Whether you bleed Indianapolis Colts blue or sing the “Bengal Growl” Fight Song, every football fan extends respect to Green Bay, Wisconsin, the smallest city to host a National Football League team. With a population of 104,779, it’s home to arguably one of the most popular franchises in the country — rivaling the Dallas Cowboys for the title of “America’s Team.” The Packers have more people vying for season tickets on the waiting list than the entire population of the city — the team’s reach extends far beyond the small Wisconsin city located near the Oneida Indian Reservation.
I recently traveled to Green Bay to better understand what it means to be a Packers fan and what about the team makes it more than about football. Smaller than the population of Evansville (120,310), the northern Wisconsin town is rich in football history, and the Packers are the only nonprofit, community-owned major league sports team based in the U.S.
“The fact the Packers are publicly held and don’t have a single wealthy owner is a huge attraction,” says Brad Toll, president and CEO of Greater Green Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They are owned by everyday folks who love the game. Green Bay is the smallest city in the U.S. to be home to a professional sports franchise of any kind. Players integrate into the community and take on many of the traits of the Midwestern people. It isn’t uncommon to see them in the grocery store or helping a neighbor rake their leaves.”
I began to understand this special connection between the team and the community during my trip to Green Bay in August when I ate dinner at the historic Union Hotel & Restaurant in nearby DePere. It’s a place known as the residence of the Packers’ equipment manager, Gerald Braisher, for more than 40 years. Braisher is credited with coming up with the idea of the Packers’ G logo, which stands for “Greatness.”
At the Union Hotel, enjoy a bottle of Spotted Cow, a cream ale style beer brewed by the New Glarus Brewing Co. in New Glarus, Wisconsin, and a Union Steak, as you welcome fourth-generation hotel owner and restaurant owner McKim Boyd to your table. Boyd, who is noted for his collection of unique ties and for his wealth of knowledge, shares stories about how every Packers head coach has dined at the establishment, which was created in 1918, a year before Green Bay’s first season. The 1883-building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Packers’ history radiates through the restaurant as guests turn their heads knowing on any night quarterback Aaron Rodgers can stroll through the dining area. The feeling is similar a few blocks away on the campus of St. Norbert College, which has served as the site for Green Bay’s training camp for 58 consecutive years. The partnership is the longest continual use of any training camp facility by an NFL team. Players reside in Victor McCormick Hall, a 60-room coed dormitory that houses students during the year. During training camp, the Packers use their own practice and team facilities at Lambeau Field and travel back and forth to the college for housing and dining. The team eats dinner in Michels Commons Ballroom, which holds 240 seats.
Players’ families often utilize accommodations at the Kress Inn, a hotel owned and operated by St. Norbert College. The beautiful suites opened in 2001 and offered lodging for Western Kentucky University alumnus and Green Bay tight end Mitchell Henry’s family during the Packers preseason matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles in late August. During home game days at Lambeau Field, St. Norbert College cheerleaders, who also wear green and gold, serve as the Packers’ cheer support. Green Bay is one of seven NFL teams without professional cheerleaders.
This kind of accessibility to the team is rooted in Green Bay’s history. In 1918, Curly Lambeau, a former star at East High School, the oldest high school in Green Bay, and a football player for the University of Notre Dame, began working for Indian Packing Co. (producers of canned meat) after dropping out of school. In August 1919, Lambeau and George Calhoun organized a meeting to create a football team in the editorial rooms of the old Green Bay Press-Gazette building, located in downtown Green Bay. The newspaper coined the term “the Packers” in its Aug. 13, 1919, edition when it announced Indian Packing Co. would sponsor the team and pay for full uniforms up to 20 players, listed prospective candidates for the team, and stated home games would be played at Hagemeister Park, which today is a large riverfront restaurant and patio.
Catch a ride on the Packers Heritage Trail Trolley Tour, presented by Nicolet National Bank, which travels its passengers back in time to Lambeau’s birthplace home, the Indian and ACME Packing plants, the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Chicago & Northwestern Depot, City Stadium, and more. The tour, 90 minutes or 2 hours and 15 minutes, includes 22 locations and explains the city’s long-standing relationship with the Packers.
“It is a story of survival and ultimate successes,” says Toll. “Many of the places connected to this great story are still here, but even the locals driving by them didn’t realize the connection the sites had to the Packers. Now visitors can do a self-guided tour, enjoy a trolley tour, or even a Segway tour of the Packers Heritage Trail and have their picture taken at one of the first sites of Packers home games.”
After the trolley tour, revisit the historic 1899 Chicago & Northwestern Depot for an up close look and for lunch and a drink at the Titletown Brewing Company, which opened in the depot in December 1996. The depot was once the site of thousands of families departing and returning from the war and served as the port for Packers’ road trips for nearly four decades. Fans threw celebratory parties after victories and planned farewell affairs before trips. Regular passenger service ended in 1971.
Today, Titletown Brewing Company is one of the busiest restaurants in Green Bay. Order the Johnny “Blood” Red Ale, the brewery’s bestseller named after Packers halfback Johnny “Blood” McNally. The Irish Red Ale is given its distinctive flavor through rich caramel malts and a touch of roasted barley. Don’t miss the Titletown Cheese Curds, Wisconsin’s own Renard’s white cheddar, which is deep-fried and served with zesty roasted tomato sauce. The menu features dishes made with many other Wisconsin originals including brats, burgers, steaks, fish, and more.
My favorite part of visiting Green Bay was the Champion’s Stadium Tour at Lambeau Field, where a guide leads guests through the field’s atrium, to a private suite, and into the South End Zone where you yell “Go, Pack, Go!” and hear it echo throughout the empty facility. On the 90-minute tour, guests walk through the player tunnel and see the field up close. Lambeau Field is a popular setting for weddings, proms, and corporate gatherings hosting more than 800 non-football events a year. Because it is an outdoor stadium, when it snows more than 600 people line up to shovel the snow forcing the Packers to turn volunteers away.
Lambeau Field has the second largest seating capacity in the NFL with 81,535 (the Washington Redskins have the largest with 82,566). The Packers also are the only team in the NFL with predominant bench seating, which allows more fans to be seated. Lambeau also has the most handicap/special needs seating in the NFL.
The Packers recently announced a master plan for the area next to the stadium. The “Titletown District” will be a destination area with a park-like setting, a winter ice-skating rink, public art, Lodge Kohler, a hotel built and managed by Kohler Co., a Bellin Health Sports Medicine Clinic, and Hinterland Restaurant and Brewery created on 34 acres of land immediately west of Lambeau Field. Targeted completion is set for fall 2017. The Packers will invest approximately $65 million in Titletown, with a cumulative initial investment by all parties to be between $120 to 130 million.
The planned district will build upon the success of Lambeau Field’s expansion and renovation completed in 2014, which added 8,341 seats. The stadium also introduced a new restaurant called 1919 Kitchen & Tap in July. The gastropub offers a menu full of new approaches to classics with an emphasis on using fresh and local ingredients. The newly renovated Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame opened in August and fills two stories of 15,000 square feet of memorabilia. Guests can scroll through touch screens and click on audio segments and game video clips, see the trophies from the Packers’ 13 championships, including four Lombardi trophies, and tour the most popular exhibit — a replica of Vince Lombardi’s office.
“Lambeau Field is already the ‘epicenter’ for tourism in northeastern Wisconsin,” says Toll. “The addition of the Titletown District will bring even more visitors from around the world to this area. We hear over and over from visitors of all ages that they have been fans their entire life and a visit to Green Bay was on their ‘bucket list.’ They want to completely immerse themselves in the ‘Packers experience.’”
For more information about the Green Bay Packers, visit packers.com or greenbay.com.