There is no meddling owner. No corporate name on the stadium. No tickets left unsold on game days. And no big-city distractions.
The Green Bay Packers are what they are: the heart and soul of a city of 105,000, a statewide obsession in Wisconsin and the object of undying affection for millions of fans, untold numbers of whom will never bite into a sizzling grilled brat on a 10-degree day at Lambeau Field.
Formed in the National Football League’s primordial mist in 1919, the Packers, named for founder Curly Lambeau’s employer, the Indian Packing Company, which spotted the team $500, remains the only publicly held team in major professional sports. More than 364,000 people own at least one share of stock in Green Bay Packers Inc., a purely emotional investment that never pays dividends or appreciates in value.
Bob Harlan bought one share for $25 when he became team president in 1989. Now retired, Harlan was known for answering his own telephone. Fans would call to complain about a draft pick or the price of beer by saying, “Bob, I’m a fan and a shareholder…” He would say, “I am, too, so let’s talk.”
‘The greatest story in sports’
The fact that the Packers exist in a city that would be merely a suburb in Chicago or Dallas is a minor miracle, due in equal parts to NFL revenue sharing and incredible fan support. Los Angeles can’t support a team, but the nation’s 70th-biggest television market can? Go figure.
“I think it’s the greatest story in sports,” said Green Bay native Cliff Christl, the team historian who covered the Packers as a sportswriter for 36 years. “There’s David vs. Goliath, there’s romance. I don’t know what else could top it.”
The team continues to thrive—and win—in today’s era of free agency, corporate largess and billion-dollar TV contracts, having reclaimed some of its Coach Vince Lombardi 1960s-era dominance with nine division titles since 1995 and two Super Bowl wins following the 1996 and 2010 seasons. But what makes the Packers truly special is the bond with fans. All sports teams claim loyal fans, but there’s nothing quite like Packer Nation.
Season ticket-holders live in all 50 states as well as Canada, Japan and Australia. Season tickets are passed down in wills and fought over in divorce court, and over 100,000 names comprise the waiting list. Every Green Bay home game since 1960 has been sold out, and the town, where stadium-adjacent homes in the Ashwaubenon neighborhood have been converted into sophisticated green and gold party palaces, is all Packers, all the time.
Not to be outdone, fans throughout the cheese state are proud to display their Packer pride. In the tiny northwestern Wisconsin town of Altoona, fans brag about hometown hero Frederick “Fuzzy” Thurston, 80, Lombardi’s nimble left guard and one of the most popular players in Green Bay history, who a few years ago returned to his tiny northwestern Wisconsin hometown to serve as grand marshal of the Altoona High School Homecoming Parade. Fans in Sheboygan, home of former Packers receiver Bill Schroeder (1997-2001), cluster around Meisfeld’s Meat Market custom Packer RV for charity events. Fans in Racine, former home of mid-century star receiver Don Hutson’s car dealership, remind fellow Packer-backers that they once fielded the Racine Legion, a pro football team that played Green Bay in their inaugural season of 1919.
Statewide, the most passionate pocket of Packer fans may hail from Milwaukee, which hosted three regular season games per season until 1994. After Green Bay moved all home games to Lambeau in 1995, Milwaukee season “Gold” ticket-holders were offered the second and fifth games of the season. On the mornings of those games, Interstate 43 northbound traffic is bumper-to-bumper for 100 miles.
Tens of thousands of fans pour into Green Bay annually to tour the stadium, visit the Packers Hall of Fame, stock up on Packers Pro Shop gear and attend training camp practices. Harlan once watched a car with Texas license plates drive into Lambeau’s parking lot during the off-season. A man emerged, got on his hands and knees and kissed the asphalt.
Just another day in Titletown, USA.