DALLAS — If the Green Bay Packers win the Super Bowl Sunday, they should give out 48,788 game balls: One to each Brown County resident who voted yes in the 2000 referendum that imposed a half-cent sales tax to help finance the remake of Lambeau Field.
Indeed, if it had not been for your vision and generosity, the Packers probably wouldn’t be playing Sunday on the biggest stage in American sports.
It can’t be understated: You’re the 21st century saviors of the franchise. You’ve played as important a part in the survival of the Packers as those who dropped loose change into George Whitney Calhoun’s hat in 1919, bought stock in three different offerings between 1923 and ’50 when the franchise was in financial straits, and voted for the bond issue in 1956 to build Lambeau.
Without you, the Packers would likely be keeping company with the Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills and the rest of the dregs of NFL society. That’s not to say those teams have no chance of playing in a Super Bowl. The Vikings came within three points of making it last year.
But since 2003, when the Lambeau redevelopment was completed, not one of the bottom eight teams on Forbes magazine’s 2010 list of NFL team valuations have reached the Super Bowl, and together they’ve won a total of five playoff games.
While it’s true that you can’t buy Super Bowl titles in the NFL as Dan Snyder has learned in Washington, the data suggests that the league’s financial have-nots don’t have much chance either. This season, the only team ranked in the bottom one-fourth to make the playoffs was Atlanta.
Without the Lambeau Atrium and other stadium improvements, the Packers probably would rank among the bottom two or three teams in annual revenue and also near the bottom on Forbes’ list.
Thus, the odds are that all the favorable attention showered on Green Bay for the last five weeks likely would have been directed elsewhere, and all the money that local businesses have made off the Packers’ playoff run would have gone into some other till.
Anyone who believes otherwise is being naïve.
Under general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers have done a remarkable job of acquiring players on the cheap through the draft and avoiding costly mistakes in free agency. That would have served them well under any circumstances.
On the financial side, the Packers get a $95.8 million cut from network TV money and another $45.8 million from non-network media. Thanks to those equally shared payouts, even the league’s paupers have been able to sign players to big contracts. After all, the Vikings had the cash to pay Brett Favre $28 million over the past two years; and the Jaguars were able to outbid the Packers for Aaron Kampman last off-season.
What’s more, the league’s collective bargaining agreement included mechanisms that restricted movement among the league’s best players.
But one of the keys to the Packers’ success this season was that they were able to pay boatloads of upfront money to retain their best players and to avoid being straight-jacketed by the salary cap.
The Packers’ four most important playmakers have been Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and Greg Jennings.
Woodson signed a seven-year, $52 million free-agent contract in 2006 with $10.5 million of it paid in his first year. Rodgers signed a six-year, $65 million extension in 2008, a year before his rookie contract would have expired, which included an immediate $12 million bump in salary. Jennings signed a three-year extension worth $26.35 million in 2009, a year prior to the expiration of his rookie contract, which included an $11.25 million signing bonus and a guaranteed first-year salary of $5 million.
In other words, the Packers handed out essentially $39 million in instant cash on contracts worth $143 million. Without a redeveloped Lambeau, it would have been virtually impossible for the Packers to structure the three contracts the way they did; and it is unlikely they could have afforded all three players.
Remove just one of the three from the lineup this season, and some other team probably wins the NFC championship.
As appalling as it might be for billion-dollar franchises to strong-arm communities into helping finance their expensive playgrounds, it’s the price of poker at the NFL table.
Baltimore, Cleveland and Houston refused to play the game and lost their teams, only to regain them once they built new stadiums. Without a suitable stadium, Los Angeles, the country’s second largest city, lost two teams in the 1990s.
Some politicians and voters in 2000 were convinced that couldn’t happen to Green Bay because the Packers’ corporate bylaws prevent them from moving. What they overlooked was that the NFL maintains the right to create or revoke franchises as it wishes.
It’s hard to imagine that other club owners would have booted the Packers out of the league by now. But it’s just as difficult to imagine the Packers not being on life support if they were still playing in the old, unadorned Lambeau.
Thanks to those of you who voted yes 11 years ago, the Packers’ stadium revenue jumped approximately $20 million in the first year of the new Lambeau. Now do the math to guess the difference you’ve made after eight years.
At $80 a pop, it would cost the Packers about $4 million to give you each a game ball if they win the Lombardi Trophy tonight. Sounds like a fair deal if they only knew your names.