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The Green Bay Anomaly - SB Nation Small Market Roundtable

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Last but not least in the SB Nation Small Market Roundtable is the Green Bay Anomaly. Most everyone reading this is familiar with the two major things that make the Packers unique in the NFL.

First, the Green Bay metropolitan area has a population of 226,778 while the next smallest metropolitan area for a NFL team is in Buffalo which has 1.2 million people. If Milwaukee is considered part of the Green Bay area because they played part of their home schedule for so many years in Milwaukee and "Gold" season ticket owners are largely made up of Milwaukee area residents who have one preseason and two regular season games, then add another 1.7 million people to the Packers metro area. Although that would make the regional fan base larger than a few other NFL teams, the Packers would still remain unique for having almost 90% of their core fan base living almost 100 miles away from their home stadium.

Second, "the team is literally owned by its fans" with 112,015 people that own 4,750,934 shares. While this point is technically true, it isn't literally true. Although the Packers will never have a megalomaniacal owner, it isn't as if the 112,015 owners get together once a year to make decisions like it's a fantasy football league. The stock doesn't appreciate as the value of NFL teams continue to rise, it isn't traded on any stock market, and no dividends are issued. Being an owner doesn't even get you season ticket privileges which would be valuable on a waiting list that is up to 71,500. Instead the executive committee that runs the team is a who's who of the well connected including men like Donald Schneider who is CEO of the "largest truckload carrier in North America" and Peter Platten who is the retired vice chairman of "the largest Wisconsin-based bank." Bob Harlan has been running the team for the last 20 years, and has put off his scheduled retirement while his successor, John Jones, has an unscheduled leave of absence. This isn't a complaint about any of them or the work they have done on behalf of the team, but merely to point out that despite fan ownership it really comes down to a few wealthy and well-connected men who control the direction of the franchise, just like every other team in the NFL.

Actually the most amazing thing about the team isn't that it still plays today but that it survived the early years of the NFL. The Packers were founded in 1921 during the NFL's 2nd season and only the Chicago Bears and the Arizona (originally Chicago) Cardinals are older. The list of defunct NFL franchises from the 1920s is a long one. Green Bay remains the last small-city franchise from all of those teams that played in the 1920s because of the efforts of its founder Curly Lambeau, the Hungry Five (investors that kept the team alive with its first stock sale in 1925), the business men that stepped up in 1935 for the second stock sale after a $5,000 verdict awarded to a fan who fell from the stands forced the team into bankruptcy, and because the team won games.

Nothing keeps a small market team from relocating or going out of business like winning. From Robert W. Peterson's book, Pigskin:

"Amid the financial bloodbath of the Depression, the first NFL dynasty developed, if "dynasty" is not too strong a word for a team that wins three straight titles. It was the Green Bay Packers, whose championship teams of 1929, 1930, and 1931 no doubt saved the franchise for the city of 37,500 on Green Bay, an inlet of Lake Michigan. Slim gates and balance sheets splashed with red ink during the Depression years doomed the NFL teams in all other small cities." (p. 104)
Peterson says that football's blue-collar fans were the first ones to feel the effects of the Great Depression in 1929 and four NFL franchises folded in that year alone, with eight more by 1933. Ironically that dynasty was built the same way a dynasty would be built today. After the 1925 stock sale gave the team solid financial backing, Curly Lambeau could afford to sign college stars and through great scouting found unknown players who turned into stars.  

However, if winning can keep a small market franchise alive, then why didn't all the losing seasons kill the Packers? From the end of the Lombardi era (1968) to the start of the Ron Wolf/Mike Holmgren/Brett Favre era (1992), the Packers managed 3 winning seasons out of 24. Plus, two of those winning seasons were way back in 1969 and 1972 when a few of the greats from the Lombardi era were still playing, such as LB Ray Nitschke. I personally became an obsessed fan during the dark ages when Bart Starr was the team's head coach. My best guess is that by the 1970s, they had built up two to three generations of loyal fans who stuck with the team through the losing years. Still, a stretch of losing for nearly 20 years would have probably led to the relocation of nearly any other NFL team from that era if it hadn't been locally owned by so many shareholders. Plus, with TV revenue sharing flowing in modern sports, it is impossible to imagine a major professional sports team just going out of business. The team was fortunate that its down years happened when the team could afford it.

With so little franchise movement in modern professional sports, the threat of relocation remains only as a means of extorting a new stadium arrangement. Although moving the Packers at this point would seem impossible, the unique ownership structure in Green Bay did not prevent the NFL from using the threat of relocation to force the construction of Lambeau Field in the 1950s. Again relocation was used as a threat in 2000 because the men in charge decided that they needed a big, shiny new stadium that the taxpayers would have to pay for, of course, that led to a lot of local resentment and a narrow 53% victory when the bond referendum came up for a county wide vote.

Although the Packers were the Siberia of the NFL for many years, the stunning free agent signing of Reggie White in 1993 really shook that title off and many winning seasons, until 2005 and 2006, has prevented its return. However, there will always be a concern that the stigma will return in the post-Favre era and again it will be hard to lure big free agents to a small city.

Speaking of Favre, his presence beginning with three consecutive MVPs (1995-1997) and continuing with the his streak of consecutive games played, in addition to the absence of a single losing season between 1991 and 2005, have combined to give the team media coverage and prime time scheduling that has probably been as significant as any team in the NFL. What will be interesting is whether both will hold up in the post-Favre era. Will the team return to the Siberia of media coverage and prime time scheduling?

Finally, they are again no different from any other small market team in that they couldn't compete in the NFL today if Lamar Hunt hadn't pushed for television revenue sharing in the 1960s.

Despite this post's title, the Green Bay anomaly, the team has the same small market problems as all the other small market teams in the NFL. Maybe any small city in the country can have their own NFL team if they have a new stadium with all the revenue streams it provides, guaranteed sell outs for each home game, and the NFL continues revenue sharing among the teams. Although that last part is probably very likely to stay the same, the first two parts of the small city equation are nearly impossible. It wasn't so amazing that Brown County voters passed a referendum in 2000 to build a shiny new stadium, but that the team survived for so many years just to get to that point. What is an anomaly is that local businessmen stepped up in 1925, 1935, and in the 1950s to keep the team alive and in Green Bay when no such thing happened in all the other small cities that had NFL franchises. Another anomaly is that local businessmen were able to put the franchise into a non-profit company in 1925 and again in 1935, back before the other team owners and the league decided that NFL teams couldn't be owned in that way. The final, and unexplainable, anomaly is why so many fans are so loyal to the team that they consistently renew their season tickets, make the long journey to Green Bay, and always sell out each home game. Maybe it is the sense of ownership that makes them so loyal, or simply the fact that if they give up their season tickets they know they can never get them back. It probably varies from each fan to the next fan why they are and have been so willing to keep professional football alive in this small city. As much as I would like to explain the formula for success, maybe all Green Bay proves is that it is the exception that proves the rule that small market teams will always have to struggle to stay alive and competitive in the big NFL.