In 1997, when the Green Bay Packers won their first Super Bowl in 29 years, the franchise was ninth in the National Football League in revenue. Not bad for the smallest market in the league.
But as NFL teams continued a mandate by then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue to build newer and better stadiums -- not an option in Green Bay, where iconic Lambeau Field is considered sacred ground -- the Packers slowly slipped down in the rankings. By 2000, the team was 20th in the league in revenue, and two bankers on Green Bay's board of directors told Packers Chairman-CEO Bob Harlan that "by 2004 we'd be in a dire situation."
"I suppose we could have gone somewhere and built a brand-new Lambeau Field, but that's not what our fans wanted," Mr. Harlan said.
Instead, Mr. Harlan had a bold and daring vision: Take the very thing that Packers fans identify with the franchise and make it a year-round tourist destination. Mr. Harlan's idea was to enhance the existing Lambeau Field with a structure adjacent and connected to the stadium. It would be open 365 days a year and contain retail stores, restaurants, the Packers Hall of Fame, meeting facilities,and a catering facility to hold weddings and other events.
It was completed in two years at a cost of $295 million.
"Every time a team comes to Lambeau to play us, I get a call from the owner asking if we can give him a tour on Sunday morning before the game," Mr. Harlan said with a laugh. "The whole idea has exceeded our expectations."
Entering the 2006 season, the Packers are back to seventh in the league in franchise revenue.
Mr. Harlan -- a CEO who answers his own phone -- was a tireless worker in pursuing his goal. First he had to convince the Wisconsin state legislature to hold a special referendum in Green Bay. Then he had to sell the plan to voters, who would pay $169 million in public funds to complement a $136 million contribution from the Packers.
So he personally campaigned for the effort, showing up at grocery stores, high school football games -- even factories at 5:30 a.m. -- to talk to people about his vision and urge them to vote "Yes" on the referendum. The Packers are, after all, a unique franchise. The stadium is in the middle of a residential neighborhood, and the club is publicly owned by more than 100,000 shareholders.
The referendum passed by a 53% to 47% vote.
Mr. Harlan is retiring after this season to become chairman emeritus. He has already been inducted into the team's Hall of Fame, and the entrance to Lambeau Field was named the Robert E. Harlan Plaza.
But helping save this proud franchise with a brilliant marketing idea might be his most lasting legacy.