6:00 AM ET
Rob DemovskyESPN Staff Writer
- Covered Packers for Green Bay Press-Gazette from 1997-2013
- Two-time Wisconsin Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association
GREEN BAY, Wis. — The gate to Lot 1 at Lambeau Field was open all summer. Fans could come and go as they pleased. Except they rarely did. With Green Bay Packers training camp practices closed to fans because of the coronavirus pandemic, the stadium parking lots sat mostly empty.
Fans who used to come to watch training camp practices didn’t show up.
Fantasy football players who in the past held their drafts in the parking lot stayed home.
Sure, there were occasional visitors who wanted to take a picture in front of the historic stadium or see the giant Lombardi Trophy in the atrium lobby or even spend a few bucks in the Packers Pro Shop.
There was the group of a dozen family members from Utah who were in town for a funeral and just happened to show up on the morning that some Packers rookies — including quarterback Jordan Love, whom they followed from his Utah State days — tried to keep the training-camp bike-riding tradition alive even though kids weren’t allowed to participate.
There was a couple from Oregon that came on consecutive days and stood atop the steps to the Oneida Nation Gate, where they could see into the players’ parking lot, just to get a glimpse of some Packers.
But the day-after-day scene throughout the month of August painted a bleak picture of what game days will look like at one of the NFL’s most vibrant and celebrated venues.
Even players noticed.
“It’s different,” Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “This is a football community [and we’re used to] having people around. I do appreciate the community, respecting what’s going on at this time during this pandemic and giving not only the players their space but also practicing their physical distancing. It keeps us doing what we do so that they can enjoy what they love doing, which is watching us on Sundays.
“So we do definitely miss them in Lambeau Field. The sooner, and the more we keep doing our part, the sooner they’ll be allowed back in the stadium. So it’s definitely different [not] seeing [them], even in training camp, just around and outside the building, but appreciated nonetheless.”
It’s not just at the stadium.
The entire area — from the Packers-owned Titletown District to bars along Holmgren Way to the party houses that border Lambeau Field on both the north and south sides — has looked and will look drastically different Sunday when the Detroit Lions come to town for the home opener (1 p.m. ET, Fox).
The Packers, like many teams, decided not to allow fans in the stadium, at least not for their first two home games. They plan to reevaluate the situation and left open the possibility that a limited number of fans will be allowed as early as the Nov. 1 game against the Vikings.
But until then, the Packers will lock the parking lot gates and won’t even allow fans to throw tailgate parties on site.
“There are people saying that fans are still going to come down to that area, but we’ll see,” said Jess Miller, co-owner of The Bar on Holmgren Way.
‘Not overly optimistic’
The Bar is one of several large-scale entertainment venues along or adjacent to Holmgren Way, which intersects with Mike McCarthy Way. It includes venues such as Stadium View Bar & Grill, Anduzzi’s Sports Club, D2 Sports Pub Stadium District and the Green Bay Distillery.
All are close enough to Lambeau Field that fans can come for pregame entertainment and then walk to the stadium.
“We’re expecting that we will have some [fans] come into town — we’ve seen people come without tickets and just want to be in the atmosphere — so we are expecting a few but certainly you can’t make up the home game crowd,” said Brad Toll, president/CEO of the Greater Green Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We don’t want to be a part of the problem, but at the same time we’re hoping to help our businesses stay in business.”
At The Bar, the plan is to have the usual pregame outdoor setup with a tent, live music and giant TV for outdoor viewing of the game.
But it might be for naught.
“If they come the first game, then there’s hope maybe they’ll come for other games,” Miller said. “If they don’t for the first game, I don’t see people coming to that area unless there’s fans allowed. We’re going to try to recreate that atmosphere to some degree, but I’m not overly optimistic.”
Miller said The Bar typically parks 350 cars and 50 buses in their lots on game day and draws more than 2,000 fans to their pregame festivities.
To both the north and south of the stadium, small single-family homes have been turned into game weekend party houses.
Many of those have gone unrented so far this year.
“We’ve had some inquiries and we have two games booked, but one of them is for a wedding,” said Mike Madson, who owns a party house one block south of Lambeau on Morris Avenue. “They’re not even coming for a game, it just happens to be for a game weekend. We’ve seen interest and people have asked a lot of questions, but people are very hesitant to book.”
In a normal year, Madson said his house is booked for the entire season within a week of the schedule being released.
The party house rental business has become an industry in and of itself over the past decade or so. It’s part of the reason Madson turned his late grandmother’s house from a regular family home into an entertainment venue.
The four-bedroom house has a heated party garage with an all-glass back that offers a view of the stadium — the ‘G’ on the outside of Lambeau’s South Gate is in full view.
“My grandma loved it when everyone came to party at her house for Packers games, so I thought it would be a cool idea to do that in her memory,” Madson said. “And obviously it’s a really good way to make some money.”
Even the neighboring houses that still serve as residential homes take part in the game-day festivities. Many rent out their driveways and lawns for fans to park and tailgate.
“It’s pretty fun because everyone around there parks cars on their lawns, so there are parties everywhere,” Madson said. “It’s a party. The guy right next door has a huge party for every game.
“It’s not like this anywhere I’ve been to in other NFL cities. It’s not even like this in Kansas City; there’s a lot of tailgating in Kansas City, but it’s all in the parking lot. It’s just such a unique experience where you’ve got people coming out of their homes to party with people from out of town.”
‘No way a city our size can replace that’
Toll estimates that each Packers’ home game generates $15 million in revenue for the city of Green Bay and the surrounding areas. Counting two preseason games, that’s $150 million per football season. Then there’s training camp and the annual Family Night practice, which typically bring another 100,000 visitors who spend around $10 million each summer.
“There’s no way a city our size — 105,000 people or 270,000 in our county — can replace that,” Toll said.
“A community the size of Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit in our division, a lot of those fans are local and given the huge number of hotel rooms that they have, a home game is certainly exciting but from a tourism perspective financially it’s barely a blip on the radar,” he added. “But for a community our size where 87% of fans [at home games] don’t live in our community, the impact it has is bigger than any other sports franchise in any sport. It’s been devastating, but we will find a way through.”
The Packers wouldn’t disclose how much revenue they generate from each home game but as the only publicly owned NFL team, they release an annual breakdown of their finances. Last year, they reported a 6.1% increase in total revenue, which includes the national TV money, and a 3.6% increase in local revenue that includes ticket sales, sponsorship and merchandise sales. The TV money will come in as long as the games continue, but the local revenue will not.
“There are a few elements in place, with the most notable being the tarps (with advertisements) that will be placed over the first rows of seats in the stadium,” Packers director of public affairs Aaron Popkey said when asked how the team will try to make up for lost revenue.
While the Packers can make do — they hope to operate without dipping into their corporate reserve fund, which is close to $400 million — many of those who do business outside the stadium, those who depend on fans who come to town, will suffer.
“It’s going to be really interesting to see what it’s like around there on Sunday,” Madson said. “This is going to be something you may never see again at Lambeau Field, where it could be just dead down there.”