On the morning of the 1965 NFL Championship Game, fans, players, and everyone else north of Madison, Wisconsin, woke up to what they thought was a light winter snowfall. By noon, three inches blanketed the tarpaulin over Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, making the warning of “severe weather conditions” sound criminally euphemistic. Some fans driving up from Milwaukee slid off the road at a bridge near the unfortunately named town of Butte des Morts (“Mound of the Dead,” in French). Tens of thousands of feet above Green Bay, a charter plane carrying Wisconsin Gov. Warren P. Knowles was forced to return to Madison, where he would eventually watch the game on television.
Meanwhile, as David Maraniss writes in When Pride Still Mattered, his biography of Vince Lombardi, “the Browns were staying in a hotel in Appleton and it took their bus nearly two hours to reach the stadium from 30 miles away.” In a sport that requires extraordinary concentration, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the delays getting to the stadium and the lack of warm-up time may have hindered the Browns that day. The Packers won the game handily, 23-12, in what would be the first of three consecutive championships. Cleveland’s star running back Jim Brown, who was held to a mere 50 rushing yards, retired following the loss at the age of 29. Though the last game he played was at Lambeau in Green Bay, the last hotel he stayed in as an NFL player was in Appleton.
Appleton is a sleepy town roughly three-quarters the size of Green Bay and nearly 30 miles southwest of Lambeau Field on I-41. In May, the site 24/7 Wall St. named it the “drunkest city in America.” More than two dozen bars line each side of College Avenue in downtown Appleton. Interrupting the rows of bars is a skybridge that belongs to the Radisson Paper Valley, a hotel with 388 rooms and 38,000 square feet of event space. In recent months, the Paper Valley, as it’s known in town, has hosted an awards ceremony for a marathon, a concert series, and a Women’s Fund luncheon. But it’s best-known as the preferred host of NFL teams when they come to Wisconsin to play the Packers. This year, and nearly every year since the early 1990s, all eight of the Packers’ regular-season opponents will stay there, starting with the Detroit Lions this weekend.
This is the most peculiar hotel situation in the NFL. While there are numerous fine hotels within spitting distance of Lambeau, teams choose to stay a ways away at what is not exactly a luxury establishment. “A 30-minute drive from the hotel to the stadium is pretty commonplace in other NFL cities,” Aaron Popkey, the Packers’ director of public affairs and former travel manager, told me, and, in places like Dallas or San Francisco teams frequently stay more than 30 minutes away from the stadium.* But according to Rich Ryman, the Packers business reporter for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, it’s the only situation where a visiting NFL team stays in a different city—not just a suburb or adjacent metropolitan area—from the home team.
Several weeks ago, I dropped in on the hotel’s general manager. Jay Schumerth looks like a stockier Chuck Pagano, goatee included. He’s worked at the hotel since 1986, well before teams started staying there. Back then, he recalls, the hotel didn’t amount to much. Built in 1982, the Paper Valley had just 200 rooms, a ballroom, and a conference room. It was more than adequate for Appleton, but nowhere near the specifications required by a major professional sports franchise. The Minnesota Vikings became the first team to stay there, he recalls, in the late 1980s. As its footballing clientele grew, so too did the hotel. By 1993, when the building inaugurated its so-called west wing—a 96-room section of rooms and meeting space, secluded from the rest of the hotel’s occupants—road teams stayed in the Paper Valley almost exclusively.
The Paper Valley is not luxurious, unique, or sophisticated. It does have one standout feature: Vince Lombardi’s Steakhouse, which looks like a more upscale version of Applebee’s, Packers paraphernalia borrowed from the Lombardi estate covering the walls like papier-mâche. But in the rest of the hotel, the décor is low-key. The cream-colored walls sometimes have distressed patches, though it’s difficult to tell which are intentional and which are not. Rustic lighting fixtures sprout from the walls every dozen or so steps, their design a more deliberate attempt to tap into weathered chic. A cinnamon scent courses through the building; follow your nose, and it seems to emanate from one of the restrooms.
“We’re not as sexy as those hotels,” Schumerth told me, referring to the Ritz-Carlton, the Four Seasons, and other high-end resting places where teams stay. To get the Vikings and Lions and Bears to keep coming back, he says, he needs to provide the best customer service in the NFL. “One of the things I preach to my staff is, we don’t take anything for granted,” Schumerth says. “Most of the guys will say, ‘This is our easiest trip of the year. We don’t have to worry about anything, we just show up. You guys do things before we even have to ask. You guys ask questions that nobody else asks.’ ”
I asked him to give an example. Imagine if a player has a stalker, he volunteered—we’d ask about that beforehand and have the appropriate security measures in place. It was a subject, I gathered, about which he had more than passing knowledge. “Hey, so-and-so always shows up on these road trips. It drives us crazy. … This guy or girl always shows up and asks for him in every city we go to,” he said, briefly impersonating one of the travel managers he works with on a regular basis. “If you’ve never hosted a team, you wouldn’t think of those things.”
In 2009, the Paper Valley won the NFL Travel Managers’ MVP—“Most Valuable Property”—Award. Schumerth was equal parts proud and confounded by the recognition. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know the award existed,” he told me, shrugging his shoulders. Back in his office, he shuffled toward one of the bookshelves, returning with a block of glass partially cut in the shape of a prism. A large NFL logo graced one plane, and the award inscription was below it, citing the Paper Valley for “outstanding service to the NFL.”
Despite its award-winning status, rumors swirled three years ago that the Paper Valley might lose its hegemony on hosting visiting teams. A real estate developer had begun sketching plans to renovate the historic Hotel Northland in downtown Green Bay. “We think it’d be great to have the visiting teams stay downtown again,” Greg Flisram, the city’s then economic development director said at the time. “We’d love to see it happen.”
Built in 1923, the Hotel Northland quickly became a Green Bay icon. A product of the Roaring Twenties, the high-end hotel, plush with restaurants and bars, hosted weddings, charity events, and touring politicians. When the NFL Championship Game was held in Green Bay—in 1961, 1965, and 1967—the Northland became the league headquarters. Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner, delivered the State of the League press conferences from one of its ballrooms.
As late as the 1970s, the Northland still attracted the Wisconsin elite and, on weekends, hosted the teams that played the Packers. Visiting teams, a former hotel staffer named Victoria Parmentier recalled, checked in on Saturday afternoons. Bob Safford, the hotel owner, would do the rounds on Saturday evenings with the team owner, the team doctor, and, sometimes the head coach, opening player rooms with his master key to make sure everyone was tucked in by the 11 p.m. curfew.
The players checked out early Sunday morning and, at midday, the hotel cleaning staff quickly turned over around 50 rooms. Hours later, hundreds of fans would swoop into the hotel to check in for their one-night stays. Parmentier showed me Standard Diary notebooks spanning from 1971 to 1978, the year before the hotel closed. “Vikings Meetings. Set each one theater style. 30 people. Movie screen and projection tables, extension cords and blackboard w/ chalk” read one reservation. “New York Giants. 8 a.m. Mass. Use English and Italian [rooms] for meetings after pregame meal” read another. As the years passed, the room reservations became more laconic. “Pompeiian: Bears.” “Colonial: Tampa.”
Green Bay’s downtown, like that of many American cities, began a sad, slow decline in the late 1970s. The Hotel Northland became the Port Plaza Inn and, by 1980, had reopened as a low-income housing complex, which it would remain until 2013. Throughout the 1980s, road teams scrambled to find accommodations in Green Bay, staying at hotels across the city: Howard Johnson, Ramada, Downtowner (today, a Best Western), Holiday Inn. Then, at the end of the decade, the Vikings made the move to the Paper Valley.
Fast-forward three decades, and today’s NFL franchises still set curfew for 11 p.m. and still sometimes hold mass in hotel conference rooms. But gone are the days when a team would need just 50 rooms, one meeting room, and a small ballroom. Today, Schumerth explains, teams require six to seven meeting rooms, 10,000 square feet of open space, and between 160-180 rooms—and this despite the fact that most players, save stars like Aaron Rodgers, still sleep two to a room.
NFL beat reporters and hotel-industry people suggested to me that the Paper Valley is the only hotel in the area with the requisite room count and meeting space to host a modern professional football team. But that’s not entirely true. The Tundra Lodge, a mile away from Lambeau, could fit a team snugly in its 162 rooms and 18,000 square feet of event space. (Occupying the entire hotel might also make security easier to manage.) Another Radisson, less than five miles from Lambeau Field, more than meets the requirements with its 353 rooms and 30,000 square feet of meeting space. (The Packers regularly stay at this hotel the night before a game.) But the most natural pairing for teams might be the Hyatt Regency, which is less than four miles from Lambeau. Its layout—241 rooms, one 25,000 square foot ballroom, two smaller ballrooms, and seven large meeting rooms—and upscale character would blend in nicely with the other hotels on any team’s travel schedule. Yet since the mid-1990s, upwards of 95 percent of teams, ESPN Packers beat reporter Rob Demovsky told me, stay in the Paper Valley.
Why isn’t Green Bay the place to be for visiting NFL teams? The NFL is a different league than it was in the 1980s. As pro football grew in popularity, the financial gap between fans and players grew, and front offices became more protective of their most valuable assets. Security details got bigger and teams wanted to be a bit more secluded. The Paper Valley offered the perfect give and take: Teams would sacrifice the perks (and price) of boutique downtown hotels for assurances of security and privacy. As one reporter summarized it for me, “the players are not fans of the hotel, but the teams are.” In other cities, teams sometimes find seclusion in the suburbs or near the airport—though they mostly choose to stay as close to the stadium as possible. Generally, they don’t skimp on expensive hotels. But when they fly to northern Wisconsin, they do.
The Green Bay hotels don’t want to host road teams either—it’s much more profitable to host visiting fans. According to a 2010 economic impact report on the potential expansion of Lambeau Field, each Packers home game generates $12 million in revenue for the city. A staggering 87 percent of fans, the report noted, come from out of town to see the game, many of them traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles. On game-day weekends, the city inflates by many tens of thousands of people. Hotels take advantage of the captive audience, hiking their prices to two or three times their regular rates and requiring a two-night minimum stays. In addition to paying upwards of $300 for decent tickets, according to the latest prices on SeatGeek for this weekend’s game against the Lions, fans will also spend at least $600 on a hotel room.
Visiting teams, on the other hand, still want the sweetener of bulk rates. And this despite the astronomical budgets of today’s NFL franchises. When the Packers stay at the JW Marriott in Chicago, one reporter told me, the team pays a discounted rate of $150 per night for rooms that would normally go for $350 or more. All teams demand those kinds of rates wherever they go, including at the Paper Valley. Schumerth is happy to offer those rates to opposing teams because, being in Appleton, he wouldn’t be able to fill the Paper Valley during an NFL weekend without the visiting team.
The new season, for Schumerth and his staff, begins in February. Once the NFL year is over, he reserves just less than half of the hotel for all 17 weekends of the following season, sometimes sacrificing the ability to host conferences, weddings, and other events. By the end of that month, he and his staff have tabulated all of the costs—the only exception being the room rate—for each of the eight visiting teams and spoken to all of their travel managers. Their only bit of help: Schumerth and other hotel managers are allowed to peek at the schedule a few hours before it’s released to the public and sworn to secrecy about its contents.
Given that it’s more lucrative, for both the city of Green Bay and its hotels, to keep the visiting teams out of town, the early rhetoric surrounding the renovation of the Hotel Northland seems misplaced. Most people I spoke to found it difficult to imagine visiting teams returning to the Packers’ home town. The Paper Valley “has created a nice operation for visiting teams,” Popkey, the former Packers travel manager, told me. The idea that teams will return to town taps into the nostalgia still felt by those who grew up with the football team a half-century ago. “It was fun for people in the ‘50s and ‘60s to go down to the Northland and drink beer on a Saturday night and run into players and be able to talk to them and listen to their stories. It was open access. There was still this beer-and-pretzels atmosphere surrounding the NFL. But that just wouldn’t happen today,” Cliff Christl, the Packers’ team historian, told me. “Now they’re pretty much sequestered in their hotels.”
*Correction, Sept. 23, 2016: This story originally and incorrectly stated that Aaron Popkey is the Packers’ travel manager. He is the team’s director of public affairs and former travel manager. (Return.)