No place like home
By Thom Gerretsen
“The road to the Super Bowl goes through Green Bay” is a concept that could disappear. Discussions continue in NFL circles to hold its two annual conference championship football games at neutral sites instead of the home stadiums of the highest surviving playoff seeds. Some team owners have come out against the idea, and here’s why Packers’ fans should oppose it.
During my 44 years of living in central Wisconsin, few things have warmed up a frozen January like the Packers’ playoff run from their 1996 championship season – most of which played out right here in Wisconsin. I covered Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans for WDLB Radio and Goetz Broadcasting – a 35-21 Green Bay win over New England. As exciting as it was, though, nothing stirred my emotions like the screams of joy two weeks earlier – when Green Bay played its final game that season at Lambeau Field and beat Carolina 30-13 during a -17 wind chill in the NFC Championship Game.
After that victory, the fired-up home fans stayed in their seats as Packers’ general manager Ron Wolf asked them, “Guess where we’re goin’?” Reggie White paraded the conference trophy around for the appreciative onlookers. For most in the stands, it was their final chance to cheer on the home team – and to wish them well in a generally distant Super Bowl city two weeks hence.
I’ve been to three Super Bowls as a reporter and five NFC Championship Games either as a reporter or a Packers’ fan in the stands. Though fans bring “lots of juice” to the Super Bowl city the week beforehand, there is no way such passion translates to the game itself. It can get downright quiet in there. Each participating team only gets one of every six seats at a neutral Super Bowl site. Other tickets go to the NFL’s corporate sponsors and various contest winners among others. Many in the seats don’t have a rooting interest, much less a rabid longtime passion for those on the field.
As a result, much of the noise you’d expect at the Super Bowl just isn’t there. That’s especially noticeable on touchdowns, sacks, defensive stands, and other big plays. Jim Nantz told the New York Times in 2014 that the Super Bowls he called on CBS often had the feeling of a “Hollywood soundstage.” In 1992, when I covered the Buffalo/Washington Super Bowl in Minneapolis, I thought a Native American pregame protest outside the old Metrodome against the then-Washington Redskins’ team name was as loud and emotional as a Bills’ pep rally nearby.
I’ve often told people that if a Super Bowl gets close to them – or if their teams make it there – they should go. Even without game tickets, the weeklong series of fan fests, parties and more is almost non-stop – and for real fans, definitely worth the trip to the host city. Whether you’d see this kind of ramped-up atmosphere at neutral-site conference championships – the league’s semi-finals — is a whole other question.
Home team crowds generate lots more decibels on big plays as fans high-five each other. At the Packers’ NFC title loss at Seattle eight years ago, the Seahawks’ fan to my left wouldn’t say hello. But before every Packers’ play, he yelled “AHHHHHHH” – as did thousands of others. With ridges at the top that keep the noise inside, the ‘Hawks outdoor stadium has long been considered the loudest in the NFL. My Packers’ travel partner Mike Warren and I both wondered how those fans talk at their jobs the next day.
Other fan bases unleash similar passions. My son Bryan & I saw that firsthand in the 1995 season, when the Pack lost at Dallas – still the Cowboys’ last NFC title contest appearance. After Mike Warren & I saw the Packers lose in Seattle & Atlanta, many Facebook friends told me never to see a road NFC Championship Game again. In the 2010 season, the Chicago Bears thought its fans just couldn’t stomach the usual on-field trophy presentation – so the Packers had to quietly accept the honor in their locker room at Soldier Field.
Super Bowls at neutral sites allow everyone involved to plan ahead. Ticket prices that often exceed $5,000 on the secondary market speak for themselves about the clientele the game attracts. Should the league consider something similar for conference title games, many have expressed concerns that those, too, would become unaffordable for the fans who’ve been most responsible for their teams’ support – vocally, financially, and otherwise.
The Packers have hosted seven NFL & NFC championship games since 1939, including the infamous Ice Bowl victory over Dallas in 1967. That’s seven mega-important games in 83 years – an average of almost one every 12 years. When this kind of opportunity comes this seldom, why wouldn’t any profitable business allow the greatest number of its most loyal customers to savor such a payoff?