Packers fans grim, green and betrayed by NFL

Mike Gourlie has been a Packers fan since his days of delivering the
newspaper to iconic coach Vince Lombardi as a kid in Green Bay. He
can’t remember missing a game on TV except during two stints in the
military – and last year, he even managed to wake up in the middle of
the night for three or four games while deployed in Afghanistan with
the Army National Guard.
Pam Lunder has been a
dyed-in-the-wool Packer backer since moving to Wisconsin from South
Dakota in 1973, yet she didn’t set foot in Lambeau Field for a game for
another 31 years. In the meantime, television was her sole lifeline –
and she is so loyal that when her duties as a court commissioner
require her to perform weddings on Sundays, she always makes sure the
ceremonies will be over in time to watch the second half.
Scheuerell can trace his allegiance to the Packers to at least 1941,
when he saw a team led by Hall of Fame receiver Don Hutson face the
then-Cleveland Rams in a game at State Fair Park in West Allis. The
83-year-old Sun Prairie resident has been taking in games on TV for
more than half his life. “I watch ’em all,” he said.
All except
Thursday night’s game, that is, when Green Bay hosts NFC North Division
rival Minnesota in a game that will be aired in the Madison area only
on the NFL Network – a fledgling operation owned by the league that is
not available on the area’s largest provider, Charter Communications,
due to a well-financed and very public dispute over cost and placement
in its tiered services. Local over-the-air stations in Milwaukee and
Green Bay are able to broadcast the game because they are considered
home markets by the NFL. The rest of the state is not, despite
protestations by the Packers, said chairman and CEO Bob Harlan.

talked to the league office about it several times, about the entire
situation, and so it isn’t that we’ve ignored the subject,” said
Harlan, who noted he sympathizes with fans who will be unable to watch
the game. “We’re kind of in a position where we can’t do anything about
it, unfortunately.”
So, with a few exceptions, only subscribers to satellite operators Dish Network and DirecTV have access to the game here.
think it’s a crime,” said Scheuerell, who on Tuesday was calling bingo
at the Colonial Club in Sun Prairie. “It’s about the lowest blow I’ve
had in a long time. I can’t understand any reason for it.”
Almost unprecedented: If you’re thinking this is a rare occurrence, you would be right.
aided by Jill Sommers, the program operations manager at WISC/Channel
3, indicates that this will be just the second time the Packers have
not been available on TV to a majority of the Madison market – either
on a network or a major cable station such as ESPN – since 1962, when
CBS started covering all regular-season NFL games. The only other
occasion, Sommers said, was a preseason game at Milwaukee’s old County
Stadium that was blacked out here because it did not sell out. (Before
1995, when the Packers moved all their games to Green Bay, Madison was
considered a local market due to its proximity to Milwaukee and
therefore was subject to blackout rules.)
That landmark 1962
deal, struck by former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, is largely
credited with establishing football as the most visible and profitable
sport, and also with fueling the profit-sharing arrangement that has
kept the Packers viable in the smallest market in pro sports.
then, watching the Packers has become an event that many people build
their day or even week around – a cherished tradition that is as
distinctly Wisconsin as a beer-soaked brat on a charcoal grill, or a
brandy old fashioned.
“In the old days, it was a mortal sin to
miss church. This is about the same thing,” said Mike Feeney of Mount
Horeb, who is Lunder’s husband and the creator of the many wooden
trolls that line the village’s streets. “We’re kind of like Catholics
where the Packers are concerned. It’s just something you have to do.”
passion is undoubtedly fueled by Green Bay’s historical significance
(12 NFL championships) and the Brett Favre era, which produced 13
straight non-losing seasons prior to last year. Not to be discounted is
fans’ sense of ownership – in this case, literally, as a sizable
segment actually holds stock in the only franchise of its kind in major
pro sports. There is no inalienable right for the masses to watch
Packers games on TV. It just seems that way.
“If it’s not a
constitutional amendment, it probably should be,” said Gourlie, 56, a
Madison resident and section chief at the state Department of Health
and Family Services who is one of those stockholders. “I think this one
would rank right up there.”
It ranks high enough that a state
Congressman is getting involved. U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat who
represents western Wisconsin, made public a letter he sent to current
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the Wisconsin Cable Communications
Association urging them to reconsider freezing out non-local markets
“due to ill-considered and financially motivated decisions like this.”

It’s all about money:
On one point, almost all sides agree: As Kind noted, financial concerns
undergird this wrestling match between the NFL Network and several
large cable operators.
The network is the first wave of the
league’s new media strategy and is in its first year of airing
regular-season games. The slate of eight games wasn’t chosen by
accident; all are the second meeting of the season between division
rivals. This serves a dual purpose: to inflame the passions of fans to
the point they rail on their cable companies to agree to carry the NFL
Network and to pacify coaches and other league officials who face less
of a competitive disadvantage than if they were to face teams they
hadn’t already played against this season.
For months, the NFL
Network has taken out full-page ads in both Madison daily papers
proclaiming that these games won’t be available unless a deal is struck
with Charter. More recently, Charter has responded with TV commercials
featuring emotive executives who paint the NFL Network as an
unreasonable entity that is essentially extorting rate increases from
its customers.
This week, the NFL Network launched an aggressive
campaign to flood Charter’s offices with faxes from fans urging them to
add the station to its lineup. The campaign, which states Charter and
Time Warner Communications are alone in the cable industry in keeping
NFL Network off their systems, is being run through the Packers’
official team Web site, with the implication that team officials support the cause.
an attorney, notes that each side is following the methodology of
political campaigns. Neither is running high in the approval ratings
among the fans contacted by The Capital Times.
“I don’t have any
sympathy for Charter, because they’re just trying to put it on their
sports tier so they can make more money. They’re not looking out for
me. And I sure as heck am disappointed in the NFL,” Lunder said. “I
mean, there are an awful lot of fans out there who shouldn’t be
penalized by a couple of bullies squaring off in the playground.”
Gourlie said, “There’s probably some blame to be taken on both sides. Like everything else, it’s driven by the almighty dollar.”

The dish alternative:
That realization is exactly why Doug Teff of Madison will accept the
pay-for-view model, albeit grudgingly, because it’s a better
alternative than some new revenue streams that have been adopted by
sports leagues worldwide.
“That’s the way it’s going to go, at
least for some games, for two reasons,” Teff said. “A, the money is
there to be had because some people will pay, and B, how much blood can
you squeeze from turnip? In European basketball or soccer, you see
teams put their sponsor’s name on their jerseys. If that happened on a
Packers jersey or Cowboys jersey, people would revolt.”
As a
result, Teff, 31, said he started shopping around for satellite
services this past summer, when he found out the game wouldn’t be
widely available. Teff plans to buy a system in the near future, but on
Thursday he’ll be listening to the game on the radio at home with his
That’s the plan for Scheuerell and probably many seniors
who either aren’t shelling out for premium TV or aren’t mobile enough
to visit a sports bar. Lunder and Feeney plan to listen on the radio
before heading out at halftime to the Grumpy Troll bar and restaurant,
which carries NFL Network as a subscriber to the Mount Horeb Telephone
Company’s digital cable package.
Gourlie may get lucky and score
a ticket to the game, a possibility that arose Tuesday morning when a
co-worker’s wife developed cold feet upon hearing a forecast that
called for freezing rain. If not, he’ll head to Pooley’s sports bar on
Madison’s far east side with his wife and another couple.
Brooks of Sun Prairie, who recently bought a 52-inch TV but doesn’t
have satellite service, plans to head to her parents’ house, while her
husband will head to a bar.
None were particularly pleased by the
inconvenience, although Gourlie believes there will be a silver lining
in that Packers fans will display their unmatched allegiance by turning
out in public places in high numbers to watch the game.
“Would we rather be at home watching it?” Brooks posed rhetorically. “You betcha.”
some fans who have satellite service say the dispute has done the
unthinkable by taking away some of their excitement about an additional
night of football. That includes lifelong fans such as Mike Fueger of
Waunakee, who by family legend was 8 months old when awoken by his
father’s scream of joy as Bart Starr scored the winning touchdown in
the Ice Bowl in 1967, giving the Packers an NFL title-clinching victory
over Dallas.
“I like having a game on a Thursday night,” said
Fueger, 39, a former quarterback at Madison Memorial who will watch the
game with sons Jarrett, 7, and Ryan, 5, “but not if most of the Packer
fans in the state can’t see it.”
Staff writers Todd D. Milewski and Dennis Semrau contributed to this report.

Published: December 20, 2006

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