As a crowd of 60,000 fans streamed out of Green Bay's Lambeau Field last Sunday, following the Packers' 41-6 rout of the Denver Broncos, there were plenty of heroes to celebrate, including quarterback Brett Favre, who threw four touchdown passes, and Packers' wide receiver Antonio Freeman, who caught three of them with a cast on one arm.
But the real hero of the day for many NFL observers was former league Commissioner Pete Rozelle, whose passing last Friday in southern California prompted numerous reflections on his leadership skills.
Rozelle was remembered as the foremost champion of revenue sharing in professional sports. Without his pioneering efforts to incorporate this concept during a 29-year career as NFL commissioner, it's doubtful that Green Bay, Wis. (population 96,466) would have a pro football team at all.
"There are only two reasons we can exist in this market," comments Robert Harlan, president of the Green Bay Packers. "The first is that, back in the 1960s, Pete Rozelle convinced the NFL owners to share their profits. Today, 84 percent of the Packers' income comes from shared revenue.
"The other factor is the salary cap. It's not a 'hard cap' [with tight rules], and we wish it were. But it works. Last year, three of the four finalists in the NFL championship series [playoffs] were small-market teams: Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Green Bay. The salary cap keeps payrolls in line.
"Compare that to baseball, where the Milwaukee Brewers [whose president, acting baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, is also on the Packers' board] have a payroll of $20 million, and the New York Yankees' is $65 million. In baseball, all the finalists last year were the teams with the highest payrolls."
This year, the Packers have few worries about being competitive - especially after defeating Denver so decisively. The Broncos entered Sunday's game boasting a league-leading 12-1 record. Even without starting quarterback John Elway, who sat out with an injury, Denver had expected to give the Packers a closer game. Many analysts still expect to see a rematch in the Super Bowl.
Veteran Packer fans can remember times when the publicly owned, nonprofit franchise was not so self-assured. Herman Rechelberg, a retired plant superintendent, has been attending Packer games since he was six. He reminisced by phone from Green Bay last week and apologized for the background noise. "It's the snowblower," he said.
"The worst time of all was about 1950," he said. "The team was barely scraping by, and then somebody got hurt in the stands and sued." The Packers scheduled an intrasquad Thanksgiving Day game and passed the hat at halftime. The following year, a group known as the Minutemen sold 118,000 shares of stock at $18 per share, with the provisio that shareholders would never realize a profit.
Today, gate receipts are healthy. The Packers have sold out every home game since 1960 and have 27,000 names on their season-ticket waiting list. "People enroll their newborn babies on that list," Harlan reports.
"In the last few years, we've put up 188 luxury boxes all around the top of the stadium," he adds, "but we've gained about all we can from game-day revenue. Lambeau Field is maxed out."
Fortunately for the Packers, shared television revenue, not game-day receipts, are pro football's main source of income. In 1982, Rozelle negotiated a five-year contract with the three major networks for $2.1 billion. In 1986, he signed an additional contract with ESPN. The Packers have received an equal share of that largess.
"We think we're a model for other sports," Harlan asserts.