What's Green Bay Really Thinking?

The Packers are out, but the city is still here.
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Photo: Ben Strauss

Sunday, January 22, was supposed to be an orgy of civic pride in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and a raucous sendoff to Indianapolis and Super Bowl XLVI for the NFC champion Packers. Lambeau Field would rock, a glorious array of Miller products would flow and Green Bay—the sleepy capital of small-town Americana sporting lore—would revel in it all.

Then the Packers lost to the Giants, leaving last weekend’s Brown County entertainment to Frank Caliendo’s comedy tour and an RV trade show. Come Sunday, an unblemished layer of snow covered the Lambeau Field turf, and the Tundra Tailgate Zone stood abandoned in an adjacent parking lot. Lambeau was as much mausoleum as football stadium.

As the 49ers and Giants kicked off, I was three miles north of Lambeau at the Sardine Can, a local bar whose owner once went on Letterman to drink beer through his nose. I turned to a barrel-bellied guy in a flannel pullover on the next stool and asked what happens to Packer country when football season ends. “Green Bay is just another shitty little mill town again,” he said, sipping a Schlitz tallboy.

Green Bay is painfully unremarkable without its football team. Streets are lined with such cosmopolitan outposts as Panera Bread and Casual Male XL (the plus-sized mannequins are dressed in Packers gear). Winters last through April, and paper manufacturing is the city’s biggest economic driver. When Susan Lombardi arrived in Green Bay for the first time with her husband Vince, she broke down in tears, despondent over moving from the bright lights of New York to what was known in NFL circles as the “salt mines of Siberia.” Lombardi, the patron Saint of Green Bay, wasn’t all that impressed, either. “The snow just blew your mind,” he said.

But there is, of course, that football team. The Packers are the pride of Green Bay (just look in the phonebook, where you’ll find football-themed enterprises like Packer City Soft Water and Packerland Whey Products) and many city residents own a piece of the team. The only publicly owned franchise in professional sports made news in December with a stock offering that was expected to raise more than $60 million. New stockholders shelled out $250 per share for an investment that can’t appreciate and provides zero input in football decisions. The fundraiser, unique to the Packers because of their non-profit status, will defray the $143 million price tag for Lambeau’s 7,000 new seats and two new Jumbotrons.

The Packers know their value and paid for their previous round of stadium renovations in the 2000s with the help of another stock offering and a half-cent sales tax increase in Brown County. One Green Bay native and recent college graduate I met sneered when I asked about buying his own piece of Packers stock. “What do I need a $250 piece of paper for?” he said. “I’m already paying for the stadium. I’ll let a Packers fan in Italy chip in.”

***

Even a week removed from the loss to the Giants, I expected to encounter a city defined by its Packerness stumbling through an existential malaise. Coming off the high of rooting for a 15-1 team ticketed for the Super Bowl, Cheeseheads now had to watch four others vie for their Lombardi trophy. “We all thought they’d be playing today,” said a Lambeau tour guide, wistfully. “I know a guy who moved his wedding to the summer for this team,” said a man wandering around the Packers Hall of Fame in a daze and a Clay Matthews jersey.

Yet the more I asked how the city was handling the loss, the more it became clear how grossly I overestimated the appeal of self-reflection, particularly in a Midwestern city where manufacturing is king in an economy that hasn’t been kind to American assembly lines. Wisconsin has lost more than 160,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000, and 50,000 since 2008.  In Green Bay, outsourcing has hit the paper mills hard, and even in a rebounding economy the city of 100,000 lost 500 manufacturing and construction jobs in November.  

Sprinkled on lawns around Green Bay, interspersed with a few Packers decorations, was evidence of Wisconsin’s looming climax to two years of political warfare: lawn signs both demanding a recall of and expressing support for Governor Scott Walker. Just last week, opponents turned in a petition to have the Tea Party favorite removed from office. He will likely face a recall election this summer.

In Green Bay, the story lines of an arch-conservative governor, a football team accused of socialism and a floundering economy converge. Suddenly it made sense that the smattering of people I talked to were bummed the Packers weren’t playing, but much more concerned with the millions of dollars the city would lose with the NFC championship game in San Francisco.

Cities like Green Bay across the Midwest are desperately trying to compete with the rest of the country and the rest of the world. For five months each year—six when they’re lucky—the Packers deliver the ambient but inarguable psycho-civic benefits that come with a win. Eight Sundays a year, the team also provides local business owners with the boost that attends the arrival of 70,000 out-of-towners. Eight and 70,000 are just as important as whatever the final win tally. At bars across town, conference championship Sunday crowds were alarmingly light. Bartenders nostalgically reminisced about the week before, despite the loss.

“We need the Packers,” one said.

Vince Lombardi was the first to broach the subject of quantifying just how much Green Bay needs the Packers. At his behest, a Washington research firm concluded the Packers meant more than $8.5 million to the state of Wisconsin in 1967. More recent estimates put the economic impact from the Packers at more than $280 million each season. Green Bay’s city budget for 2012 is around $100 million.

***

Heading out of town, I only saw a handful of Packers flags twisting in the wind outside of homes. There was an occasional poster and one window had a No. 12 Aaron Rodgers jersey on display. A gas station still advertised a chance to win two tickets to Sunday’s game with a fill-up.

Two Scott Walker signs stood in yards on opposite sides of the same street. “I Stand With Scott Walker,” read one; “Recall Walker,” the other answered. One was red and white and the other red, white, and blue. It didn’t look very Green Bay, but it was.


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