Packers

GREEN BAY — While the Green Bay Packers’ primary focus is rightfully on the 2020 NFL season and keeping their players, coaches and staff healthy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the franchise has some big hopes for hosting some big events in the not-too-distant future.

With one notable exception.

“We’ll never host a Super Bowl,” team president/CEO Mark Murphy acknowledged during a Zoom video conference call with reporters following the team’s virtual shareholders meeting on Thursday afternoon. “That’s the reality.”

That said, the Packers do have plenty of other big-time events they’re hoping to have at Lambeau Field and in the surrounding area in the coming years, including the 2024 NFL draft and the Big Ten Conference football championship game, along with making up the college football matchup between the University of Wisconsin and Notre Dame that had been set for Oct. 3 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced its cancellation.

Murphy said the Packers, who were a finalist to host the 2022 draft, are now one of three franchises the NFL is considering for 2024. Next year’s draft is set to be held in Cleveland and the 2022 draft was given to Las Vegas, which had been set to host this year’s draft before the pandemic intervened and sent the event into the virtual realm.

“I feel confident. I think we’ll be able to make a really strong case,” Murphy said. “I do think the league is looking at teams and cities that will be unable to host Super Bowls. One way to reward them and their community, especially with the support they’ve provided teams and their communities, is to award them the draft. I’m optimistic. I think we have a good opportunity.”

After holding the draft in New York City for nearly three decades, the NFL has taken its show on the road to Chicago (2015, 2016), Philadelphia (2017), Dallas (2018) and Nashville (2019).

Asked if he likes the Packers chances, Murphy pointed to the additions of the Titletown District and a new expo center adjacent to the Resch Center as improving the Packers’ odds.

“I don’t want to get out ahead of myself. I do, but we’ll see,” Murphy said. “The criteria the league looks at, it’s not as set as something like a Super Bowl. I think our community has a lot to offer — certainly from a history and tradition standpoint, and the fact that Lambeau Field is such an attraction.”

Murphy also said the team will soon apply to host the Big Ten championship game. New Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, a former Minnesota Vikings executive, is looking to move the game to various sites and Murphy said the Packers will apply to host between 2023 and 2030.

“(Warren is) taking a fresh look at the Big Ten Championship Game. It would be great to be able to host that,” Murphy said. “We’re officially applying. Given everything that’s going on with the pandemic, a little more time (is needed) in terms of making our official application. But we’ll be doing that over the next month or so.”

As for UW-Notre Dame, it appears the hope is that the 2021 game will be played as scheduled at Chicago’s Soldier Field, as a Badgers home game, and then in 2022 they can play the Irish home game that had been slated for Lambeau. Murphy credited UW athletic director Barry Alvarez and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick for being proactive and realistic about this year’s game, and Murphy said both ADs had expressed the desire to play the game at a later date.

“Having been in Barry’s shoes, I know it’s not easy. These football schedules are done a while in advance, but he seemed to really want to. And I would say (Swarbrick) feels the same way,” Murphy said. “They want to have a game at Lambeau Field. Barry, especially, talked about how much he and the Badgers fans really enjoyed the LSU game here in 2016. Hopefully, we get that rescheduled.”

Hope remains the operative word for the 2020 NFL season, too, as Murphy confirmed that the rookies did not report for COVID-19 testing on Thursday and that their report date, as well as the slated July 28 full-team reporting date, remain fluid.

Part of that uncertainty comes from NFL owners and the NFL Players Association’s struggles to come to terms on the economic issues that are still being debated. But Murphy said Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is also still trying to figure out the most efficient and sensible way to bring players into the facility and maximize the time they have to work in advance of the team’s scheduled Sept. 13 regular-season opener against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

“It’s all part of the negotiation,” Murphy said. “(But) I think also for us it’s Matt trying to look at what different things are going to be required under the agreement with the Players Association and what’s the best time for me to get the players in. I think he’s still working through that.”

Murphy did express strong optimism that the NFL season would start and continue even as COVID-19 surges in various parts of the country, saying, “I have been involved in a lot of high-level meetings but nothing like we’re dealing with now. I have no expertise in dealing with pandemics. I do have a lot of confidence, though, in medical experts, both for the league and NFLPA.

“I’m confident that we’ll get a season in. If we’re going to have fans there, in regards of that, I’m not so certain,” Murphy said. “That’s going to be a little more difficult. We’re going to have enough challenges just putting the games on and making sure everybody involved in playing, coaching, putting the game on is kept safe.”

During the nearly 40-minute session with reporters after the shareholders meeting adjourned, Murphy also addressed several topics, including the team’s initial plan to have 10,000 to 12,000 fans inside Lambeau Field for games, how those fans will be chosen, how the Packers’ football facilities inside Lambeau Field have been altered to adhere to NFL protocols, how rosters may be changed this season, and the perils facing college football.

On the potential 10,000 to 12,000 fans at games at Lambeau, Murphy emphasized the priority is on getting the games played so the NFL can fulfill its contractual obligations to the TV network partners, as roughly two-thirds of the league’s revenue comes from television.

“As we look at it, the first priority is getting the games in and getting them on television. If we’re able to do that, then we’ll be able to cover our player costs, which obviously is our biggest cost,” Murphy said. “That’s why I think we’re going to be very cautious in terms of whether we’ll have fans in the stands. We talked about if we do, it’s going to be capacity probably a maximum of 12,000. Obviously, that’s a fairly small percentage of an 82,000-seat stadium.”“There’s a lot at stake, and we understand what Packer home games mean to the community, to local businesses. But this is unprecedented, unchartered waters for all of us. We wanted to make sure that we do things as safe as possible. The last thing we would want to contribute to some type of outbreak or super-spreader event. We’ll move forward and hopefully be able, at a minimum, to get the games in and on television.”

On how those fans would be chosen, the team sent a survey to season ticketholders earlier this week where they could opt-out or opt-in for the chance to buy tickets. Murphy said if they get more ticket-holders opting in than the 12,000 maximum per game, they’ll split the opportunities among the eight home games.

“It’ll be on a game-by-game basis. That’s how we looked at it,” Murphy said. “Hopefully people want to go to more than one game, but (we want to) at least make sure that everybody (who opts in) is able to go to at least one game.“One of the things we talked about is kind of easing into it. You don’t want to try to do too much too soon. And maybe we start the season with even more limited (crowds) or no fans and then as things progress possibly add more fans.”Murphy also confirmed what has been widely reported but not officially announced: That the league won’t play any preseason games this year.“I think the challenge for clubs with no preseason games, it’s even for all teams, but how do you get your team ready?” he said. “It’s probably less of an issue, and you’ve all seen it, the starters are playing less and less in the preseason. It really becomes a question of evaluating particularly your younger players.”On how the football operations areas of the stadium, as well as other portions of the building, have had to be reconfigured to maximize social distancing and abide by NFL protocols, Murphy said those changes became more extensive starting about a month ago.

“A lot of hand sanitizer, a lot of plexiglass all over the building,” Murphy said. “You’re trying to do things that you just never thought you’d have to do when the building was built. How do you keep people separate and distanced? It’s going to be a challenge, but our staff has been working on it over the last few months. It’s really been more the last month or so where we’ve started to get direction from the league and all the protocols that have been negotiated with the players.”

On how rosters might be adjusted to account for players missing time because of positive COVID-19 tests, Murphy said the league is expanding its practice-squad use.

“Under the new collective bargaining agreement it went up to 12 (players) from 10, and we’re looking at not only increasing it to 16, but then also giving teams more flexibility, making it easier to take players back and forth from the practice squad to the regular roster,” Murphy said. “And then, having more exceptions, allowing more veterans on the practice squad – players who are more likely to come in and help you immediately.”

On what college football programs are up against, Murphy, a former athletic director at Colgate and Northwestern, struck an ominous chord.

“Obviously in the bigger schools, football revenue really drives and allows athletic departments to support broad athletic programs,” Murphy said. “The thing that shocked me was Stanford dropping 11 sports. Stanford, I just hold them up on such a pedestal in terms of their overall athletic program. That gives you a sense in terms of the challenge that these schools are facing.

“(In the NFL), we’re paying our players, we’ve got about half the number that they do, and theirs are younger than our players are. The colleges have a lot of challenges that we don’t have, and it’s going to be challenging enough for us. So it’s even more difficult for the colleges to be able to play sports in a safe manner.”