a Super Bowl title later, Thompson doesn’t gloat. He is a mostly egoless man who played in the NFL and then became a financial analyst. He approaches decisions in dry, checklist style. Even in the moments after Green Bay beat the Pittsburgh Steelers’ in Super Bowl XLV last February, Thompson took no public joy in proving his critics wrong.
“It’s not about me,” Thompson said. “I’m aware what the fans think. I’ve been booed at the shareholders meeting. They come up and tell me when they see me around town … [but] we have to follow a plan and make decisions in the best interest of the team. That’s what [head coach] Mike [McCarthy] talk about all the time, what are we doing to make the team better. Nothing else matters. You have decisions you have to make along the way, some of them not very popular. Somebody has to make the decisions and I’m the one they put in charge.”
Thompson says that as if it were an inglorious chore, akin to mowing the lawn every Saturday morning in the summer. In Green Bay (and really all of Wisconsin), the Packers are part of the fabric of everyday life.
“I’ve played in other places and nothing is the same in the NFL,” said former Green Bay running back Ahman Green(notes), who retired in August as a member of the Packers. “It’s the closest thing I’ve ever come to the experience of playing in college [at Nebraska]. It’s that same kind of feeling for the fans and the players, that excitement.”
And it’s a feeling that permeates throughout the state.
“You have college football there, people pretty much follow Wisconsin, and you have the pro teams in Milwaukee, but the Packers are the one team the entire state gets behind and has forever,” said Pat Schaller, who grew up in West Bend, Wis.
Schaller owns Mother’s Pub & Grill in Gainesville, Fla. The bar is two blocks from the University of Florida, so he’s well aware of the passion for college football.
“It’s almost like the Packers are everybody’s alma mater,” he said.
Mother's Pub & Grill has become part of a network of places where Packers fans come to cheer. Two months ago, the Packers started the website Packerseverywhere.com, which includes a map of bars around the country that show Green Bay games. More than 1,300 bars have already registered on the site and there’s at least one in every state.
For Schaller, this is part of the joy of being a Packers fan. After leaving the state in 1992, Schaller finally bought season tickets three years ago, taking advantage of the dissatisfaction some had in Thompson during the Favre episode. Schaller makes it to four or five games a season, bringing his girlfriend or treating someone else to a special trip to Lambeau to take in the tradition.
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“One of the guys who works for me is a Cowboys fan, so I took him last year just so he could experience what it’s like at Lambeau … people don’t understand until they go there,” Schaller said. “Packers fans are just so different. You can be a fan of the other team, have your team jersey on and everything and within minutes, Packers fans will be handing you a beer and a something to eat. I’ve seen that happen myself more than a few times.”
Perhaps that’s because, in their hearts, Packers fans know they couldn’t have gotten here without a sense of community. That’s not just within the borders of the city. It’s within the greater confines of the NFL.
In 1956, the Packers needed a hand in promoting support for what is now Lambeau. Until then, the Packers had hosted games at City Field, which had a maximum capacity of roughly 25,000. As teams around the NFL got bigger stadiums, the Packers became a less popular draw for opponents who depended on getting a share of the gate to survive.
That year, the Packers were at a crossroads. Without a new stadium, they might have been forced to move. Of all people, Chicago Bears owner and coach George Halas saw the value of keeping a team in Green Bay. In April, 1956, Halas traveled to Green Bay and spoke in support of the team, emphasizing how critical the Packers were to the league.
“You think about that,” Holmgren said. “You think you’d really get an owner to help out another one like that anymore? That’s pretty amazing.”
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