Had the NFL entrance fee been a little more expensive than it was, Green Bay likely wouldn’t be celebrating its 13th NFL championship.
“That was touch-and-go. It was a close call,” Packers VP and General Counsel Jason Wied said of a time in the team’s history when it scratched and clawed to pay the minimal entry fee required to join the NFL.
The year was 1921 and the Packers were a 2-year-old, barnstorming team. Its founder, Curly Lambeau, had the vision to see that the Packers’ future would be better served by joining the newly forming American Professional Football Association, which would become the NFL.
It marks one of the turning-point years in Packers history, a history that would become one of the most glorious in all of sports, but not before it would overcome several difficult moments in the team’s and the town’s struggle to remain viable.
Only two years later, 1923, the Packers ran into a financial wall.
“That was the year we formed the team the way it is today,” Wied said.
It was the year the Packers became publicly owned.
Success would follow, as Lambeau coached the team to consecutive titles in 1929-31, but financial woes always seemed to be right around the corner and the Packers next ran into difficulty in 1934, when a fan sued the team for $6,000 after a fall from the bleachers. Insurance found an exception in the policy and refused to cover the suit, and the Packers were on the verge of collapse at the height of the Great Depression.
“The Packers went belly up. We went into receivership,” Wied said.
Reorganization required another capital call and the team was legally renamed Green Bay Packers, Inc. The suit was paid and the franchise lived on.
More success would follow, with league titles in ’36, ’39 and ’44, but one more time Green Bay would have to dodge the threat of losing its team, and this would be the greatest threat of all.
“We really ran into major financial issues in the ’50s, mainly because we were having troubles on the field,” Wied said. “We hit a dry spell.”
Another problem was the stadium the team used. The Packers played their games at East High's City Stadium, which was a state-of-the-art facility in the ’20s and ’30s, but it fell far beneath league standards in the ’40s.
In ’49, Lambeau began trying to assemble an ownership team for the purpose of buying and moving the franchise to Los Angeles. Lambeau, always a visionary, saw sunshine and America’s migration to the West Coast. He might’ve even have seen the day when the Packers would play in front of 90,000 people in Los Angeles, as the Packers did in 1955. Back in Green Bay, attendance was hovering around the 20,000 mark.
Lambeau failed in his attempt to assemble a group of buyers. He left the team and it went into dark, rudderless days that resulted in 11 consecutive non-winning seasons. With one decision, however, all of that would change.
The day Vince Lombardi was hired to coach the Packers, bad times ended forever. He wasn’t the only candidate for the head job – fellow Giants coordinator Tom Landry was also considered – but Lombardi quickly became the dominant candidate.
His selection marked a new commitment to pro football in Green Bay. Lombardi would have final say in all matters involving football operations, and he guided the Packers to five titles in the 1960s.
Lombardi and the ’60s saved the Packers in Green Bay. Without either, there might not have been a ’70s.
“If there was no Lombardi, you’d have to wonder if we’d be here. If there were no ’60s, would we have made sense in the ’70s? I don’t know you’d make it through,” said Wied, Green Bay born and raised and one of the team’s naturally-bred historians.
The Packers of today are a financially successful franchise riding the wave of their fourth Super Bowl title and 13th league championship. They are one of the league’s premier franchises, with a packed stadium, a waiting list of season-ticket hopefuls and fans worldwide. Wied, however, isn’t without concerns for the future.
“My concern for the future is we’ve created a culture in which the expectation is we’ll continue to grow revenue and we’ll do that by increasing ticket prices. Eventually, we’ll reach the threshold that we won’t be able to do that,” Wied said.
“We’ve got shiny, new stadiums and big debt and our fans are paying more today to be rabid fans. You lose fans and you lose generations. It’s more real in a place like Green Bay. At some point, you cross a line and they’re not going to do it anymore.”
Wied’s point is that today’s NFL is beginning to bear New York prices and Green Bay “could never, cannot and never will be able to” play football at New York prices.
It would seem to be the Packers’ next great challenge: Keep the product affordable for the people of Green Bay.