No leap from Lambeau Packers: In Green Bay, the team is literally owned by the fans. So it's not going anywhere except to the playoffs.


GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Imagine rooting for a pro football team that has no wanderlust. A team that gives its profits to charities. A team with no greedy owner. A team that wins.

Such a slice of sports heaven exists here in the chilly north woods of Wisconsin.

The Green Bay Packers, the only nonprofit franchise in the NFL, are fielding big-name free agents, generating record revenues and charging some of the lowest ticket prices in the league.

They are also winning, reviving an art form not seen in Titletown since Vince Lombardi stalked the sidelines in his gray fedora. The Packers (13-3) have a first-round bye and home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs, and might be on a course for the Super Bowl after coming within a game of the big show last season.

And Green Bay -- a red-flannel city of 96,000 two hours north of Milwaukee -- has become positively smug about retaining its team while glamorous megalopolises across the country are losing theirs. After the Browns announced last year they were abandoning Cleveland, a headline in the paper here proclaimed: "Pack leave town? Not likely."

Almost impossible, actually. Due to a corporate structure established in the 1920s and unlikely to be reproduced, the Packers are the only community-controlled, not-for-profit team in the major leagues.

It is, in essence, the only true home team in big-time sports.

And the fans know it.

Listen to the reaction of Rob "Dusty" Rhodes, a 26-year-old pizza maker and Packer backer, to the notion of Baltimore fans having to buy "permanent seat licenses" before they can get season tickets:

"So you pay $1,000 and then pay for your tickets? Holy ----. You don't hear about that around here," Rhodes said, shaking his head.

From the first bratwurst to hit the grill in the stadium parking lot on Sunday morning to the extended game postmortems that dominate office chitchat for the entire week, the Packers are Green Bay and Green Bay is the Packers.

"Mondays are pretty much dictated by how the Packers play on Sunday. It is 90 percent of every conversation on Monday," said Green Bay Mayor Paul F. Jadin.

Popular? Packers games have been sold out since Eisenhower was president. The season-ticket waiting list has 27,000 names. Tickets are passed down in wills. At the current rate, the wait could last a few centuries.

Fans of all ages

It is literally a cradle-to-grave love affair.

When local hospitals, led by Bellin Memorial, started offering knit caps for newborns in the Packers colors a few years ago, hardly anyone wanted the blue or pink caps anymore. That led to a run on green and gold yarn, and the ladies auxiliaries that do the knitting had to start buying directly from the yarn makers.

Kids pedal bikes to the practice facility in hopes that players will use them for the short ride across the street to the stadium's dressing room. The sight of youngsters lugging helmets and jogging alongside the likes of Reggie White, pedaling a comically undersized bicycle, is a rite of early fall.

Otherwise self-respecting adults show up for games waving yellow towels and wearing tricornered foam hats that look like giant slices of Wisconsin cheese. When a Packer scores at Lambeau Field, he doesn't celebrate with an Electric Slide in the end zone. He throws himself into the loving embrace of the cheeseheads in the bleachers, a maneuver known as the Lambeau Leap.

And funeral homes in town don't flinch when asked to hang Packers pennants and arrange a table of vintage Packers trading cards and stuffed animals for visitations. Obituaries will note that "he was an avid Packers fan." Some fans have gone to their

eternal rest wearing a Bart Starr jersey. There's even a green casket with gold hardware for the truly devoted, dearly departed.

"We're talking about a community of 100,000 that has something that Los Angeles doesn't have," said Mayor Jadin, whose business card has a tiny Packers helmet, with the trademark G, just below the official "Gateway to the great waterway" city logo.

"We are the last bastion of what sports in America was intended to be. We don't have the glitz or the greed that is associated with other teams," he said.

The team, founded in 1919 with the help of a meat packing company, was going bust when it was reorganized as a nonprofit and sold stock in 1923. Later bouts of insolvency led to more stock issues in 1935 and 1950 (along with benefit games and Elk Club dances). There are now 4,464 shares in the hands of 1,915 shareholders.

Shares -- eagerly sought as souvenirs -- will never pay a dividend. Sales can be made only for face value and have to be approved by the directors. No one can accumulate more than 200 shares, meaning the team can't be taken over in a Wall Street-style hostile raid.

The corporate charter specifies that the Packers "shall be a community project intended to promote community welfare and

that its purposes shall be exclusively charitable." Playing football games, the documents say, is "incidental to its purpose."

Concession stands at the games are staffed by volunteers. The team, in exchange, devotes a portion of the sales to the volunteers' Girl Scout packs, schools or nonprofit groups (this is done, in part, because the team has difficulty finding part-time workers in Green Bay, where the unemployment rate is 2.8 percent).

Profits not retained for team use must be donated to charity. And if the team ever dissolves, the proceeds -- the franchise could easily sell for $200 million or more -- will have to be used by the local American Legion post to build a hospital, clubhouse or other structure dedicated to fallen soldiers.

Deciding over brunch

Shareholders elect a 45-person board of directors, which in turn names an unpaid, seven-person executive committee that meets monthly over brunch and makes most of the decisions an owner makes elsewhere.

"It sounds hokey, but my job description is the preservation of a national treasure," said John R. Underwood, a retired banker and treasurer for the team's executive committee.

Preservation has gone well these past few years, raising questions about NFL owners in other cities who complain that they can't make money.

Because it is the only publicly owned team in the NFL, the Packers are also the only one that makes its finances public. The Packers haven't had a money-losing year since the 1983 players strike. Last year, the team turned a profit of $5.4 million on revenues of $70.29 million. With no investors to pay off, the money is saved for future signing bonuses and stadium improvements. The team also gives away a few hundred thousand dollars to charities. And more than $20 million is saved for future needs.

The structure has its financial advantages, too. Some NFL owners have borrowed heavily to pay $100 million or more for their franchises, creating massive interest payments every year. The Packers, by contrast, have virtually no debt. And the team's nonprofit status spares it state and local, but not federal, income taxes.

There are drawbacks, too.

Micromanagement, for example. The executive committee used to hold Monday meetings with the coach, grilling him over the minutiae of play calling. Lombardi ended that when he was hired in 1959.

And the dominance of the Packers in Green Bay puts the behavior of its players under a microscope. A handful of sex assault cases involving local women in the 1980s rocked the community. "That put Green Bay through hell. The team brought us disrespect," Jadin said.

Living in a fishbowl

Team officials say they now screen players more carefully. New hires get detailed instructions on staying clean in a small town.

"It's more of a fishbowl. Because we're publicly owned, I think a lot of the time we're seen as public servants," said offensive tackle Ken Ruettgers, whose 6-foot-6, 295-pound frame makes him stand out in any restaurant in town.

Ruettgers, who grew up in California and attended USC, said he still likes the atmosphere of Green Bay, despite the lack of anonymity that a big city offers. He lives here in the off-season.

"There are no traffic jams or drive-by shootings. There are always people who want to buy you meals and talk to you and help you out," he said.

Players say the intensity of the community forces them to draw inward, to socialize more among themselves and to get to know each other. Many compare it to their college teams.

The relationship between black players and a community that is 95 percent white and .05 percent African-American has been especially awkward. Some black players refuse to come to Green Bay.

The team has tried to make those who do come feel comfortable. It has soul food and a barber familiar with black hairstyles brought up from Milwaukee once a week. But there's only so much a team can do.

"People are polite here. But as far as a social life, there's not a lot to do," said Dorsey Levens, a black fullback who grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and lives in Atlanta in the off-season.

A newly professionalized management, brought on in the wake of the scandals in the 1980s, has wrested decision-making away from the well-minded volunteers who used to hold sway. Robert Harlan became the club's first chief executive who came from the world of football, rather than from Green Bay civic affairs. He was named Packers president in 1989, replacing a retired county judge who had held the job.

Harlan, a former sports public relations executive, has added sky boxes and club seats to the stadium. He ended the practice of playing three regular-season games and one preseason game each season in Milwaukee to take advantage of luxury-seat revenue.

Harlan hired general manager Ron Wolf and coach Mike Holmgren, sparking the re-emergence of the Packers as a force on the field. The Packers have won eight league championships, but the last one came in the 1967 season.

"I think Green Bay needs to be part of the NFL. I think it's good for sports," Harlan said.

Benefiting from system

He said he worries about threats to the NFL's order, such as the lawsuit recently settled by the Dallas Cowboys that challenges the league's intricate system of sharing revenues among teams.

The system has kept the Packers alive. The team cannot simply raise prices to keep up with teams in bigger, richer cities, where sky boxes rent for up to $200,000 a year and tickets can cost $75 or more a game. A suite at Lambeau Field goes for $19,000 a year. The average season ticket cost a little more than $30 a game this season, second-cheapest in the NFL.

Future revenue growth is likely to come from improvements to Lambeau. Until now, the team has paid for all the work. The stadium was built for $960,000 in 1957, split between the team and city.

Harlan has begun to drop hints that tax money may be necessary for future improvements. Mayor Jadin said he's willing to consider a request.

"We don't have an owner that everyone looks at and says is the enemy. The public looks at this and says no one is getting rich except the players, and that's OK," Jadin said.

Jadin used to be just another back bencher at the National Conference of Mayors meetings. Not anymore. Ever since the Browns -- and, it briefly seemed, every other NFL team -- moved last year, he has been mobbed.

Everyone wants to know how to moor the local team permanently. Jadin, who served on Cleveland Mayor Michael White's committee on the topic, isn't optimistic Green Bay's model will spread.

For one thing, investors would have to be found to put up $200 million or more in exchange for stock that would never earn a nickel. And the NFL has changed its rules and grandfathered the Packers in to prohibit other teams from being publicly owned or run as nonprofits.

Besides, said Jadin, even though the plan works well in Green Bay, building entire leagues around the idea might not be good for cities or sports. It could rob teams of the entrepreneurial spirit that makes them grow.

"I'm not sure communities should be in the business of owning professional teams," he said.

Pub Date: 12/26/96

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad