The Great Divide

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers surveys the playing field. (Photo courtesy of Evan Siegle/Green Bay Packers)

A number of years ago while waiting in line at a Houghton fast food restaurant, my eye was drawn to several colorful professional sports banners hanging from the ceiling. On display was a red and blue banner for the Detroit Pistons, one of navy blue and orange for the Detroit Tigers, and a red and white banner for the Detroit Red Wings. But, there was no Honolulu blue and silver banner for the Detroit Lions. Instead was a green and gold Packers banner. I understood the display of the Packers banner in this location halfway up Keweenaw Peninsula, but it seemed inconsistent in the presence of three Detroit team banners.

During the course of my life, I have traveled the Upper Peninsula from Ironwood in the west to Drummond Island at the U.P.’s most easterly tip. As I stopped at restaurants and pubs in nearly every city and town above the Mackinac Bridge, I found more frequent displays of Packers paraphernalia in the western counties of the U.P., while I saw more Lion’s regalia in the eastern counties.

Obvious, you might say; the western U.P. is closer to Green Bay, while the eastern U.P. is closer to Detroit. In fact, St. Ignace, in predominantly “Lions Country,” lies just at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge. The distance from Green Bay is 247 miles, while it is 296 miles from Detroit, so proximity is not the only factor affecting fans’ loyalty. And how, then, do we explain the western U.P.’s evident fondness for the Pistons, Tigers and Red Wings? The answers may lie in a combination of three factors: geography, history and authority or, what we might term, outside influence.

A Lions wide receiver is tackled by the Packers’ defense. The U.P. has a long-standing geographical divide when it comes to which team to root for. (Photo courtesy of Evan Siegle/Green Bay Packers)

Those of us who reside west of Munising on the north shore of the U.P. or Manistique on the south shore, take for granted that every Michigander knows the U.P. is geographically attached to Wisconsin. There is a long congenial border between Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula, and it seems to have been just so friendly ever since the federal government awarded this huge, beautiful, rugged tract of land to Michigan as compensation for the state agreeing to turn over an 8-mile-wide swath of land across the bottom of the Lower Peninsula to Ohio. The state of Wisconsin, in that year of 1839, had not been geographically defined because it was still part of the larger Northwest Territories, so few future Badgers griped that the feds were swiping part of their state to give to Michigan.

Much of northern Wisconsin has therefore been within one day’s traveling distance for those living in the western and central U.P. since the late 1930s when automobiles and decent roads became more common in the U.P.

“When I was a youngster, my family traveled to Wisconsin several times a year, but I had never been to the Lower Peninsula until I was an adult,” recalled Ron Kauppila, a1954 Negaunee High School graduate.

Little wonder that a fondness developed in the hearts and minds of those living in the central and western U.P. for the nearest big city, Green Bay. Who would have wanted to venture downstate by car ferry prior to 1957 when “The Bridge” was opened?

Half of the people reading this will probably be excited to see the Lions having to start a drive inside their own 5-yard line; The other half will not. Such is life when it comes to NFL fandom in the U.P. (Photo courtesy of Evan Siegle/Green Bay Packers)

Geographically, the eastern half of the U.P. presents a much different map. Both the northern and southern boundaries of the eastern U.P. are defined by water: the Great Lakes of Superior, Michigan and Huron. Even at the extreme eastern end of the U.P. there is the water of the Saint Mary’s River, and across that river, not just a different state, but a different country, Canada. For a brief part of our nation’s history, that didn’t matter to the residents of greater Sault Ste. Marie, since it was all considered one city. But during the War of 1812 it became important, unfortunately, to distinguish between Sault Americans and Sault Canadians because Canada was still part of the British Empire, and that is who the United States was at war with. So a boundary was drawn down the length of the St. Mary’s River.

Now we have a Sault, Ontario, and a Sault, Michigan. Even though the two cities are linked by a bridge and a history, there is relatively little cross border traffic compared to that of the long Wisconsin-U.P. border. Linda Hoath of the Sault Ste. Marie Visitors and Convention Bureau believes that restrictions imposed after 9/11, and a poor monetary exchange rate for Canadians, dampened their desire to cross the International Bridge.

Far south of the Sault, at the outlet of the St. Mary’s River, and in the northern reaches of Lake Huron, lies Drummond Island, Michigan’s most easterly point. Once again, only a river separates Drummond Island from Ontario, Canada, but according to tourism representatives there, most of their visitors, consumer products and communications media come from cities in Lower Michigan. So, for these two cities in the eastern regions of the U.P., the major outside influences on their economies, their civic and their social life predominantly originate in Lower Michigan, where the Packers are not held in particularly high esteem.

Other historical events and social customs seem to have influenced the following of professional sports in the U.P. Some of these influences may be traced back several generations. When those in their 70s and 80s today are asked whether they recalled their fathers or uncles having an interest in any professional sports teams, almost to a person they said, “No, my father was too busy earning a living for the family.” Not surprising when the typical work week until the 1950s was six days. Some remembered their fathers hunting or fishing for recreation, but this “recreation” importantly, also supplemented the family’s food.

Just in time for the vaunted Lombardi era of Packers football, broadcast television reached the U.P., and one does not have to be too many decades old to remember when only two or three TV stations could be received in the western and central U.P. When the patrons of Bushy’s Packers Bar in Negaunee were interviewed recently about the Packer/Lion divide, Lori Hayes of Negaunee said, “When I was a kid, we only got two TV stations, one from Marquette and one from Green Bay, so we always watched the Packers.” The sad fate of the Lions for the past 50 years has not lured young fans away from the Packers fold either.

A credible authority on the influence of electronic media from Lions country is Travis Freeman, station manager at WNBY-AM radio in Newberry. According to Freeman, the rationale and geography of the Packer/Lion divide is mostly a function of the TV DMA, or Dominant Market Area. In other words, TV stations carry games they believe most people in their area want to see. The DMA is designated by media authorities for entire counties. Therefore, if the management of a TV station believes the majority of their viewers want to see the Packers, they purchase their football feeds from a Green Bay network. If they believe most of their local fans would likely be Lions fans, they opt for Detroit network feeds. It just so happens the nearest TV network feed for Luce, Chippewa, and Mackinaw counties is Traverse City. Therefore we can say with some degree of confidence that the Packers/Lions divide occurs precisely at the western boundaries of Luce and Mackinac counties.

That is not to say there aren’t exceptions to the majority rule. Bula Hill of Negaunee, for instance, claims he was a solid Packers fan until the later part of Brett Favre’s Packer career. That’s when he says, “I got tired of Favre getting all the credit.”

“Now who do you watch and root for, Bula?”

“The Lions.”

So Lions fans, beware of your singular praise for quarterback Matthew Stafford.

As for the continued fan following throughout the U.P. for the Detroit Red Wings, Pistons, and especially the Tigers, historical evidence suggests fan loyalty was established in the 1930s with the improvement of radio signal broadcasts, and the corresponding increase in homes with radios. WDMJ, Marquette’s oldest local radio station, originated in 1931, and became a Tiger’s radio affiliate in 1934. The Tigers still have the most radio affiliates of any professional sports team in the U.P. with seven stations reaching into every U.P. county. The Detroit Red Wings have four radio affiliates spread across the U.P., and the Pistons have only one, in Houghton.

Both TV and radio affiliations will likely become less important in the future as cable and dish TV allow fans to watch their favorite teams, and live-stream internet connections will further affect both TV and radio access. Still, there will probably always be a connection to professional teams based on geographical proximity and political boundaries. If you live in the eastern U.P., your favorite professional teams will likely be Michigan teams, and if you live in the western or central U.P. your very favorite team will play in the U.P.’s unofficial capital, Green Bay.


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