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Balancing act: Can a community's team survive in a corporate league?

Feb. 19, 2012
 
The Packers have seen significant changeover in their administration beginning with the transition at team president from Bob Harlan, left, to Mark Murphy in January 2008.
The Packers have seen significant changeover in their administration beginning with the transition at team president from Bob Harlan, left, to Mark Murphy in January 2008. / Jim Matthews/Press-Gazette
Green Bay Packers: A community's team in a corpora...: Writers Pete Dougherty and Rob Demovsky discuss how the Green Bay Packers have evolved as a community franchise in an increasingly corporate environment.

ABOUT THIS PROJECT

Research for this project, which examines the Green Bay Packers’ changing front office structure and the team’s relationship with the community, began in November. More than three dozen sources were interviewed by Green Bay Press-Gazette reporters Pete Dougherty and Rob Demovsky, who have a combined 34 years of experience covering the Packers. The sources include current and former Packers employees, high-ranking current and former NFL executives and prominent members of the community. Many of the sources would only speak on the condition of anonymity.
Dougherty has been a Packers beat reporter for the Green Bay Press-Gazette since 1994. Reach him at pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com or at www.twitter.com/PeteDougherty. Demovsky has been reporting on the Packers for the Press-Gazette since 1997. He can be reached at rdemovsk@greenbaypressgazette.com or at www.twitter.com/RobDemovsky.

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In their bid to remain a premier franchise in the 21st century National Football League, the Green Bay Packers are walking a tightrope unlike any other team in the league.

To keep pace financially with wealthy owners such as the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, the fast-growing franchise has become bigger and more corporate.

But in the arms race for revenue, the Packers must remain rooted in the small community that spawned the team and has kept it alive through sometimes dire financial times for the last 93 years.


Mark Murphy

“Obviously we’re a bigger organization than we were 10 or 15 years ago,” team President and CEO Mark Murphy said this week, “but I think we’ve done it in a way where we haven’t really changed the values. I think we’re cognizant of that.”

Four years into Murphy’s tenure as president, his greatest challenge remains balancing those sometimes competing forces.

The Packers are in the middle of a $143 million stadium expansion and have spent nearly $28 million on land around Lambeau that they will be looking to develop in the near future. As in times past, the team again might turn to the community for political and even financial support for projects down the road, which puts a premium on maintaining their local goodwill.

“If the (stadium) referendum hadn’t passed (in 2000), the Packers (by now) certainly would be looking at being forced out of Green Bay by the league,” said a source with strong ties to the local business and political communities. “If you don’t have the right players on the board and in management, there aren’t going to be an awful lot of people that will work to save it.”




Starting last November, the Press-Gazette began a review of the Packers’ performance in this balancing act.

Among the three dozen sources interviewed were current and former Packers employees, current and former high-ranking NFL executives and prominent members of the community.

Recent illustrations of the pitfalls the Packers face when weighing business versus community is their relationship with the Packers Hall of Fame and the resignation of Jason Wied, a vice president of administration born and raised in Green Bay.

A look at the major players in the Packers' front office.

Although the Hall is in the Lambeau Field Atrium, it is an independent corporation started 40 years ago by historic-minded locals. A mostly volunteer executive committee and board of directors take great pride in their supervisory role. So when the Packers recently broached the possibility of taking over the Hall, sources said the Hall of Fame’s executive committee and board were outraged.


Jason Wied

The Packers, who asked the Hall to move to the Atrium in 2002, have an interest in how the Hall is run because it is a source of revenue and draws fans to other Atrium venues.

Murphy said the Packers wanted only to upgrade the Hall with the committee’s approval, but sources close to the board said the Packers initially talked about taking over, although they have backtracked.

Several members of the Hall’s executive committee either refused to return phone calls or declined comment.

“The franchise has to be careful it doesn’t get too big and think, ‘We don’t need people,’” said an NFL source with ties to the Packers. “If they lose sight of that and think everything’s hunky-dory here and (think) ‘We don’t have to worry about that,’ that’s an enormous mistake. (There’s been) a connection with this team and community literally from Day 1 in 1919, and there’s not another community-team relationship like this in any sport. Not just the National Football League, in any sport. That’s to be treasured and is part of the unique tradition, and has to be honored.”


Steel beams are installed on the north end zone on Jan. 5 as part of the expansion at Lambeau Field. (H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette)

The Press-Gazette’s review began when Wied took a leave of absence last November that eventually led to his resignation on Jan. 6. Wied’s departure was a watershed day because for the first time in team history, the Packers didn’t have a president or No. 2 administrator with long ties to the team and Wisconsin.

In any other major pro sports market, that might not matter. But for some of the sources interviewed for this story inside and outside the organization, it raised concerns about the increasing corporatization of the franchise and suggested the bonds might be stretched between the Packers and the NFL’s smallest community.

“The most important thing those (top administrators) do is maintain good ties with Green Bay so people have fuzzy feelings about the Packers,” said a source with long ties to the Packers.

Murphy disputed the notion that Wied’s departure has weakened the Packers’ local ties and pointed to, among other things, the team’s community outreach department started under his watch.

“I’ve been here a little over four years and I think I understand the culture of the Packers,” Murphy said.




The Packers have seen significant turnover in their top tier administration beginning when John Jones was preparing to take over as president for Bob Harlan in 2007 and continuing when Murphy became president in January 2008. That also was in the middle of a huge growth spurt that changed the scope of the organization.

In the late 1990s, the Packers had about 150 full- and part-time administrative employees; that number now is 600. In 1998, they generated $82 million in revenue; last year, $282 million.


Bob Harlan

Harlan oversaw the biggest step into this culture of change in 2002, when the Packers moved from their small annex offices on the northwest side of the stadium to their five-story structure at renovated Lambeau. Several longtime employees said Harlan’s mantra after the move was the Packers are getting more corporate, but they don’t have to be cold and corporate.

Related story: Murphy hire was a departure for executive committee.

Murphy had an especially difficult act to follow. Harlan, who had worked 18 years for the Packers before he became president, wore leadership comfortably, was outgoing and easily accessible to employees and the public alike and had exceptional public-relations instincts. In the community, 1265 Lombardi Ave. had the reputation as being a great place to work.

“(Harlan) is the ultimate people person,” said one former administrative employee.

Multiple sources described the 56-year old Murphy as bright, friendly and likable. Several said Murphy from Day 1 has gone to great lengths to immerse himself in the community by accepting numerous speaking engagements and working on the board of directors for local charities and public institutions.


Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy walks onto the field with several executives and board members during last year's annual Green Bay Packers shareholders meeting held at Lambeau Field on July 28, 2011. (Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette)

But several employees also said that Murphy, a former athletics director at Colgate and Northwestern universities, has a more distant management style that has contributed to the change in culture at Lambeau over the last four years.

The shift comes at the same time the team is under pressure to generate revenue.

“It’s a very different feeling than it was under the previous administration,” one administrative employee said. “It doesn’t feel very family oriented.”

Said Murphy: “I want people to enjoy coming to work. I feel like I’m a boss that gives people freedom. Yes, we have goals, and we want to hold people accountable, but I think people also should feel good about coming to work.”

Like Harlan before him, Murphy is a delegator. That means his top lieutenants have a major say in how the Packers operate internally and are perceived in the business community at large.

“Sometimes I think within the building, (Murphy) gets a bad rap,” said another administrative employee. “He’s not Bob, he has big shoes to fill. Mark’s more quiet, so if you don’t reach out to him he’s probably not going to do it back.”




With Wied’s resignation in January, a key member of Murphy’s administration is Tim Connolly, who has been the team’s vice president of sales and marketing since May 2010. Connolly was an executive with IBM and in the telephone industry and also an administrative vice president for the Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Murphy hired Connolly with the help of an executive search firm — another nod to the Packers’ changing culture — to grow local revenue, which consists of regular and premium seating, concession and retail sales, Internet initiatives and local media.


Tim Connolly


Paul Baniel


Russ Ball

“Tim’s knowledge and expertise, particularly his knowledge of the league, has been really helpful,” Murphy said. “It’s a competitive business we’re in. Certainly on the field we all see it, but also off the field, in making sure they have the resources to be competitive.”

Related story: 'Hard charger' Connolly brings NFL know-how, record of success.

In the 21 months Connolly has been with the organization, he’s become a dominant figure with an approach that some characterize as hard charging and others regard as too aggressive and occasionally heavy-handed for this market.

Team sources said Connolly appears to be taking the lead in most projects of note.

“I’ve been trying to figure out why this guy (Connolly) has so much power and control over things,” said another Packers administrative employee.

Connolly is one of three vice presidents under Murphy. Paul Baniel is vice president of finance, and Russ Ball is vice president of football administration/player finance.

With Wied, the Packers had a key administrator with strong local ties, and some thought him to be the ideal candidate to succeed Murphy.

For one, Wied was well versed in NFL matters and regularly attended league meetings with Harlan. He also is a graduate of the former Green Bay Premontre High School, the University of Wisconsin and Marquette University Law School, and in his 11 years with the Packers had developed strong relations within the team’s offices and in the community at large.

Whatever his weaknesses — sources said he tended to be unorganized — Wied exuded a genuineness that played well in the community. That perhaps was best exemplified in his folksy speeches on the team’s capital projects that went over well at Packers shareholders meetings.

“Jason was the guy who used to have all the rapport with the city council, the mayor, the county executive,” said a source with ties to the Packers and community. “I was always impressed in our meetings when Jason would outline a strategy, he had it very well in hand.”




Wied’s leave of absence in November 2011 and resignation last month set off red flags. His stated public reason was an addiction to an herbal anti-anxiety treatment, but other issues may have contributed.

Several sources said Wied and Connolly clashed regularly on matters that fell into gray areas of responsibility, such as the new scoreboard that was scheduled to be in place last season but won’t be ready until this fall; the decision on whether to sell stock this winter; and the building of more premium seating in the south end zone at Lambeau.

Connolly also was involved in helping fill the Packers’ vacancy at public-relations director last summer even though the PR department, at least at that time, was among Wied’s responsibilities.

Connolly became involved in the design of the Packers’ Super Bowl rings last year, duties that usually go to the football side of the operation. After the Packers’ win in Super Bowl XXXI in the 1996 season, former General Manager Ron Wolf and former coach Mike Holmgren handled those duties.

One source said Wied resigned because of the grind of daily office politics and the feeling he’d lost Murphy’s confidence, not the addiction issues. Wied would not comment on his departure because of a confidentiality agreement he signed with the Packers. Murphy also would not comment on whether he had wanted Wied to return, citing health privacy.

When the Packers announced Wied was taking administrative leave, some in their offices interpreted it as the beginning of the end of Wied’s tenure with the team. When upper-level executives took leaves in the recent past — Harlan was hospitalized for 13 days for a medical issue during his presidency, and Wied had one for treatment of sleep apnea several years ago — the Packers didn’t announce it publicly, and many in their offices didn’t know until after the fact.

On the other hand, the Packers announced publicly when Jones took a leave of absence for medical reasons in May ’07, and two months later he resigned.

“Jason, he’ll be missed there for sure,” said one Packers employee.

Some of Wied’s duties have been divided among Connolly, Ball and Baniel. Murphy this week said he won’t replace Wied on the vice president level but plans to hire a corporate counsel who he hopes will have strong local ties.

For now, Baniel is the lone vice president with Wisconsin ties. He grew up in Milwaukee, attended UW-Milwaukee, was a vice president of the Milwaukee Brewers from 1995 to 2002 and CFO for a Milwaukee-area casino from 2003 to 2009.

“The league is becoming complex,” Murphy said. “It’s not the league that the Packers competed in (during) the Lombardi era, it’s become a much different business and I think at this level we need expertise to make sure the Packers remain competitive. Where you find that expertise is (another matter).”

The Packers also argue that they retain strong relations with the community via their 11 second-tier managers, many of whom are locals and have been with the team for a combined 165 years.

Still, some longtime Packers observers in the community think the highest level of leadership matters most. They worry that Murphy and Connolly will be relative short-timers and not have to live with any major changes that could erode the team’s connection to the city, county and state. One prominent local businessman said he’ll be watching closely to see how the Packers replace Wied.

“They can find somebody else, if they really want to, with local ties,” the source said. “I think the continuity helps to have someone local involved. You can’t have everybody from out of town.”

Said Murphy: “We all feel a sense of responsibility. We want to be true to the values of the Packers, but we also want to leave it better than we found it. That’s the challenge; how do you change?”




A look at the major players in the Packers' front office

PACKERS EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE
• Mark Murphy: Packers president and CEO
• Larry Weyers: Vice president and lead director of the executive committee. Retired chairman of Integrys Energy Group, Inc.
• Carl Kuehne: Secretary of the executive committee. Retired CEO of American Foods Group
• Mark McMullen: Treasurer of the executive committee. Vice chairman of Associated Bank
• John Bergstrom: Chairman and CEO of Bergstrom Automotive
• Dan Ariens: President and CEO of Ariens Company
• Ed Martin: President of H.J. Martin and Son, Inc.

CURRENT TOP EXECUTIVES

MARK MURPHY


• Title: President and CEO

• Age: 56

• Highlights: Former NFL safety with the Washington Redskins (1977-84) and vice president of the NFL players union from 1983 to ’84. Has an MBA in finance from American University and graduated from Georgetown’s law school in 1988. Was an assistant executive director of the players union from 1985 to 1988 and a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice from 1989 to 1992. Athletic director at his alma mater, Colgate, from 1992 to 2003 and Northwestern from 2003 to 2007. Hired by the Packers in December 2007 and officially started Jan. 28, 2008.

TIM CONNOLLY

• Title: Vice president of sales and marketing

• Age: 63

• Highlights: Graduated from George Washington University, began his business career as a salesman for IBM and worked his way up to sales management. Later became an executive with the scoreboard manufacturer American Sign Indicator and a president and CEO of two Bell Atlantic subsidiaries. Entered the NFL as the Kansas City Chiefs’ executive vice president and later chief operating officer from 1989 to 1996. Spent nearly two years as president of Hunt Sports Group, which was former Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt’s non-NFL sports holdings. Was the Minnesota Vikings’ executive vice president and general manager for 15 months in 1998 and ’99. Joined an equity firm in ’99 in a failed bid to purchase the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes. Was an administrative executive with the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2003 until the Packers hired him in May 2010.

PAUL BANIEL

• Title: Vice president of finance

• Age: 50

• Highlights: Milwaukee native, graduate of Hamilton High School in Sussex and UW-Milwaukee with a degree in accounting. Worked for the Milwaukee Brewers from 1986 to 2002, including as vice president of finance, treasurer and secretary starting in 1995. Was chief financial officer for Potowatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee from 2003 until the Packers hired him in July 2009.

RUSS BALL

• Title: Vice president of football administration/player finance

• Age: 52

• Highlights: Was a four-year letterman in football as a center at Central Missouri. Was head strength and conditioning coach at the University of Missouri from 1982 to 1989 and has a master’s degree in human performance from Missouri. Entered the NFL as the Kansas City Chiefs’ assistant strength and conditioning coach in ’89. In his last two years with the Chiefs, 1997-98, went into football administration as an assistant to former coach Marty Schottenheimer. Began working on player contracts and the salary cap when he joined the Minnesota Vikings in 1999-2000, and picked up expanded roles in football administration with the Washington Redskins (2001) and New Orleans Saints (2002-08) until General Manager Ted Thompson hired him with the Packers in 2008.

FORMER TOP EXECUTIVES

JASON WIED


• Former title: Vice president of administration/corporate counsel

• Highlights: Joined Packers in 2001 as corporate counsel and promoted to vice president in 2007. Graduate of former Green Bay Premontre High School, the University of Wisconsin, and Marquette University Law School. Worked for a Green Bay law firm for two years before joining the Packers. Took a leave of absence in November 2011 to treat an addiction to an anti-anxiety supplement and resigned in January 2012.

LAURA SANKEY

• Former title: Senior vice president of sales and marketing

• Highlights: Hired by the Packers in July 2008 and resigned in October 2009. Was an executive in marketing and communications with Qwest Communications and Coors Brewing for 14 years before joining the Packers. Grew up in Cincinnati, graduated from Dartmouth College and has a master’s degree from the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.

VICKI VANNIEUWENHOVEN

• Former title: Vice president of finance

• Highlights: First female vice president in team history started with the Packers as an accountant in 1996, was promoted to director of finance in 1999 and to vice president post in 2007. Resigned in April 2009. Was an auditor for public accounting firms from 1988 to 1995. Graduated from Crivitz High School and St. Norbert College with a degree in accounting.

BETSY MITCHELL

• Former title: Vice president of organizational/staff development

• Highlights: Started with the Packers as a staff consultant for staff/player development in 1993, was promoted to vice president in 2008 and resigned Jan. 1 this year. Has a master’s degree in the mental health field from the University of Wisconsin.

What's your take on the Packers Family Night change?

Retrieving results.
Watching practice is fine.(Your vote)
15%
573 votes
I'd rather watch a scrimmage.(Your vote)
23%
854 votes
I don't want to pay to watch practice.(Your vote)
27%
1013 votes
It doesn't matter to me.(Your vote)
34%
1270 votes

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