Even on Kickoff Day, Green Bay Packers CEO Is Thinking About ‘Titletown’

Credit: Green Bay Packers

Mark Murphy has got a lot on his mind as his Green Bay Packers open the National Football League’s 100th season on Thursday evening in a widely anticipated matchup with the arch-rival Chicago Bears in Soldier Field. As president and CEO of the Packers, Murphy is hoping that his new head coach and 2019 roster can mesh well with his established superstar quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, and return the green-and-gold to the playoffs for the first time in three years.

But at the same time, Murphy’s got a lot of other stuff on his plate that is related to the broad business enterprise that the Green Bay, Wisconsin-based Packers – and every other NFL team – have become over the last decade. And rather than his recent front-office shakeup, replacement of most of the coaching staff, and turnover of much of the team on the field as the new season begins, Murphy’s biggest concern at kickoff might well be ensuring the future of Titletown, the economic-diversification project straddling iconic Lambeau Field in suburban Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin.

“Right now we are in good financial shape in the league, with the collective bargaining agreement, and the salary cap, but this can change quickly in the NFL,” Murphy told Chief Executive. “Our main goal is to win championships and stay [in Green Bay], and have a local economy that is strong enough to support an NFL team. Look around the league and you see [teams’ local] revenues going up. We need to be aggressive.”

Titletown partly mimics similar magnet projects such as the business and entertainment district that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones spearheaded around the team’s practice facilities in suburban Frisco, Texas, and Patriot Place, an open-air shopping center near Gillette Stadium developed by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft in Foxborough, Massachusetts. But Titletown also is a unique attempt to leverage the immense interest by Packers fans and tourists into economic diversification built around the half-billion-dollar enterprise that the team has become.

In turn, Murphy said, some other big-time sports entities are interested in what the Packers are doing with Titletown, including one of the most legendary college-football programs, the University of Alabama, which is located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

For the first phase of Titletown, Murphy and the Packers worked with local authorities to redevelop nearly 45 acres designed to maximize the unique stadium-side location to bolster regional growth, attract more visitors, broaden the economic base of the area and offer amenities to residents. It’s a follow-on to investments by the Packers over the last several years to renovate and expand Lambeau Field — enhancing its entertainment value and amenities and seating capacity — and to build NFL-state-of-the-art practice facilities for the team.

Phase One of Titletown involved the construction of a large public park and plaza with outdoor games and fitness activities; a winter skating rink and tubing hill; a four-diamond hotel; a sports medicine and orthopedics clinic; and a restaurant and microbrewery. Recently the Packers began construction on Phase Two, which includes a 140-unit apartment building and townhouses.

Most interestingly, Phase One of Titletown also included establishment by Microsoft of an innovation lab, “venture studio” and venture fund meant to bring a base for digital innovation – and the accompanying workforce – to northeastern Wisconsin. Microsoft and the Packers each staked $5 million into the fund, and the digital giant has employees at the Titletown facility.

“Our research showed that Green Bay is at a disadvantage versus similar-sized markets in terms of college graduates,” Murphy said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but many businesses when they look at demographics like high proportions of college graduates. So we want to make the area attractive to young professionals.”

The “TitletownTech” partnership isn’t limited to exploring only “certain areas or industries,” Murphy said, but Green Bay’s deep manufacturing base and legacy, and sports-related technologies, “will be big.” The goal is to “help start some businesses that would establish themselves here,” he said. “That would really help the economy.”

Titletown is one reason that Dan Ariens said Murphy has been an “A-plus leader” since the team hired him, a former Washington Redskins safety and athletic director at Northwestern University, in 2007. “He’s a good manager with really great vision,” said Ariens, a Packers board member who also is CEO of Ariens Co., a major manufacturer of lawn equipment based in nearby Brillion, Wisconsin. “He’s really changed the team dynamics on and off the field, and an NFL franchise needs to be successful in both places.”

In fact, it really is about the community for the only team in major professional sports that is actually owned by the community, in a complicated arrangement that includes non-staked “shareholders” and no owner per se. It means the team essentially never can leave Green Bay, even as some other NFL franchises play municipal musical chairs.

“The Green Bay Packers are unique,” said Murphy, who like all Packers chiefs before him was elected by a community-based board. “We want to be successful financially, but for us, the big priority is to improve the community. We do a lot of charity, too. We view Titletown as another investment in the community. And if you’re a good citizen in the community, you have a better chance to be successful.”

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Dale Buss: Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.