By Mike Bauman
Periodically, you will hear the Dallas Cowboys refer to themselves as "America's Team."
Since 1996, the Cowboys have won one playoff game. America is not happy being stuck with the ownership, even the rhetorical ownership, of this group. America has more viable choices than these people.
If America must have a team, the closest thing to it would be the Green Bay Packers. They are "America's Team" because they most closely resemble the American dream.
In the interests of full disclosure, I was born in Green Bay. I grew up in northeastern Wisconsin. The Packers were part and parcel of my upbringing. As a young fan, I was at the "Ice Bowl," Dec. 31, 1967, when the Packers beat, of course, the Cowboys in Arctic conditions. Bart Starr scored the winning touchdown behind a double-team block from guard Jerry Kramer, who got all the credit, and center Ken Bowman, who got none. I learned a valuable life lesson at the Ice Bowl: If I was going to spend four hours watching an event at which the chill factor was minus-46 degrees, I should probably be in the press box.
Fast forward 47 years: The Packers open the National Football League regular season Thursday night at the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. The Packers will be the underdogs. And that is fine. The Green Bay franchise has been an underdog operation for its entire history.
On the North American map of major professional sports, there is no other place remotely like Green Bay. There is no other place as small as Green Bay. There is no other professional sports place, in a world driven by media-market size, as completely unlikely as Green Bay.
In the 2010 U.S. census, Green Bay had a population of about 104,000. Los Angeles, the second largest metropolitan area in the nation, with a population of nearly 13 million, does not have an NFL team. Green Bay, with a metropolitan area population of approximately 300,000, does. And you get to that 300,000 only if you include Brown, Kewaunee and Oconto Counties.
But this is the endearing thing about the smallness. The Packers have had a highly successful franchise. But they have also had a franchise that remains special, unique, different, one-of-a-kind.
How does it happen? How does this smallish city at the mouth of the Fox River not only keep a professional franchise but maintain a successful franchise?
The NFL, in its wisdom, decided early on in the television era, that all of its teams would share equally in the largest single source of revenue -- national television rights. So the Packers, in the league's smallest market, would get the same national TV money as the Giants, in the league's largest market.
This is technically a socialistic economic model, but the competitive balance that it has generated has made the NFL a tremendously successful proposition. The Packers couldn't be in Green Bay without this approach.
And even earlier in Packers history, when the franchise was in serious economic difficulty, the Wisconsin public came through. In a fundraising device still used by the Packers in recent years, the team would sell shares of stock publicly. The shares never produced a nickel of dividends. They were worthless in that sense, but they were worth a great deal to the Packers. And to the people who held the shares, one way or another, they owned a piece of the Pack.
We have five shares in our family. I'm happy with my share. My three sons are happy with their shares. My wife, who does not like football at all, received her share as a Christmas present, and was speechless.
So the Packers are unique in this way, too. They are the only publicly-owned major pro sports franchise in North America. This is another reason for the undying loyalty of their fans, the people who fill up Lambeau Field in weather that would make polar bears seek shelter. There is no owner, no group of owners, to get in the way of the fans' affection for the team. People in Wisconsin refer to the Packers as "our" team. And a lot of these people have the shares to prove it.
This accounts in part for the religious fervor of Packer fandom. This football team is the one topic that creates general agreement in Wisconsin. The population worships at one altar, and the altar is Green and Gold.
The civilian ownership is not a panacea. After the unparalleled success of the Vince Lombardi era -- "Titletown, USA" -- the Packers wandered in the pro football wilderness for nearly a quarter of a century, the result of management decisions that may have been well-meaning but were still amateurish.
That ended late in 1991 when then-Packers team president Bob Harlan handed complete control of the football operation to a football man, Ron Wolf. Wolf as general manager hired Mike Holmgren as head coach and traded for Brett Favre as quarterback. Reggie White, an irresistible force at defensive end, was added as a free agent, and Green Bay was no longer a frozen outpost. It was once again home to a Super Bowl champion and a consistent winner.
Today, the Packers have another successful leadership core in place -- GM Ted Thompson, a Wolf protégé who builds patiently and persistently through the draft; Mike McCarthy, a proven winner as head coach, and Aaron Rodgers, a quarterback of the first rank. They have produced another Super Bowl championship and a perennial contender. But the ongoing success is a direct descendant of Harlan's eminently sensible decision to bring in Wolf.
Now, a remodeled Lambeau Field is a state of the art facility in every way and the immediate future gleams with promise. The 2014 Packers should be top-notch offensively with Rodgers, a cast of talented wide receivers and, finally, a true impact running back in Eddie Lacy. The defense will have less bulk, but more athleticism in the front seven. At a minimum, this should be a division-winning team capable of a deep playoff run.
Whatever happens, this franchise remains a triumph of the small over the immense. Green Bay has been big-league every year since 1922 and, as a big-time franchise, it isn't getting any smaller.
Mike Bauman is a contributor to Sports on Earth and has been a national columnist for MLB.com since 2001. He was aslo a sports columnist for The Milwaukee Journal and The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel from 1985-2001, during which time he covered the Packers on a regular basis.