GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Tailgaters began arriving at 7:30 a.m., a good 30 minutes before the gates opened.
That's nothing new for Lambeau Field, of course. The Packers' faithful always show up early on Game Day, filling the open spaces between cars in the parking lot with their tables and chairs and grills for the brats.
It is a ritual that has played itself out for decades on fall and winter Sundays, except that this was a blazing hot Thursday in July. The Packers hadn't even begun training camp practices, and there wasn't a football in sight.
The occasion was a rarity in the NFL and, for that matter, professional sports. It was the Packers' annual shareholders meeting -- a chance for thousands of people, mostly average fans who have purchased stock in the team, to listen as club officials brief them on all aspects of the franchise's operation. They got to hear about finances, brand development, long-term plans for the stadium and the land the Packers have acquired in the surrounding neighborhood ... and, yes, even about football.
They are unlike any owners you'll ever see among the league's 32 teams. These are regular folks, decked out in what they consider their Sunday best -- Packer T-shirts, jerseys, caps, and even some yellow foam cheese-wedge headgear.
Instead of receiving checks, these shareholders write them. And they're happy to do so for the honor of saying they have a piece of one of the most legendary franchises of them all.
"We feel like we own it, and we do, really," said Rita Oudenhoven, a shareholder and season-ticket holder from nearby De Pere. "You don't get anything out of it other than the certificate we got, but we do get a lot of (non-cash) dividends."
Rita and her husband, Jim, had their usual Game Day tailgate setup, with a sign bearing their last name and the year they bought their Packer season tickets (1961) hanging above a circular table behind their car.
Besides the ability to put the proof of ownership in a frame and hang it in a prominent place, another benefit of being a shareholder is the exclusive access for him or her and a guest to the meeting. That is, as exclusive as being part of a crowd of about 8,300 can be.
This marked only the seventh time the meeting has been held in Lambeau. As a bonus, Roger Goodell was on hand -- making him the first NFL commissioner ever to attend the meeting -- to answer some questions shareholders submitted in advance and to participate in a fan forum later in the day.
About an hour before the meeting, fans watched the 2009 Packers highlight video on the giant screens above each end zone. Cheering began as Packers president and chief executive officer Mark Murphy emerged from a tunnel to lead a procession that included general manager Ted Thompson, members of the Packers' board of directors, and Goodell toward a stage in the middle of the field. A female in the stands noted that all of the men in the group were wearing dark suits and with no trace of the team colors, green and gold.
"Looks like a funeral," she said, prompting those around her to laugh.
"I hope not," a man said.
It wasn't. After the national anthem was sung, the crowd, as is often the case at Lambeau, found plenty of reasons to cheer. The financial statement, which it had already made public, showed that the team was in good health and -- despite challenges from the economy and skyrocketing player costs -- should continue to thrive for a long time. One highlight: $127.5 million in the Packer Preservation Fund.
As Goodell said, "There's no doubt, make no mistake about this: The Green Bay Packers deserve to be in the National Football League and are an important part of the National Football League. And that's because of you."
Murphy and leaders of various committees from the board spoke about the potential uses of the land the Packers own around the stadium. Known as the "Titletown Development District," it offers the possibilities of new hotels and retail stores that would help enhance Green Bay's attractiveness as a travel destination, particularly in the midwest. It was projected the development could push visitors to the area from 2.6-2.8 million to 7.8 million annually.
Team officials also addressed the possibility of expanding stadium seating to help reduce the season-ticket waiting list.
Even the normally guarded Thompson gave what, for him, was a fairly optimistic outlook on the 2010 season. He spoke mostly in generalities, but in giving a rundown of the coaching and player-personnel staffs, returning players on both sides of the ball, and the draft, he did provide some solid reasons why the Packers should live up to mostly lofty preseason expectations. Among them were standout quarterback Aaron Rodgers, highly talented receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, and cornerback and 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson.
"I know there are a lot of expectations about this year," Thompson said. "When we were talking with some of the board members inside, there was a lot of excitement. There should be. This is a good team. I think we have a lot of confidence in ourselves. ... We do expect to win."
Thompson found himself getting caught up in the whole Packers experience, where fan loyalty covers many generations and has resulted in a long waiting list for season tickets and the extra-close connection with the club that goes with being a shareholder.
"It takes your breath away," Thompson said. "Just know this: That, we as a team, we as the Packers, and these young men that'll play for you, we don't run away from that. We embrace that history, we accept the challenge of the tradition that we try to follow. It's exceptional fan support and we can never, never take this for granted. We understand this is not something that's bequeathed to us; it's something we have to earn."
Looking around the stadium at thousands of people who rightfully call themselves "team owners," Murphy said, "There is nothing like this in the NFL."