GREEN BAY — There may still be fans in attendance at a Green Bay Packers home game at Lambeau Field this season, but it won’t happen until at least November — if at all.
The team announced Thursday evening it has decided to prohibit fans from attending its first two home games — Week 2 for a noon start against the Detroit Lions on Sept. 20 and Week 4 for a “Monday Night Football” matchup with the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 5 — because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Lambeau Field will not be the same without our fans’ energetic support in the stands,” Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy said in a statement released by the club. “Given the extraordinary circumstances this year and the additional protocols in place, though, we determined it was best to take incremental steps to start the regular season. These two games will allow us to focus our attention on safely conducting games inside the stadium with all necessary participants.
“We are hopeful that we will be able to host fans for games later in the season, should conditions allow. We will continue to consult with community healthcare and public health officials on the pandemic conditions in our area. We ask our fans to continue to help by wearing masks and maintaining social distancing guidelines.”
The Packers’ third home game is scheduled for noon on Nov. 1 against the Minnesota Vikings, and Murphy did not rule out the possibility of a limited number of fans in attendance. But he certainly made no guarantees.
Speaking last month in advance of the team’s annual shareholders meeting — an event that is normally a quasi-pep rally inside Lambeau Field but was held online instead — Murphy said the team was thinking 10,000 to 12,000 fans at games might be doable. But, he cautioned at the time, an empty Lambeau Field also was possible.
Four of the Packers’ first six games are on the road, starting with Sept. 13 regular-season opener against the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, followed by a Sept. 27 prime-time matchup against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Louisiana Superdome on “Sunday Night Football.” Following a bye week, they’ll be back on the road for back-to-back games at Tampa Bay on Oct. 18 and at Houston on Oct. 25.
Murphy acknowledged that given how much the league — and the Packers, as the NFL’s smallest market — rely on television revenue, the most important goal has always been to get the games played, even without fans, so they would be on TV.
“When you step back and you look at it, roughly two-thirds of our revenue comes from our broadcast television. As we look at it, the first priority is getting the games in and getting them on television. If we’re able to do that, then we’ll be able to cover our player costs, which obviously is our biggest cost,” Murphy said after the shareholders meeting.
“That’s why I think we’re going to be very cautious in terms of whether we’ll have fans in the stands. We talked about if we do, it’s going to be capacity probably a maximum of 12,000. Obviously, that’s a fairly small percentage of an 82,000-seat stadium.”
The team also announced all other public areas at Lambeau Field will be closed during home games, including parking lots and the Lambeau Field atrium, which houses the Packers Pro Shop, Packers Hall of Fame and 1919 Kitchen and Tap restaurant.
The Titletown district is expected to remain open to the public, the team said, but no team-run gameday activities will be planned. Other non-Packers businesses at Titletown may host activities on gameday.
Murphy also acknowledged the economic impact an empty stadium would have on other game-day businesses.
“There’s a lot at stake, and understand what Packer home games mean to the community, to local businesses,” Murphy said. “But this is unprecedented, unchartered waters for all of us. We wanted to make sure that we do things as safe as possible. The last thing we would want to contribute to some type of outbreak or super-spreader event.”
Aaron Rodgers, who is entering his 16th NFL season and 13th as the team’s starting quarterback, admitted earlier this week it’s hard for him to imagine what an empty Lambeau Field might feel like, even as he’s watched other sports play before empty stadiums and arenas in recent weeks.
“That seems really strange to think about. It would feel very different,” Rodgers said, joking the silence of the stadium might “mean more opportunities for some free plays, possibly” because of his expertise at at-the-line-of-scrimmage barking of the snap count to get defenders to jump offsides.
“I can say personally it will be very, very strange and sad to not see a full Lambeau every Sunday at home. That’s going to be a little bit weird.”
New starting right tackle Rick Wagner, a West Allis native and University of Wisconsin alum who grew up rooting for the Packers as a kid, said Thursday his first game at the historic stadium won’t be quite like he envisioned it when he signed as a free agent in early March.
“It’s definitely going to be different for everybody, not just me. I’m used to playing in full stadiums, along with everybody else,” Wagner said. “But, really, the fans aren’t a big deal (for the offense) once you get into the game. After the first play, it’s all football. Obviously, I would like all the fans there. That’s what makes Lambeau Field — the Green Bay Packer fans.”
Coach Matt LaFleur told reporters during a Zoom call he informed players their first on-field practice will be on Saturday, Aug. 15. For now, players can only do strength-and-conditioning workouts and walk-throughs, with in-pads practices permitted starting on Aug. 17, but based on LaFleur’s timeline, the Packers appear unlikely to don pads until after that. “We do have a schedule mapped out, (but) it’s going to be very, very fluid,” LaFleur said. “We’ve got to get a good feel for where our guys are at. … We’ve got to be very strategic and mindful of how we plan out our practices.” … LaFleur said he spoke at length with all of his assistant coaches about whether or not they wanted to coach this season amid COVID-19, and none of his staffers expressed a desire to sit out the season. “That’s something that we definitely talked to all of our staff members about, just making sure that they felt comfortable with the situation, with the protocols that we had in place,” LaFleur said. “I don’t think we had any reservations.” … The Packers did not have any players officially opt out of the 2020 season before Thursday afternoon’s deadline, so as of now it’s only wide receiver Devin Funchess who has chosen not to play this season because of COVID-19 concerns. Players are still able to opt out after the deadline and receive a stipend but must either have a severe family situation related to COVID-19 or be diagnosed with a high-risk condition himself.