Commentary

Packers top Ultimate Standings 2011

Salute the Packers, a team that gives back to its fans through performance on the field and pride in the community

Updated: June 15, 2011, 3:41 PM ET
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine

Lambeau FieldScott Boehm/Getty ImagesAmong Lambeau Field's claims to fame: a Fan Hall of Fame.

You know what makes sports different from other forms of entertainment? Teams stick around, allowing fans to pass their love (and hatred) across generations. If you're a teenager, you're probably not going to listen to your father's favorite tunes or watch his favorite films; music and movie stars go out of style. Indeed, as adolescents, many people define themselves in opposition to their parents' tastes, and need to go off to college and eventually grow up before they learn to appreciate the classics. Except when it comes to sports.

When Dad points to Albert Pujols and explains there used to be a guy named Keith Hernandez at first base for the Cardinals, and before him, a man named Stan Musial, well, those players wore the same colors as today's stars, and sometimes the same numbers, and faced the same opponents during the same months in ballparks that looked a lot like the stadium where Pujols plays today. Their batting stances and fielding styles and personalities are all entry points into conversations we actually enjoy, leading most of us to adopt our parents' favorite teams at a time in our lives when we're doing our best to shed ourselves of everything else about Mom and Pop.

For the best fans, the familial bonds of sports grow so enduring, it's worth almost anything to honor the connection. And the best teams find ways to reward that devotion. That's the ultimate lesson from this ninth edition of The Mag's Ultimate Standings, which combine fan surveys with financial analysis to determine the MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL franchises that give the most back for all the time, money and emotion that fans invest in them. Value has always figured prominently in our rankings, but this year, you told us louder than ever that commitment to fans matters more than anythingmore than smart coaching, shiny new stadiums, even championship rings. The teams at the top of our Standings are winners on the field, but they're truly notable for returning fans' love, as evidenced by keeping core players, discounting tickets, investing in their communities or staging great promotions. You know you're part of the family when you're a fan of the Saints or the Angels, the Thunder or the Lightning, or, most of all, our No. 1 team in 2011, the Packers.

Packer Nation is filled with stories of unbelievable fidelity. Consider John Stone, a 34-year-old car salesman in Homewood, Ill. As a child, Stone lived with his grandmother, Verletta, and they would sit around her kitchen table and listen to the radio. Not to music or news, but to Packers games. Verletta lived in Chicago but had spent time in Wisconsin, where she became a huge Bart Starr fan, and Stone became so attached to the Pack that when he played football in high school, he tried to model his play on Ahman Green and Reggie White. In January, Verletta died at the age of 91, just before Green Bay beat the Bears in the NFC championship game. The day after that game, Stone wore a Packers tie to work in her memory. It was a heartfelt idea, but there was one problem: The car dealership is less than 20 miles outside of Chicago and had done advertising campaigns with the Bears. "My boss came over to me and said, 'How are you wearing that s-?'" says Stone. "Then he said, 'Get the f- out of my showroom!'" Just like that, Stone was out of a job. But, as he says, "I wanted to honor my grandmother."

Thing is, the Packers show appreciation for that kind of dedication. Green Bay actually has a Fan Hall of Fame at Lambeau Field, hanging plaques of the most faithful cheeseheads near likenesses of player greats like Forrest Gregg and James Lofton. This year's fan finalists included Gene Noonan of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., who got into his first Packers game in 1945 by paying older boys 25 cents to throw him and his brother over the fence. And then there's Sara Lavado of Tewksbury, Mass., who heeded a radio call to shovel snow at Lambeau while visiting relatives in 1997, and played Packers game highlights between songs at her wedding in 2010. And don't forget John O'Neill of Cross Plains, Wis., who dresses as "St. Vince," a papal version of Coach Lombardi, and drives 150 miles to Green Bay games in a yellow and green '57 Chevy that has Packers helmets holding the speakers and Packers carpeting on the floor, raising money for cancer charities along the way. Those are some impressive candidates, and they were all beaten out -- in a fan vote -- by Tom Little, a high school football coach in Mount Sterling, Ill., whose sons are named Vince and Beau, and whose wife, Dolly, nominated him for the Fan Hall with a poem. Here's a sample stanza:

Since 2002 the football program has come a long way,
Who knows, maybe someday he will coach in Green Bay.
But he has always stayed true to his players, just like he has with the Pack,
Teaching them good sportsmanship and he'll always have their back.

We know, we know. Sophisticated fans -- that is, all of us who have been compelled by our favorite players and teams, and in particular by the events of the past year, to believe that sports is "just business" -- may need to retch right about now. Can this kind of sentimental claptrap actually serve as the foundation of a modern sports franchise?

Why, yes. Yes, it can. The Packers are a championship team that charges fans below-average prices to see games. And they dominated the customer-service categories of our survey, finishing first among all pro teams in areas such as "has a fan-friendly environment at games," "has players who are accessible to fans," "provides an avenue for fan feedback" and "shows a commitment to their community." To decide how to best expand the south end zone of Lambeau Field, the Packers sent an online survey to more than 30,000 season ticket-holders, asking them what they'd like to see and what they would be willing to pay for new seats. When the team does build, it has announced it won't seek public money.

Yet the Green and Gold make a lot of green and gold. The Packers have generated $195 million in operating income over the past 10 years, while Forbes estimates the value of their franchise has soared from $392 million to $1 billion. The club has little debt and maintains a $127 million "preservation fund," which is basically a giant savings account. Green Bay's business model recognizes the needs of all its stakeholders -- customers, future customers, hometown and shareholders -- and is wildly successful.

Maybe that's because as the only publicly owned team in American pro sports, the Packers aren't driven by the needs or ego of an individual owner. "We are literally owned by the fans," says team president and CEO Mark Murphy, a former All-Pro safety with the Redskins.

"Every decision we make, we're thinking, What will the fans' reaction be to this? And our priorities are to win championships, be financially viable and stay in Green Bay. Any profits we make go right back into the organization."

Those profits declined sharply in 2010, from $20.1 million to $9.8 million, leading many analysts to wring their hands over rising player costs. But look at the situation on the field: Green Bay has gone from a 6-10 team to an 11-5 team to Super Bowl winners over the past three seasons, in good measure by locking up key players to long-term deals; receiver Greg Jennings, offensive tackle Chad Clifton, safety Nick Collins and defensive tackle Ryan Pickett all got huge raises in the Packers' 2010 fiscal year. So, yes, the franchise took a hit in profits to invest in a championship run, which worked, and is sure to pay off in higher ticket and merchandise revenues in seasons to come. The real problem in the NFL -- and it's coming in the NBA, too -- isn't that Green Bay made "only" $9.8 million in profits last year. It's that the No. 122 team in our rankings, the Cincinnati Bengals, made $49.4 million last year, according to Forbes.

Yes, you read that right. From 2001 to 2010, while going 68-91-1 with exactly two playoff appearances (both first-round losses), the Bengals are $263 million in the black, and the value of the franchise has soared from $479 million to $905 million. Owners love to claim they take on too much of the "risk" in sports, but exactly what risks do they mean? Upstart teams won't steal away their business. Nor will networks, cable companies or digital service providers ever stop hungering to show their games. The combination of monopoly and TV money is enough to make even the Bengals insanely profitable.

In their own way, the Bengals also care about family -- the Brown family, to be precise. Owner Mike Brown, whose legendary father, Paul, launched the franchise in 1967 for an $8 million fee, is a nice guy. But the staff directory reveals that he has more relatives on the payroll than team doctors, and between 1994 and 2000 the Bengals paid him and members of his family more than $50 million, according to court documents from a 2007 probate trial. That might not be so bad except that Brown refuses to hire a GM, and it's hard to tell whether the players he has collected over the years are more notorious for their losing, off-field antics or arrests. And now Cincinnati fans are snapping. A few have tried to organize against the team. One group, called "WhoDeyRevolution," has staged protests like bringing 1,000 urinal cakes inscribed "98-186-1 -- Get Pissed" into Paul Brown Stadium. But most are just giving up: The Bengals didn't sell out the last four home games of their dismal 2010 campaign and got blacked out of local TV.

In our survey, fans ranked the team dead last in all sports in expectations for a championship; player likability, effort and accessibility; fan-friendliness; and promotions and giveaways. That's an awful lot of hopelessness. Fortunately for the Brown clan, the Bengals enjoy one of the sweetest stadium deals on the planet. According to independent analysts, taxpayers paid more than $400 million, nearly full freight, to build Paul Brown Stadium, which opened in 2000. And there's no splitting stadium revenues with local government -- the club keeps all of the money from concession and signage sales, all of the profits from parking, and pays Hamilton County, Ohio, just a quarter per ticket. What's more, the Bengals are trying to squeeze the county for an extension of their cushy arrangement.

Now ask yourself: Should every team have financial security like that? See, over the past few years, innovative big-market NFL teams like Dallas and New England have found ways -- primarily luxury boxes and club seats -- to boost revenues that they don't have to share with other clubs. When they spend that money, it drives up the costs of players for every franchise. And that's been hurting small-market teams (like Jacksonville and, in fact, Green Bay), teams with bad leases (Oakland) and especially small-market teams with bad leases (Buffalo). The NFL would like to relevel the playing field among its clubs without requiring teams to share more revenues. That's why the owners are trying to take something like $1 billion away from players. That's what the lockout is about. That's pretty much all the lockout is about.

Peter Keating is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.