Friday, August 01, 2014

Progress in Packerland

Jumbotrons hadn't been invented when I first saw the Packers' stadium in 1957.

By luck of the draw, in 1957 I occupied a seat high in the stands on the 40-yard line at Lambeau Field (it was known as New City Stadium then) when the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears played the first game in what television announcers now are fond of calling "that historic stadium."

I was working at my first full-time job as city editor of the De Pere Journal-Democrat. Although as a weekly newspaper, we were the smallest of the media in the Green Bay area and didn't attempt to cover professional sports, the Packers sent us two season tickets. We drew straws to see who would get to use the comps for which games. I drew the long straw for the opener. I returned for a tour last week.

Professional football in Green Bay was not prospering in the 1950s. After 37 years in the National Football League, six of them championship seasons, the franchise was in trouble. The team was on a losing streak that started in the late 40s. In 1950, a stock sale was needed to raise $118,000, basically to keep meeting operating expenses. City Stadium, which the Packers shared with East High School, had become completely inadequate as a pro football venue. The Packers compensated by playing half their home schedule, three games, in Milwaukee where they could seat more paying spectators. NFL club owners threatened to force a move of the franchise to Milwaukee unless a new stadium was built in the club's home city.

Green Bay residents in 1956 voted to finance a new stadium. The city bought farmland in the nearby Village of Ashwaubenon as a site. New City Stadium was built in less than a year. It was the first modern stadium designed exclusively for professional football. Many other NFL teams at the time played in stadiums built for baseball, and some strange configurations and seats with poor views resulted when 100-yard playing fields were laid out over the diamonds and outfields.

The new Green Bay structure was renamed Lambeau Field in 1965 shortly after the death of E. L. "Curly" Lambeau, the team's cofounder and long-time coach. When I first saw it in 1957, there wasn't a bad seat in the place. It was a perfectly symmetrical oval, although one end zone was open and the other had only a few rows of seats. No one had to peer around posts or watch the game from a nook or cranny with their view partially obscured.  The Packers' home field was a great place to watch football, and it still is. Initially, the stadium seated 32,150. People were amazed that a city of 50,000 would support a sports structure that big.
Our tour group traveled way up to view the big picture.

When I revisited the place with our son Lee last week, more than a half century after opening day, many expansions and major renovations had altered Lambeau Field. The most recent, a huge $295 million project, was getting a few finishing touches. The good features of the original structure were intact, but a whole lot of improvements were in place. The seating capacity had been increased to 80,978, second highest of the 31 NFL stadiums (two New York teams share a stadium). Some people are amazed that a city whose population now is 104,868 supports a sports structure that big.

Packers fan support is legendary. Every game since 1960 at Lambeau Field has been sold out. At the moment, more than 105,000 are on the waiting list to buy a season ticket (yes, that is several hundred more than Green Bay's population). Only about 100 season tickets are not renewed each year. So if you got on the waiting list right now, you could expect your chance to buy a ticket to arrive in about 955 years. One might think the Packers would be eager to cash in on that kind of demand, but they keep the faith with their fans. Ticket prices are average for the NFL, 17th in the 32-team league.

One of the good things present last week that wasn't there in 1957 was our tour guide, Dave Devenport.  Dave and I attended the same high school in northern Wisconsin. We were teammates on the school baseball team, and also played together one summer as teenage boys with and against men in our county baseball league. That's all our athletic backgrounds have in common.
Old teammates reunite. Dave is the good-looking one.
Dave was a star performer in baseball, basketball, and football, the only sports our school offered. He earned multiple MVP, Captain, and All-Conference honors. Dave played football and baseball at the University of Wisconsin--Stevens Point before transferring to the UW flagship campus at Madison to join the Badgers' football program. Unfortunately, a knee injury prematurely ended his athletic career. 

Dave is a member of the Athletic Hall of Fame in our hometown. The only way I'll get into a hall of fame is to buy a ticket! I fully intend to do that next year at Lambeau Field (see photo at the end of this post).

Our tour guide added to his football knowledge in years of observing the Packers scene. He worked his way up in a 35-year career at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, as a reporter, state and city editor, sportswriter, and finally news editor. Along the way, Dave served as a NFL statistician for the Packers for 23 years.  He comes fully equipped with a lot of interesting Packers stories and reliable numbers. Our tour with Dave and his genial partner guide, Grant Turner, was entertaining and informative. It should have been; Dave has been guiding tours at Lambeau for 15 years and Grant has been at it 18 years.

A tour starts at Lambeau every half-hour from 10:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. most days throughout the year. We paid $37 total for a senior and adult ticket. A day later, Lee and I paid nearly three times that for a far less interesting and much lower quality tour at Taliesin, the estate of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Our 16-member group assembled in the new Lambeau Atrium at 10:15. Dave started us off with some get-acquainted questions, working our information into statistics about tours and observations as to why the Atrium and we were there.

Dave said Lambeau has hosted a million tour visitors since 2003 when the present tour program began. They came from every state in the U.S. and 122 other countries. Many, but not all, had some interest in American football, but they weren't necessarily Packers fans. Our group included men and women from six states, and one born in France. Fans of the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Detroit Lions were present.

Lee and I each own one share of Green Bay Packers stock. So did three others in our group. "Where else can you take a tour with owners?" Dave asked.
We rested in a Skybox; Dave kept on working.

About 300,000 people are shareholders in the non-profit corporation. The Packers are the only major professional sports team in the U.S. owned by its fans. The shareholders get no dividends and can't gain by selling their holdings; profits are plowed back into the physical facilities and personnel compensation.

Unlike the other franchises, the Packers have no billionaire owner. Their shareholder rules prohibit any individual from gaining control.  "That's why this Atrium is here and why we sold you a tour ticket today--we need the money." Dave said. "There's no way we could compete with big spenders running teams in big cities with just the income from television revenue and ticket sales for eight home games a year."

The Packers have done a good job developing things at Lambeau to create a diversified attraction. The Atrium, attached to a corner of the stadium, is open to the public 365 days a year. The giant structure includes the Packers Hall of Fame, the 21,500 square foot Pro Shop, a first-class restaurant (Curly's Pub), and a main floor patterned after a football field that can be used to host conventions and large business meetings or other gatherings. Those who want to get married at Lambeau Field, as 40 couples did last year, can arrange a reception for a few hundred of their close acquaintances. The first day Lee and I visited the Atrium it was set up for a dinner group of several hundred. The next day, the tables were gone and the floor open for other activities.

We visited the Pro Shop before our tour. It recently reopened after a remodeling that doubled its size. It looks like a large department store, with merchandise for sale ranging from the famous cheeseheads in several sizes to a portable picnic table complete with Packers logos. Some high-end apparel is available without Packers identification for visitors who may favor other teams.
We couldn't resist a Pro Shop selfie with a "cheesy" No. 12.
The Lambeau Field area was quiet during our stay in a motel within easy walking distance--the annual stockholders meeting, always attended by thousands, was two days away and the opening of training camp nearly a week ahead. Yet, the Pro Shop was crowded with visitors snapping up goods. That kind of activity helped the Packers take in $136.4 million in local revenue last year, ninth best in the NFL. That's remarkable for an organization in a small market that has not sold its stadium name for millions of advertising dollars and holds average ticket prices down.

Massive changes in the stadium and areas nearby have contributed to the Packers rosy financial picture. The relatively small, compact oval surrounded by farm fields I visited in 1957 is no more. An Associated Press writer this week said of Lambeau Field and environs, "the franchise has bought up land, razed nearby houses, and expanded its stadium more than 20 stories into the sky as part of what can only be described as massive physical growth."

The skyward expansion refers to a development in the south end zone that added 7,000 seats in four levels and rises 232 feet into the air (about the height of a 21-story office building). Complete with a huge "G" on the roof, Lambeau Field can be seen from miles away. From a new observation terrace at the roofline, our tour group could see major structures in Green Bay and locate De Pere and other suburban areas. De Pere is about 5 miles away.

"Skyboxes" provide outstanding views of the field and good financial returns for the Packers. Each holds 16 or 20 people. Our group visited one of the larger ones and took a sit-down break while guide Dave held forth with a stunning panorama of the field for background. If a skybox was available in one of the best locations for a prime regular season game, an unlikely situation, our group could lease it for around $14,000 (food and drink extra).
E.L."Curly" Lambeau and R.J."Dick" Klade point to Curly's Pub.

For something really plush, and also probably not available, it's sometimes possible to lease one of 168 luxury suites for the season for a mere $85,000. Most of those are taken by corporations, but about a fourth are leased by individuals, a few of whom are Packers players. Luxury suites have their own bars and kitchens, and the owners can play host in them every day during their lease period if they choose.

"High-class" could apply to luxury boxes and other refinements, but we think it pretty well sums up everything about Lambeau Field and the Atrium. Lee is a stickler for quality in his stained glass art business. I was surprised by how many times during our visit he marveled at the expert construction and the way a special feeling was created by designs and decorations. I shared his appreciation for the high-quality ambience of the place.

Isn't a walking tour of a facility that covers 2.1 million square feet on many levels a bit taxing? Not at all. Most of the time we traveled by elevator with stops to rest in the Skybox, Champions Lounge, and, finally, the lowest level some 25 feet below ground. We ventured out onto the playing field to learn how grass (don't step on it, Dave cautioned) grows in December with the aid of a sophisticated heating system. It was an awesome feeling to look up at the names of famous players and dates of championships that ring the stadium.

Twenty-two Packers are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. In my newspaper days, I had lengthy conversations with two of them. Of course, they also are in the Packers Hall of Fame with 130 other stars. The Packers hall was closed during our visit as a major remodeling was being completed. I want to know how those two famous guys I met so long ago are portrayed in the hall. Lee and I have a 2015 return trip to Lambeau already in the planning stages to satisfy my curiosity.
We walked out the tunnel where champions have trod.

Well, after all, many of us have visited big stadiums and we can get a lot of information about football teams on the internet. Why should anyone bother going to Lambeau Field and paying for a tour? Because you have to be there to have your small group's "Go, Pack, Go" cheer clearly heard by other tourists far below you on the field. And you must be there to hear Lambeau Field answer you back. You also can't use a computer to match the experience of walking out onto the field through the tunnel so many great pro players have trotted through for a half century, while astute tour managers play recorded roars of a Lambeau crowd to urge you on.

What a coincidence! Names of two of the finest players in NFL history I met years ago are side-by-side high above Lambeau Field turf.  In 2015, Lee Klade and I will return to learn how the Packers Hall of Fame tells their stories.
There's a lot to take in at Lambeau Field that is available nowhere else. And the Packers need your money. Go there, and perhaps you can coax Dave Devenport or another expert tour guide into telling you how "God" told superstar defensive player Reggie White to go to Green Bay when White was a free agent courted by almost every team in the league. "God" was right. It's a good place to go to.


Anonymous said...

You did super job with this blog! Very interesting! High five!

Little bug

Dick Klade said...

Thanks for those kind words.

Anonymous said...

Nice article about my favorite team. My cousins can hardly wait to begin cheering for their favorite teams...the Packers and the Bears. Seeing them face off from the vantage of a sky box must be a real thrill for a fan. I always have the sensation of being in a giant TV from that perspective.

Meanwhile, we are in DC with the Redskins who generally manage to go nowhere most years. I don't follow football, but RGIII and I use the same bone guys for our joints.

Bob Saeger said...

Just read your article on the Lambeau tour. Very nice! Pam and I have tickets for the Nov 9th, Bears at Packers game. We voted in the Packers game over a cruise for our 30th anniversary this year. We really want to try to fit the tour into that weekend as well--it is one thing we have never done even having been to a couple other games in years past. I seem to remember you couldn't buy the tour tickets very far in advance, and they were always sold out by the time we tried.

As expected, being a home game, all lodging is booked up for that weekend except for a few rooms at 900+ a night. We ended up reserving three nights at a decent (looking) motel in Two Rivers, about 40 miles from Green Bay. Regular rates, and they seemed to have no idea that we were staying with them for a Packers game, as the rates will actually be less in November because it is the "off season" for them on the Lake Michigan shore. The extra drive is no big deal because we will park at the 10 dollar lot behind Favres steak house and walk two blocks to the stadium anyway, which is what we have always done no matter where we stayed in the past.

I'm sure we'll see you down at Rhino's for a few of "those games we can't get on our TV", maybe even pre-season.

Dick Klade said...

Right, Bob, they only sell tour tickets starting at 9 a.m. on the day of the tour. We were told to get there early because they fill up fast. We arrived about 8:15 and five people were already there. Rhinos for sure!

PiedType said...

I've never lived anywhere near Green Bay but the Pack has always been one of my favorite teams. I've always had the feeling that it's smaller, friendlier environment, with more of a small-town warmth to it. More my kind of crowd than, say, NY or LA.

Alan G said...

Enjoyed the post Dick and your own well presented guided tour provided to your blog visitors. No doubt the fans will be most appreciative of the stadium updating. Certainly a well deserved upgrade for such a dedicated fan base.

One cannot deny that surely the area surrounding the stadium will remain hallowed ground for decades to come. A fan as you know in name only, I can only wish the best for a group of fans unlike any other.

Tom Sightings said...

Really interesting ... I'm not a Green Bay fan, not even much of a football fan; but I do remember as a kid watching the Packers play in the snow back in the '60s. They were quite a team! And I was amazed, many years later, when I had occasion to visit Fordham Univ. in New York City and see that Vince Lombardi played college football there in The Bronx.

Dick Klade said...

Yes, Tom, the iconic Packers coach was one of "The Seven Blocks of Granite" as the linemen at Fordham were called. I blew it when as a sports editor an invitation arrived to play in a fun golf tournament with Lombardi, others of the coaching staff, and quite a few players. I was very busy at the time and declined the invite. I never met Lombardi. That would have been my chance.