No leap from Lambeau Packers: In Green Bay, the team is literally owned by the fans. So it's not going anywhere except to the playoffs.

December 26, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Imagine rooting for a pro football team that has no wanderlust. A team that gives its profits to charities. A team with no greedy owner. A team that wins.

Such a slice of sports heaven exists here in the chilly north woods of Wisconsin.

The Green Bay Packers, the only nonprofit franchise in the NFL, are fielding big-name free agents, generating record revenues and charging some of the lowest ticket prices in the league.

They are also winning, reviving an art form not seen in Titletown since Vince Lombardi stalked the sidelines in his gray fedora. The Packers (13-3) have a first-round bye and home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs, and might be on a course for the Super Bowl after coming within a game of the big show last season.

And Green Bay -- a red-flannel city of 96,000 two hours north of Milwaukee -- has become positively smug about retaining its team while glamorous megalopolises across the country are losing theirs. After the Browns announced last year they were abandoning Cleveland, a headline in the paper here proclaimed: "Pack leave town? Not likely."

Almost impossible, actually. Due to a corporate structure established in the 1920s and unlikely to be reproduced, the Packers are the only community-controlled, not-for-profit team in the major leagues.

It is, in essence, the only true home team in big-time sports.

And the fans know it.

Listen to the reaction of Rob "Dusty" Rhodes, a 26-year-old pizza maker and Packer backer, to the notion of Baltimore fans having to buy "permanent seat licenses" before they can get season tickets:

"So you pay $1,000 and then pay for your tickets? Holy ----. You don't hear about that around here," Rhodes said, shaking his head.

From the first bratwurst to hit the grill in the stadium parking lot on Sunday morning to the extended game postmortems that dominate office chitchat for the entire week, the Packers are Green Bay and Green Bay is the Packers.

"Mondays are pretty much dictated by how the Packers play on Sunday. It is 90 percent of every conversation on Monday," said Green Bay Mayor Paul F. Jadin.

Popular? Packers games have been sold out since Eisenhower was president. The season-ticket waiting list has 27,000 names. Tickets are passed down in wills. At the current rate, the wait could last a few centuries.

Fans of all ages

It is literally a cradle-to-grave love affair.

When local hospitals, led by Bellin Memorial, started offering knit caps for newborns in the Packers colors a few years ago, hardly anyone wanted the blue or pink caps anymore. That led to a run on green and gold yarn, and the ladies auxiliaries that do the knitting had to start buying directly from the yarn makers.

Kids pedal bikes to the practice facility in hopes that players will use them for the short ride across the street to the stadium's dressing room. The sight of youngsters lugging helmets and jogging alongside the likes of Reggie White, pedaling a comically undersized bicycle, is a rite of early fall.

Otherwise self-respecting adults show up for games waving yellow towels and wearing tricornered foam hats that look like giant slices of Wisconsin cheese. When a Packer scores at Lambeau Field, he doesn't celebrate with an Electric Slide in the end zone. He throws himself into the loving embrace of the cheeseheads in the bleachers, a maneuver known as the Lambeau Leap.

And funeral homes in town don't flinch when asked to hang Packers pennants and arrange a table of vintage Packers trading cards and stuffed animals for visitations. Obituaries will note that "he was an avid Packers fan." Some fans have gone to their

eternal rest wearing a Bart Starr jersey. There's even a green casket with gold hardware for the truly devoted, dearly departed.

"We're talking about a community of 100,000 that has something that Los Angeles doesn't have," said Mayor Jadin, whose business card has a tiny Packers helmet, with the trademark G, just below the official "Gateway to the great waterway" city logo.

"We are the last bastion of what sports in America was intended to be. We don't have the glitz or the greed that is associated with other teams," he said.

The team, founded in 1919 with the help of a meat packing company, was going bust when it was reorganized as a nonprofit and sold stock in 1923. Later bouts of insolvency led to more stock issues in 1935 and 1950 (along with benefit games and Elk Club dances). There are now 4,464 shares in the hands of 1,915 shareholders.

Shares -- eagerly sought as souvenirs -- will never pay a dividend. Sales can be made only for face value and have to be approved by the directors. No one can accumulate more than 200 shares, meaning the team can't be taken over in a Wall Street-style hostile raid.

The corporate charter specifies that the Packers "shall be a community project intended to promote community welfare and

that its purposes shall be exclusively charitable." Playing football games, the documents say, is "incidental to its purpose."

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