The Green Bay Packers, Inc.
The Green Bay Packers, Inc.
Incorporated: 1923 as Green Bay Football Corporation
Sales: $102.7 million (1999)
NAIC: 711211 Sports Teams and Clubs
The Green Bay Packers, Inc. is a nonprofit corporation held by the citizens of Green Bay to run its football team. The Packers are the only publicly owned team in the National Football League (NFL), and the team is the only surviving franchise in the NFL still playing in its original small town. Green Bay Packers, Inc. has roughly 100,000 shareholders, but the shares produce no dividends, and all profits the team makes go to the American Legion. The team’s wins, therefore, produce no financial gain for stockholders. Yet this arrangement virtually precludes the Packers from moving to another city. Green Bay remains the only town of its size to have a major league football team. The Packers’ unusual corporate status attests to the huge loyalty Wisconsonites have for the team. The Green Bay team has a celebrated history. It was one of the most successful teams in the sport in its earliest years, and had a golden period in the early 1960s, when it was graced with many top players. The team returned to the top ranks in the 1990s, led by such star players as Brett Favre and Reggie White.
Early Years Under Lambeau
The Green Bay Packers team was founded and led by a remarkable player and coach, Earl L. “Curly” Lambeau. Lambeau was born in Green Bay in 1898, and grew up to be the star of his high school football team. He attended Notre Dame University in 1918, and as a freshman played on the varsity team under the legendary coach Knute Rockne. An illness kept Lambeau home from college the next year, and he began working at the Indian Packing Company, a meat-packing plant in his home town. Lambeau missed playing football, so in the summer of 1919 he helped organize a local team. Lambeau convinced his employer to put up money for uniforms and equipment. The team was known briefly as the Indians, but soon became the Green Bay Packers, after the meat-packing company. For its first two seasons, the team played games against other teams from small towns in Wisconsin and Michigan. The players’ only pay was what could be collected in a hat passed among spectators at halftime. The proceeds per player for the whole 1919 season were $16.75. The Packers played in a vacant field in a downtown park, and the members of the team of necessity had regular day jobs.
But Lambeau was ambitious. He was an extraordinary player himself, and pioneered the passing style of play. Earlier players did not rely on throwing the ball to the extent Lambeau did, and opponents were often infuriated by Lambeau’s winning technique. In 1921 Lambeau again appealed to the Indian Packing Company to put up $50 to buy the Packers a franchise in the newly formed American Professional Football Association (later renamed the National Football League). The team did well, playing against clubs from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. When the Packers joined the professional league, the competition got better, and Lambeau began to recruit players from outside of Green Bay. In order to lure players, he needed to guarantee them some financial gain beyond loose change in a hat. Thus in 1923, a group of five area businessmen got together and launched the Green Bay Football Corporation, a nonprofit entity to provide financial backing for the team. Shares of stock sold for $5 each and paid no dividends. Purchasers were obligated to buy at least six season tickets. The corporation had a five-member executive committee and 15 elected directors. As a nonprofit, the corporation was tax-exempt, and all profits were to go to the American Legion. Lambeau signed some impressive players, among them Verne Lewellen, Lavvie Dilweg, and Johnny Blood. In the 1920s and early 1930s Lambeau’s team was a powerhouse, winning three national championships from 1929 to 1931. Lambeau had his last season as a player in 1930, but he continued to coach the team.
Despite the team’s success on the field, it had financial difficulties during the Depression years. Because of a bleacher accident in which a fan was injured, the team was required to settle a $5,000 lawsuit, and when its insurer went bankrupt, the team accrued even more debt. In 1935, Green Bay Football Corporation was put into receivership. Professional football changed for the better in the mid-1930s, when a fair college draft system was instituted. Previously, the four best teams in the NFL dominated year after year, because the good college players would only sign on with the leading teams. Competition within the league evened out after a draft was initiated in 1934, and football became more popular. The Packers had a championship team in 1936, and by 1937 they were out of receivership. The corporation reorganized as the Green Bay Packers, Inc.
Transitional Years After World War II
Curly Lambeau continued to coach the Packers through the 1940s. But after 1945, many of the team’s great heroes had retired, and the Packers began to lose. An All-American Football Conference was organized in 1946, splitting the sport between the old NFL and the new league. This drastically increased the number of professional teams on the American scene. As a result, good players were in high demand, and they began to command large salaries. Because of this, running the Packers became more expensive. Lambeau muddied the Packers’ financial picture too by using the corporation’s assets to buy an expensive lodge north of Green Bay to house the team. The players then had to be bused into town to practice. The team’s record slid. In 1948 they won 3 games out of 12, and the next year won only two. In order to bring money to the team, the board of directors decided to sell more stock. Lambeau led a behind-the-scenes move to sell the stock to four backers who would put in $200,000 if the corporation could be changed to a for-profit one. He was outvoted on this move, and a stock sale went ahead in 1950. Single shares went for $25 each, and the sale raised $125,000. Shortly after this Lambeau left the Packers to become head coach of the Chicago Cardinals.
The conflict between the two major football leagues ended in 1949 when the All-American Football Conference came to an arrangement with the NFL, and the country was divided into a National Conference and an American Conference. The Packers secured a new coach, Gene Ronzani, in 1950. But the team continued to lose. Verne Lewellen, one of the early great Packers players and later a lawyer and Standard Oil executive, became the team’s business manager in 1954. Lewellen began looking for a new coach. In 1954 Lisle Blackbourn became coach, but he fared no better than Ronzani. He lasted until 1957, when he was replaced by Ray McLean. The team won only one game in 1958.
The Packers did make some positive changes during this disastrous decade. The stadium by the high school where the team had started was hopelessly outdated. Its wooden structure had deteriorated, it had no bathrooms, and it was too small. In 1956 the Green Bay Packers, Inc. broke ground for a new stadium on the southwestern edge of town. The total cost was just under $1 million, and the financing was split between the corporation and the city. Its original seating was for 32,150, thought to be frighteningly large. The team won its first game there, in September 1957, with Vice-President Richard Nixon on hand for the dedication. Originally called City Stadium, its name was changed to Lambeau Field in 1965, after the death of Curly Lambeau. The Packers also gained increasing financial benefit from radio and television broadcasting during the 1950s. The corporation was able to sell radio rights to its games for $20,000 in 1952. The first televised Packers game was in 1953, and the team was paid $5,000 for each of three broadcast games. By 1956, television rights were going for a lot more. CBS paid the team $75,000 that year to televise all its games. Because the Green Bay area was such a small television market, the Packers’ contract was worth far less than what teams in such cities as Los Angeles and New York were getting. In the early 1960s, this disparity among league teams was worked out. The NFL negotiated as a whole, and television proceeds were split evenly between teams. This was much to the advantage of Green Bay.
Lombardi Brings Back the Pack in the 1960s
Despite building a new stadium and gaining lucrative television coverage, the team still had precarious finances and, worst of all, a losing record. The Packers’ executive committee let Ray McLean go, and in 1959 brought in a relatively unknown man to be head coach, Vincent Lombardi. Lombardi had been a high school coach, a lawyer, an assistant coach for West Point, and then an assistant coach for the New York Giants before he came to Green Bay. He immediately instituted changes, trading players and redefining strategy. The sorry Packers were transformed. In Lombardi’s first season, they had seven wins, and the next year the team won the Western Division title. The 1960s were the glory years for the Packers. The team was filled with such legendary players as Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, and Jerry Kramer. Under Lombardi, the Packers never finished below second place, and they won championships in 1965, 1966, and 1967. The corporation’s finances improved markedly when broadcast revenues increased. In 1967 the team received more than $1 million in television fees. The rising popularity of the team meant the stadium in Green Bay needed more seats. By 1965, Lambeau Field seated over 50,000 fans, and every single home game was sold out.
Since the team’s inception in 1919, the Green Bay Packers have had a special bond with its fans and neighbors. Its unique ownership structure—the only community owned team in professional sports—as well as the team’s small market origins only reinforce the Packers’ link to their fans and their community.
At Sea in the 1970s and 1980s
Exhausted after the climactic 1967 season, Lombardi became General Manager and gave his coaching job to his assistant, Phil Bengston. Lombardi died just two years later. With Bart Starr injured, other players aging, and the costs of hiring top players becoming more than the small Green Bay franchise could afford, the team went downhill. A series of coaches succeeded Bengston, who coached from 1968 to 1970. Dan Devine had the job for the next three seasons. The Packers’ percentage of wins under him was .474, that is, they won less than half their games. Under former quarterback Bart Starr’s coaching, the team did even worse. Starr coached from 1975 through 1983, with a career record of .410. The numbers went down even more sadly under the next coach, Forrest Gregg, to .405 over his three seasons. When Gregg left, Lindy Infante took the position, and between 1988 and 1991, the Packers won 24 games and lost 40. Green Bay’s fans were intensely loyal, and every home game was sold out from 1960 on. Nevertheless, the team was clearly lacking in direction and not fun to watch. This changed beginning in 1991, with new coach Mike Holmgren.
New Success in the 1990s
Financially, Green Bay Packers, Inc. fared better than the team it stood for. By 1990, the net worth of the franchise was estimated at over $125 million. Revenue from television rights had continued to climb, so that in 1990 the team pulled in $25 million from broadcast rights, and reported a profit of $2 million, which was of course reinvested. The corporation added more seating to Lambeau Field, including 36 boxes and 1,920 theater-style club seats in 1990. The corporation’s president since 1989, Robert Harlan, significantly boosted the team’s income by aggressively marketing the Packers logo and opening a Packer Pro Shop to sell Packers gear and paraphernalia. But the corporation’s board was not satisfied with financial solvency when the team was no good. President Harlan decided in 1991 to replace the head of operations, Tom Braatz, with Ron Wolf. Wolf was given sole responsibility for the team. He even had the authority to fire the coach. So he did. Coach Infante had a salary guarantee of $1.65 million on a three-year contract. Wolf decided the team could afford to swallow the loss in order to get rid of Infante, and he soon hired Mike Holmgren, an assistant coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Over the next four years, Holmgren and Wolf revamped the Packers lineup, so that at the end of that time only three players were left from the Infante era. Wolf was responsible for picking up Brett Favre, a lowly draft choice who became the team’s star quarterback. Then, in 1993, the team signed Reggie White, the best defensive end in the NFL. Signing White shocked the football community. Green Bay was the smallest town in the NFL, not considered likely to hold much attraction for a player of White’s renown. Moreover, the team had to pay $17 million (over four years) to get him, at the time the third highest salary in the history of the NFL. White was a leading light of the league, and the most sought-after player of that year. Other teams had wined and dined him, treating him and his wife to extravagant tours of their cities. White was African American and a minister as well as a football player, and evidently he saw an opportunity in Green Bay that other cities lacked. He wanted to set up counseling and education programs for inner city youth, and he was able to do that in nearby Milwaukee. At the same time Brett Favre, once an odd choice for the team, had become an impressive player by the mid-1990s. In 1994 he signed a five-year, $19 million contract. The Packers were winning again.
In spite of the expense of hiring and keeping star players like Favre and White, the Packers still had money to spend. The corporation improved Lambeau Field throughout the 1990s, adding more seating in 1995 and upgrading the sound system, adding a new Scoreboard, and installing a new ground drainage and heating system in other years. In 1994 the corporation spent $4.7 million replacing the team’s indoor practice center with a new facility. The team was losing roughly $2.5 million a year by playing home games in nearby Milwaukee and Madison, whose stadiums did not have lucrative luxury seats. Beginning in 1995, the Packers played all their regular season home games at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
The mid-1990s were a great time for the Green Bay Packers. They won the Superbowl in 1996, and came close in 1997. The year 1998 became the sixth in a row the Packers had advanced to the playoffs, and their seventh consecutive winning season. Still needing to upgrade their stadium, the Packers made a new stock offering in 1997, offering 400,000 shares of common stock to raise $80 million for the building fund. Though stockholders received no dividends, the enormous popularity of the team meant many fans did not hesitate to plunk down $200 for a share. By 1999, coach Holmgren had moved on, leaving Ray Rhodes in his place. Reggie White retired, and several other key players were injured. Perhaps the team was coming down from its peak in the mid-1990s. Financially, president Harlan announced that the corporation had a negative cash flow in 1998 and expected the same in 1999. Noting that every other team in the league would have either new or improved stadiums by 2003, which would include year-round revenue sources such as restaurants and shops, Harlan petitioned Wisconsin state legislators for help in “saving the franchise.” According to a December 10, 1999 article in the Wisconsin State Journal, Harlan claimed that without stadium improvements, the Packers would be “dead last in this league in revenue,” in four years, and he looked to the state to save the team. Legislators came up with several tentative plans, including sales tax surcharges and selling special Packers license plates to back state bonds. Clearly, despite the team’s new power in the 1990s, it was still struggling with financial issues. The plans for helping the team in 1999 were notable in that several were statewide, in effect extending the franchise beyond the city of Green Bay to include the entire state of Wisconsin.
Chicago Bears; Minnesota Vikings; Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Detroit Lions.
- Curly Lambeau organizes first team.
- Packers’ nonprofit structure is initiated.
- Team wins three consecutive championships.
- Lambeau leaves the team.
- Vince Lombardi has first season coaching.
- First of two back-to-back Superbowl wins.
- Mike Holmgren begins building a winning team.
- Packers take the Superbowl.
- Coach Ray Rhodes is fired after the Packers close out a losing season; Mike Sherman is named as the new head coach.
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