Green Bay Packers fans show up in force in Jacksonville for opening game against New Orleans
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The New Orleans Saints' alleged scheme to suppress Green Bay Packer fan attendance for the opening game of the season at the home of the Jaguars — if indeed that was the intent — didn't work.
The pregame ovation on for both teams on Sunday before they opened the season at TIAA Bank Field answered the question. The eyeball test showed a conservative 60-40 split for Packers fans of the announced attendance of 35,242, and according to the eardrum test, they were louder when both teams ran onto the field.
Perhaps it's because someone failed to understand the basics of Packer Nation: they're everywhere, especially in Florida's NFL cities.
"We've had Packers fans filling our place up on Sundays for years," said Maryjane Culhane, who owns Culhane's Irish Pub along a busy commercial stretch of Jacksonville's Southside Boulevard, almost equidistant between downtown and the beach. "They just found us one day, liked us because we had a lot of room at the time, told their friends, and kept coming back."
There’s a North Florida chapter of the "Packer Backers" fans clubs that claims around 300 members. The Central Florida Packer Backers club reports on its website that it has 1,000 fans on its email list, and many of those fans had only a 2- or 3-hour drive to Jacksonville.
Culhane's even had a pre-game party — on Saturday. Maryjane Culhane, one of five sisters from Limerick, Ireland, who own two sports bars in the area, closed off their parking lot, threw up tents and outdoor seating, and enjoyed two days of Packer parties before the Saints game on Sunday at TIAA Bank Field.
On Sunday, the Packers clearly won the tailgating contest and the crowd support, a mix of green and gold faithful from the Jacksonville area and from out-of-town.
Packers fans have shown up strong in the past for the four games against the Jaguars in Jacksonville (Green Bay is 3-1 against the Jaguars on the road) and they continued that tradition on Sunday against the Saints.
"This means everything,” said Kenneth Allen, a resident of Tampa and native of Savannah who said he started following the Packers when he was 12 years old. “To have the ability to come to Jacksonville, a beautiful city, and be able to watch the team that’s going to take it all."
Packers fans who had reservations for New Orleans had to scramble to change flights and hotel reservations after the NFL moved the game to Jacksonville because of the ongoing cleanup from Hurricane Ida, which hit Louisiana as a category 4 storm on Aug. 29.
Moving the game to Jacksonville was the best of limited options. The Saints had been practicing in Dallas, but AT&T Stadium was unavailable because of a concert. Houston was out because that's where the Jags were opening the season. Atlanta also had a home game, against Philadelphia.
Tampa Bay and Miami were possibilities since the Bucs opened at home on Thursday and the Dolphins were on the road. But the league picked Jacksonville and then the conspiracy theory started, thanks in part to New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan.
Duncan claimed inside sources told him the Saints wanted to play in Jacksonville because they believe Packer fans would turn their noses up at the city that some derisively dub an extension of South Georgia, and not want to pay the extra travel costs associated with canceling plane flights and hotel reservations and having to pay more anyway to fly to Jacksonville International Airport.
"Jacksonville’s relative inaccessibility and unattractiveness as a destination location were the exact reasons the Saints elected to play there," Duncan wrote. "Think about it. If you were a Packers fan, where would you rather travel? South Beach? Ybor City? Or Jacksonville?"
Duncan's column created an uproar in Jacksonville, whose citizens and political leaders are ever-sensitive to such slights. Saints officials also distanced themselves and said they were perfectly content with the site of the game.
It's true it cost more to travel to Jacksonville than New Orleans. But some Packers fans didn't mind eating the expense.
"This is our annual trip to one road game and we weren't going to let that get in the way," said Mary Wampole of Chippewa Falls, who makes the annual trip with her husband Richard and their friends Bob and Kim Zwiefelhofer. "This is our 13th together. We're a little disappointed because we had never been to New Orleans but this is fine. The Jacksonville people have been very friendly."
Josee Rundee of Janesville pointed out that many Packers fans travel because it's their best option to see the team in person.
"The waiting list is so long, I've seen more road games than home games," she said. "And if anyone thought we weren't going to turn out for this game because Jacksonville is somehow not South Beach, they were crazy."
Duncan quipped in his column that a destination city wasn't needed because “the Saints aren't going to Jacksonville to get married.”
In other words, it’s all about football.
But if there was ever a fan base where that was true, it’s the Packers.
Miami, Tampa or Jacksonville? All that matters to Packer Backers is a 100-yard field and their team within the white lines.