In the past months, the National Football League (NFL) has been the focus of popular anger from its fans. First, the Rams successfully petitioned to move from St. Louis to Los Angeles. The San Diego Chargers followed suit by relocating to Los Angeles too. Most recently, the Oakland Raiders decided that they will be heading to Las Vegas.
In each case, the billionaire owners of the respective franchises held their fan bases hostage by demanding either significant renovations to their home arenas or the construction of brand-new stadiums with taxpayers covering much of the bill. If the local communities and state would not socialize the cost of billionaires’ private wealth development, then they risked having their team ripped away and sent to another city willing to provide such benefits to the owner.
Similar threats abound in the sports world and are nothing new. This is largely standard operating procedure for most professional sports owners who are eager to generate revenue that comes from having a shiny new arena. But people opposed to this behavior may find a solution with one of the NFL’s own teams, the Green Bay Packers.
The Packers are located in one of the smallest markets in professional sports—Green Bay, Wisconsin. The team struggled economically during its first few seasons. By 1923, the franchise was about bankrupt. The way the team chose to handle this problem was unique, and has not been seen in pro sports since. Instead of selling the Packers to a new investor and uprooting the team to a new municipal base, the owners instead decided to allow local fans to buy ownership shares to keep the team financially solvent. As such, this established the stockholders of the franchise as the collective owners of the team. The Green Bay Packers were the first (and currently only) non-profit, community-owned professional sports team in the United States.
Rather than make demands on the local municipality to spend millions of public dollars on refurbishments to their home stadium, Lambeau Field, the Packers sell ownership stock in the team to finance the costs. Fans and supporters of the Green Bay team are the ones who voluntarily fund these ventures.
Owning stock shares provides no dividends, no equity and provides no privileges to get much sought-after game tickets. Shareholders are afforded the ability to vote for the board of directors and attend the annual meeting. Yet the most recent offering from December 2012 to the end of February 2013 to fund fixes to Lambeau Field saw over 250,000 shares sold at $250 per share. Fans are eager to be a part of this collectively owned franchise.
While many sports team owners consistently levy the threat of relocation to get more money, that is impossible with the Pack. The bylaws prevent any one person from owning such a significant amount of shares. Even if the local fans eventually decided that they wanted to sell the team to a private entity, any greedy motives would not bear fruit. The Articles of Incorporation for the Green Bay Football Corporation explicitly state that if the Packers ever moved out of Green Bay, any profits generated would be given to the Green Bay Packers Foundation solely for charitable purposes in the area. So there is no financial incentive to move the team.
Few fans gripe about the cost of concessions at the games, because they’re aware that 60% of the proceeds are funneled back into funding local charities and charitable causes. Volunteers and organizations are allowed to fundraise by working the concession stands on the Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays when the Packers play at home on the “frozen tundra” of Lambeau. Instead of fattening the pockets of a ridiculously wealthy owner, significant amounts of money are going towards helping the community and making Green Bay a better place for its residents.
While the NFL passed rules in the 1980s that eliminate this kind of ownership, and the ever-increasing valuations of franchises make this a significant challenge, the model of the Packers provides a framework for what sports fans and political activists should clamor for: supporters of the team funding the construction, fixes and refurbishments of their arena. No more conservative, right-wing reactionary owners using fans’ money to bankroll all sorts of noxious political causes. The fans may not become the most successful owners, but they’d never threaten to uproot the team or demand public financing of their private wealth development. After seeing the recent spate of teams leaving host cities or the horror shows of the McCourts’ owning the LA Dodgers, Donald Sterling’s tenure with the NBA’s LA Clippers, Dan Gilbert of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Dan Snyder of the NFL’s Washington football team—can the fans really be any worse? The Packers aren’t just a football team. They’re a model for how we can do sports better for cities, communities and athletics.
— Full disclosure: I am an owner of a share of Packers ownership stock after their 2013 stock sale.