Lombardi: The place to be?

Green Bay may not be big enough for top free agents

I have lamented lately that the Packers have been inactive so far in free agency. The Packers have signed one guy who I never heard of. I have lamented the possibility that the team may trade for Randy Moss. I have lamented that the team has apparently decided to build solely through the draft. Player acquisition, like most things, needs to be a balance. Use the draft, trades and free agency together to build a competitive team.

The Packers seem to have passed on free agency this year ... so far. Considering they did OK last year on the open market, signing Ryan Pickett and Charles Woodson, both of whom contributed greatly to an improved team, it is surprising that they are so inactive. But are they? Are the only veteran that the team may acquire is a moody receiver who has burned every bridge in Oakland?

Maybe all of that is not self-induced. If you consider the demographic of player that populates the NFL, it is very possible that the Packers CANNOT sign anyone. It is possible that none, or very few of these 20-somethings playing in the NFL want to live in Green Bay, even if it is only for six months, or so. I know of dozens of people in their 30s, who grew up here, went away to college and then spent their 20s living in DC or Chicago or Boston. After marriage, some moved back to northeast Wisconsin. Some did not. Green Bay is great for families, but lacks some of the things that young men desire. Some may impart a racial aspect to this argument and that exists. It adds to the dislocation of those players who fit that demographic, but it is not the primary reason.

Take a poll of men between the ages of 21 and 30 and ask them which of the following cities appeal to them - Chicago, New York, Washington DC, Phoenix, Seattle, Miami or Green Bay. I do not have to do it to tell you that Green Bay comes in last every time. That is not to bad-mouth Green Bay. I live here and really enjoy it, but I am married with three kids and in my late 30's. My wife grew up in the shadows of New York City and she really likes it here. We have had chances to leave and have decided to stay. It grows on you. It is wholesome and easy to live here. Winter drags on about six weeks too long, but the summers are wonderful and Wisconsin has a dynamite fall.

The city has a lot of bars but does not have a thriving "club" scene like some big cities, which can be good. Fewer off-field problems. The cultural makeup is decidedly small town and white. If someone is going to pay you $10 million for a job, most fellas want to maximize their fun in the big city. Almost everyone I went to college with moved to DC or New York if they could. Others, like me who did not, went to where the job took them. But if I could have chosen back then, DC or Boston or Seattle would have garnered the nod.

If you look at the census from 2000, the Green Bay metropolitan area ranked 156 in the nation with 226,778 persons. Add the Appleton/Oshkosh/Neenah metropolitan area (all of which is within an hours drive), and you get an additional 358,365 people, which ranks 117th. Total that up and you have 585,143 people in the Fox River Valley. That number of people would jump the area up to 74th in the Census. Most people in Green Bay and Appleton do not consider themselves the same metro area, but compared to NYC or LA, it is reasonable to compare the region. The next smallest city in the NFL is Jacksonville at No. 46 with 1,100,491 folks in the area - four times the population of Green Bay.

Eighteen of the first 19 ranked cities are home to an NFL team. Los Angeles is the odd man out. New York, San Fran/Oakland and DC/Baltimore are home to two teams and 21 of the teams in the NFL are in the top 19 biggest cities in the country. Only Cleveland (+86,187), Pittsburgh (-36,110), Cincinnati (+161,631), New Orleans (+52,456), Buffalo (-19,177) and Jacksonville (192,764) had population growth from 1990 to 2000 that was less than the total population of the Green Bay Metro area.

New York has over 21 million people living there with an increase of 1,650,216 from 1990. Chicago has over nine million souls, up 917,720 from 1990. Denver at #19 has almost 10 times the amount of people as Green Bay.

These numbers are seven years old and New Orleans has changed significantly due to Hurricane Katrina, but the numbers do not lie. It might be reasonable to assume that young, well paid, (sometimes) minority men might not want to visit, much less live in Green Bay, Wisconsin. At one time, Green Bay was considered the Siberia of the league. Brett Favre, Reggie White and Mike Holmgren changed that 15 years ago. Has the pendulum swung back to where Green Bay is an outcast amongst its target employee?

There is a load of history here and Brett Favre is still a draw. The question is this - what do the Packers have to offer a 26-year-old free agent, other than more money than the other team? There is a segment of the NFL that wants to play in Green Bay, be it because of the history or because it is a good fit for them. But how large is that segment? What percentage of the league looks at Green Bay as a destination? I know for certain that there are coaches in this league that never consider Green Bay when they are looking for a job. They complain about the lack of restaurants and such. They want to go to San Fran or a more cosmopolitan city (Ryan Longwell probably agrees with them). There is naturally a lack of knowledge and stereotyping going on. Green Bay is what it is and it is a great place to live and work, but perception is reality in some cases.

The Packers are one of the nation's most beloved sports teams. Fans across the world love and cherish this team. You can go into any town in America and possibly the world and find Packer Fans. It is amazing that a small town can support a major professional sports team. This is not a reflection on the true nature of Green Bay, it fans or current players and employees, but rather on how uninformed some folks are about some things and what can be done about it.

The Packers need to do very little marketing locally to sell tickets or merchandise, but how well to they market the team and the community to potential free agents? Draft picks and traded players have to come here, but free agents do not. Ted Thompson does not come across as a warm and fuzzy guy. He never tries to sell the fans on anything, so I have no idea how he interacts with players on this matter. Mike McCarthy seems a little bit more dynamic, but do these guys have what it takes to attract free agents? What are the Packers doing to overcome this situation, other than denying that it exists? I do not know, but building through the draft may not be a conscious strategy, but an unfortunate necessity.

John Lombardi

Editor's note: John Lombardi is the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. His football experience includes stints with two teams in the World League (now NFL Europe); in the scouting departments of the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans; and graduate assistant coach and director of football operations at Vanderbilt. E-mail him at johnlombardi22@yahoo.com.

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