IN DEPTH: The Green Bay Packers are in a city of 100,000 and are community owned. They are unique in US sports and technology keeps the team competitive on and off the field in the NFL
Green Bay, Wisconsin is not a remarkable city. Located on the edge of an eponymous bay within Lake Michigan, it is just the third largest city in its state and that’s about it. What is remarkable is its American football team.
Thirty-one of the 32 teams comprising the National Football League (NFL) are in bigger settlements. For years, owners have held city authorities hostage, threatening to leave (usually to Los Angeles) unless they got what they wanted. But not in Green Bay.
The Green Bay Packers are the only non-profit major league sports team in the entire of the United States. In leagues populated by money-hungry owners, the Packers are community-owned and no one is allowed to hold more than 200,000 shares (four percent).
The model has worked. Since their formation in 1919, the Packers have won 13 national championships, including four Superbowls, the most recent of which came in 2011. The NFL’s revenue sharing system and draft helps maintain a level playing field, but the organisation has sought to find other ways of generating income, and technology has played a significant role.
Football and fans
Wayne Wichlacz is the IT Director of the Green Bay Packers. During his 23-year tenure at the franchise, his department has grown from ten laptops to ten people, and his remit has increased significantly.
His department deals with all areas of the business, from sponsorship, retail and even the team itself, supporting head coach Mike McCarthy and his staff with analytics and video technology among other things.
“My job is to support the entire infrastructure of the stadium and everything that supports all the business areas, whether it’s football or the organisation,” Wichlacz tells TechWeekEurope.
“Essentially, all the layers from layer one all the way up and working with those areas to see how we can get better. Perhaps there’s a new application or need to buy something or it’s something to help us grow – either the business or the football team.”
Wichlacz speaks of four technology eras at the organisation. The first predates the 2003 renovation of the team’s iconic Lambeau Field, the second is the transitional period between 2003 and 2011, and the third is from 2011 to the present day.
Lambeau field renovation
The 2003 renovation was motivated by two things: to improve the fan experience and to turn Lambeau into a year-round venue. The NFL season is short, comprising a few home pre-season games and eight or nine regular season contests, more if you get to the play-offs. By offering more, Green Bay could receive more revenue to support the team.
“Our president’s goal in 2003 was to have more than just ten games a year,” says Wichlacz. “He wanted to open up an atrium with a restaurant, tourist business and hall of fame to make sure people came to Lambeau Field not just on game day.”
All this required IT’s involvement. New stores and restaurants needed modern point-of-sale (POS) systems and the installation of the new scoreboard necessitated the deployment of fibre, which made it easier for television partners to broadcast games.
“[The expansion] was the primary driver of my team getting bigger,” adds Wichlacz. “Before then, it was me and one other guy.”
Technological changes have also impacted how Green Bay generates sales from its stock offerings. So far the franchise has held five stock sales; in 1923, 1935, 1950, 1997 and in 2011.
“The one in 1997 was phone based, the one in 2011 was online,” he recalls. “We were getting five sales a second.”
The most recent project saw a complete overhaul of Lambeau Field’s networking capabilities.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s stated ambition is to get public Wi-Fi in all 31 stadiums (The New York Giants and New York Jets share MetLife Stadium) and many teams are keen to get the connectivity so they can engage fans, capture more information and ultimately sell more tickets and merchandise.
With sell-out matches and a season ticket waiting list of more than 120,000, Green Bay doesn’t need to engage fans. It has improved connectivity because it believes the fans will benefit.
“Our CEO and our President have been talking about improving connectivity for the past three years because they really want to deliver the best fan experience,” explains Wichlacz, adding that in 20 years or so, the digital generation will make up a significant proportion of the fan base.
The Wi-Fi is free and the Packers don’t even ask fans to enter any information because they see it as a barrier to use. The official application might include this in the future but that’s a different project, and although Beacons have been experimented with, more research needs to be done.
“Number one is the team doing well, number two is a great fan experience,” adds Wichlacz.