My boss came up to me earlier this week, all excited, asking me, "Hey! How would you like to work for the Packers?!"
Yes, for a moment, my heart fluttered. I actually have entertained this thought in the past, and thought perhaps my ship had finally come in. My natural skepticism kicked in, though. "What's the catch?" I asked her.
"I received a request for groups to work at Lambeau Field running concessions for this year!" she gushed. "All we have to do is go through eight hours of training and we can make a ton of money for our non-profit."
"So, wait," I replied, "I can go put in a full workday on the weekend to get trained for the privilege of missing every home Packer game this year?"
Long pause. "You really don't know who I am in my secret life, do you?"
Delaware North Companies Sportservice has been off to a rocky start as the new concessionaire for Lambeau Field, and I was a bit tentative about it. With the new management has come new profit margins for volunteer groups, new menus, and most of all, new prices.
Comparing my visit to Lambeau Field last January and last Thursday, the difference between the new prices under Sportservice and the old prices under Levy Restaurants was jarring. When I went to last year's playoff game, I purchased a couple of beers for Rehor and myself for a Disneyesque price of $13.00. This year, the new 16 oz. aluminum bottles will run you a cool $8.00 a beer, a price they wouldn't even reach at the Magic Kingdom.
My father-in-law, a season ticket holder who has only missed a few games since 1958, shook his head at his $92 dollar ticket and one beer that now runs into triple digits. For a guy who can show me ticket stubs that were only $7.50, he sees the rise of prices hitting the common man whose attendance at Lambeau Field kept this franchise alive for many years.
The fact that he also rarely turns down a beer, but now swore he's only buying one per game, speaks volumes.
A quick look on the new menus reveals that beer is not the only commodity that has seen some pretty steep increases. Ever notice how you never realize the increases over the short-term? They are mild and steady, perhaps raising the cost of a beer fifty cents or a ticket by a dollar or two. But nearly everything at the concession stands looks like it has had the cost raised by at least a dollar over last year, if not two. You can get a beef stick for $4.00. You can get a large brat for $9.00.
In addition to the hefty increase in concession price, the new vendor told the non-profits that have volunteered their time for years during the games that their take-home revenue would be sliced in half from the usual $20,000-plus they've been used to raising. You can see the problem.
In short, Sportservice undercut the bidding process, and both the consumers and those folks who volunteer their time to help worthy causes are making up the difference.
It's a tough reality, the merging of the corporate profiteering and the home-spun tale of the little football team owned by the folks in the community. We all accept the need for the Green Bay Packers to keep revenue flowing in order to remain competitive in today's NFL: after all, remember the Dark Years between Lombardi and Holmgren, when the franchise was a sleepy company that kept costs down while sitting on coffers of money, rather than investing in many of the conveniences today's Packer fan now enjoys. Then, we patted ourselves on the back if the team finished with a .500 record and sat in a stadium that seemed forever trapped in the 1950's. Today, we expect to be playoff contenders every year and enjoy one of the most unique and fan-friendly stadium experiences in the nation.
That didn't just happen. Give the Packers corporation credit: they spent money in order to make money. And the bottom line has finished in the black both on the finance ledgers and in the win-loss column.
But this latest price hike in the game day experience isn't sitting comfortably with many Packer fans. Sportservice needed to shuttle up hundreds of concession workers from Milwaukee to cover the exodus of non-profit volunteer groups who decided that half the fundraising total was no longer worth it. And there is some sense in that logic: if my father-in-law, who used to easily purchase five or six beers over the course of a game is now limiting himself to one, that's not helping your bottom line.
As I looked around on Thursday night, the lines at the concessions were definitely shorter than what I've been used to.
Like everything else in life we have to budget for, it is no longer just coming down to just the price, but the value that you are getting for your dollar. For the first time, my father-in-law complained about having to sit on hard, aluminum benches. He never did that before. But then, he never paid $92 for each ticket to the game, either...plus the increased cost of concessions.
He could request to trade in his seat for one in the new addition, which will have those clearly non-Lambeau-esque chair backs and cup holders, but he will have to wait for the body catchers to be installed that will be needed to safely catch fans who pass out from a lack of oxygen at such high altitudes.
Maybe I'm just noticing this financial conundrum because I am reaching the point where attending a game is becoming a true financial hardship. After all, with a family of five, you are having to make plenty of choices as to where you budget your money, and its becoming more difficult to justify a $300-plus price tag for Wifey and I to attend a game. If its getting harder for me, I have no doubt that there are many other Packer fans who reached this breaking point a long time ago.
I'm no economic genius by any length of the imagination, but there's perhaps no easier way to visualize supply and demand than the resale cost of Packer tickets. The fact is that since Mike Holmgren came onto the scene in 1992, the Green Bay Packers have had only two sub-.500 seasons in twenty years. Keeping a quality product on the field is imperative. It's a far cry away from 1983, when I used my paper route money to buy someone's entire season ticket for less than the cost of one ticket today.
The fact that the Packers have a season ticket waiting list that hovers near six figures also gives the Packers organization the impetus to see exactly how far they can push prices before it actually affects their bottom line. My guess is they may still have some wiggle room...as long as the team remains successful.
But memories of last January's playoff game may give us all pause. More than 24 hours before the Giant game started, ticket prices plummeted to below face value on the resale market, and this was for a team that just went 15-1. Yes, they typical excuse is that people were saving their money for the NFC Championship game, thus the demand went down for the first divisional game.
That's exactly my point. When people are picking and choosing what playoff games they can afford to attend, what might happen when the ticket prices are triple-digits, the beer prices are double-digits, but the Packer record is in the single-digits?
It's a financial cliff that may end up hitting a team that is trying to keep pace with large-market teams, while maintaining its very unique situation. It is the only publicly-owned team in the NFL. However, it is a publicly-owned team that doesn't pay out dividends to its stockholders.
As they say, the dividends are paid out in victories, and no one has paid those out better than the Green Bay Packers in the last twenty years.
But we can't expect this success to truly last forever. Ted Thompson isn't going to work here and continue a fantastic run for the next twenty years--not when the system is designed to eventually pull you back down to reality after you've had tremendous success. We saw that in the late 90's, after the Packers won the Super Bowl. We saw it again after Mike Sherman's impressive run with four consecutive playoff appearances and three consecutive division titles. And we'll see it again with the McCarthy/Thompson regime, to some degree.
Someday, the Packers may finish 4-12 again, just as they did in 2005 (when a face value ticket was almost half what it is today). It wasn't a big deal to pay $13 a game for season tickets when I made $30 a week on my paper route in 1983. Even if it was to see a crummy team, the value was there.
How much is too much, especially if the Packers fall under hard times? What happens if the unthinkable happens, and career-ending injuries destroy the nucleus of this team? What happens if Thompson and McCarthy move on to greener pastures, not unlike Mike Holmgren, and leave the Packers with Ray Rhodes Part Two?
This might sound like I'm whining that Packer games are too expensive, and maybe you'd be right in accusing me of that. But if I'm noticing it, I'm sure that many other Packer fans are feeling the same way (as well as the non-profits that usually manned the concession stands, half of which decided to call it quits). The Packers success, however, goes beyond just the cost of a ticket and concession prices, but the year-round influx of fans who purchase items from the Pro Shop, take tours of the stadium, and visit the Hall of Fame.
The Packers can ill-afford to reduce the demand of their product, especially when fans are already picking and choosing which games they can ill-afford to attend.