In the late 1990s, John Underwood told Green Bay Packers president and CEO Bob Harlan that the team could be out of money by 2005. It was the warning that prompted everything that followed on the Packers’ financial front, starting with a stock sale and the 2003 renovation of Lambeau Field.
Underwood died Tuesday after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 81.
“He understood numbers extremely well,” Harlan said Thursday. “I never prided myself on numbers.”
Harlan may not have been a numbers guy, but he was a talent guy. When Underwood tabbed Harlan to serve on his First Wisconsin National Bank board of directors, Harlan quickly came to believe the Packers would be better served by having Underwood on their board.
“I had such respect for the way he ran the bank. I put him on the board of directors with the idea he’d make a good treasurer for us some day,” Harlan said. “And he did.”
Underwood was elected to the Packers board in 1986, and to the executive committee as treasurer in 1990, where he served until 2005.
“I don’t think anyone knew the finances of the Packers and the NFL better than John,” said current Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy. “He was instrumental in the redevelopment of Lambeau Field in 2003, and is a main reason the Packers are in such sound financial shape now.”
After becoming treasurer, Underwood did the calculations and concluded that despite the Packers’ growing on-field success in the 1990s, they would get left behind in a dramatically changing NFL. Packers leadership began looking for solutions. They included a stock sale in 1997 and sales-tax supported renovation of Lambeau Field, completed in 2003, that turned the stadium into a year-round, revenue-generating fan destination.
"Renovated Lambeau will start this curve going in the other direction," Underwood predicted during the 2002 annual shareholders meeting, the summer before the first Lambeau renovation was complete.
He was correct. The Packers have enjoyed a long run of financial success that’s seen the team’s revenue increasing at the same pace as the NFL’s, more than 147 percent since 2002, and resulted in ongoing renovation of Lambeau Field without use of public money.
Underwood's description of the key elements of the Packers' financial health was folksy, but perfect for making clear what he and Harlan and former team president John Jones considered necessary for the NFL's smallest-market team to remain competitive.
“I always use this analogy: In order to compete successfully within the National Football League, the economics are kind of like a three-legged stool. First you need to have revenue sharing, obviously. The second leg of the stool is a salary cap. And the third leg of the stool is stadium revenue,” Underwood told the Press-Gazette, and anyone else who would listen, more than once.
Harlan wasn’t the only one impressed with Underwood’s acumen. He was named to the NFL’s revenue sharing committee at a time when the Packers were trying to have greater influence in the league.
Born in Whitewater and raised there and in Wausau, Underwood moved to Green Bay from Milwaukee as an adult.
“Though John wasn’t from here, he became Green Bay very quickly,” Harlan said.
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