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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Next to Lambeau field, a place where cheeseheads come together

Green Bay Packers fans, known as Cheeseheads, congregate and show off their team gear at Titletown.

By Joshua Needelman

In Titletown, games of catch have an open invite.

Deangelo Marshall, for instance, had gone to the regulation-size football field at the complex — a 45-acre mixed-use development adjacent to Lambeau Field — to throw passes to his stepson Paul Clay, 13. Another boy, around Clay’s age, joined their crew for a few throws, and later an adult did the same. But there’s something about the space that brings strangers together.

Marshall, a Chicago transplant who moved to the Green Bay, Wisconsin, area for college, looked around the field. Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” had just played through the loudspeaker on the gloomy Sunday afternoon in mid-September. It was the day of the team’s home opener, and fans played catch, kicked field goals, executed cartwheels and shared laughs.

“There’s always someone here,” said Marshall, 44, wearing a Packers T-shirt, ripped white shorts and a relaxed smile.

It was eight hours before kickoff, and as the afternoon wore on, raucous fans would crowd the area, some drunk on more than just the sunny anticipation that marks a fresh start. But it’s afternoons like the one Marshall spent with his stepson, and the more than 350 days the Packers aren’t playing at Lambeau Field, that Titletown’s park was built for.

Several NFL teams in recent years have built entertainment districts in the areas surrounding their stadiums in a bid to generate more revenue. Patriot Place, the roughly 1.3 million-square-foot shopping center that wraps around the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium, has been a boon for the team’s owner, Robert Kraft. The center has generated between $8 million and $10 million, accounting for about 10% of the yearly budget of Foxborogh, Massachusetts, where it’s located, William Keegan, the town manager, told WGRZ in Buffalo, New York. (There has been discussion of the Bills adding a development as well.)

Titletown, which opened in 2017, features shops, restaurants, business spaces and residential homes. But what distinguishes it is its park, free and open to the public year round. The park tries to appeal to Green Bay’s famously football-obsessed fans and more casual visitors alike: A cheese-themed playground and an area for fans to practice their timed 40-yard dashes share space with a tubing hill and a variety of pop-up attractions, including areas for yoga and tai chi and a space for a book club.

The accessibility and variety befit the only publicly owned major professional sports franchise in North America. The land beneath Titletown is owned by the Packers, and some of the buildings there are jointly owned with or leased to various partner companies — but the park is clearly for the public.

“No developer would take a third of a development and make it a park, but for us, it’s not about trying to make a profit,” said Aaron Popkey, the team’s director of public affairs. “It’s more about providing this amenity, this asset, to the community.”

The Packers, formed in 1919 as a semiprofessional team, joined the NFL (then known as the American Professional Football Association) in 1921 and soon faced financial trouble. Local businessmen incorporated the team as a nonprofit two years later, which helped keep the franchise afloat as the league gravitated to markets in bigger cities. The shift to nonprofit status led to offering fans the ability to be shareholders (albeit ones who pay no dividends and whose shares cannot be traded). It’s become a way for fans to feel a literal sense of ownership of their beloved team, and for the team to raise money — significant money. The team has conducted six stock sales in its history, most recently last winter, when it raised $65 million.

“For communities this size, I think, having an NFL team, it’s an anomaly,” Popkey said of Green Bay, which has a population of about 107,000. “It’ll never happen again.”

Four hours before the Packers game against the Chicago Bears, Avalyn Hein, 1, poked her head out from a hole in the cheese jungle gym. Her parents, Brandon and Lora, and grandparents all mimicked her smile and then followed as Avalyn waddled over to a bench.

Brandon Hein, 32, was raised in the Green Bay area and spent much of his childhood at Lambeau Field. His father placed him on the Packers’ season-ticket waiting list not long after he was born, and he didn’t receive tickets until just before his 30th birthday.

The Heins planned to attend the game later that evening, but first they wanted Avalyn to experience Titletown. She particularly enjoyed running up and down 46-foot-high Ariens Hill, which is frozen in the winter for tubing.

“Everybody feels like they have a piece in this,” said Hein, a Packers shareholder. He cradled Avalyn in his arms, brushing a strand of blond hair out of her eyes.

Both father and daughter wore Aaron Rodgers jerseys. They were hardly the only ones. The quarterback, who led Green Bay to its Super Bowl XLV victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, is a hero to many fans despite a controversial 2021 season. Rodgers reportedly demanded a trade last spring because of friction with the front office, and though he ended up signing a three-year, $150.8 million contract extension, he remained in the headlines throughout the season — most notably when it was revealed he had misled the league and the public about his COVID-19 vaccination status. (Though the league never mandated vaccinations, it said that about 95% of players had gotten the vaccine, along with almost 100% of personnel.) Rodgers said he had been “immunized” against the virus, and after facing criticism he railed against “cancel culture” and the “woke mob.”

But the national culture wars seem to melt away in Titletown. Packers fans came for the season opener from across the Midwest, including Bradley Stone, 46, who arrived with his family from Duluth, Minnesota. It was the 14th birthday of his son, Madden, and the family spent the afternoon testing the 40-yard dash area. As his wife, Kirsten, 45, shouted “Go!” Stone took off, followed by his daughter, Ella, 11, and Madden. The walkway that leads from the field to Ariens Hill was lined with restaurants and a bank and dotted with foosball tables, cornhole sets, bocce courts, shuffleboard courts and Ping-Pong tables, complete with rackets and paddles ready for guests.

“No one steals ’em,” said Jackie Krutz, Titletown residential and programs manager, gesturing to the Ping-Pong equipment.

Krutz is responsible for developing and overseeing many of Titletown’s programs and large events and works closely with Craig Dickman, managing director of TitletownTech, a startup venture capital fund that formed out of a partnership between the Packers and Microsoft and is situated along the walkway between the field and the hill. One area of the TitletownTech building features floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the whole development. Dickman said that being able to look through the windows and see people using the facilities gave “context” to the company’s work, which is focused on companies with forward-looking goals, like Fork Farms, which develops indoor hydroponic vertical farming.

“It creates this little microcosm that does breathe meaning into what’s being done in a unique way,” Dickman said.

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