Type ‘Green’ into Google, and the first result that comes up is Green Bay Packers. World champions an NFL-record 13 times, including four Super Bowls, the Packers are one of the most successful teams in the history of the sport known as America’s Game.
They are also the only non-profit, community-owned professional sports team in the whole of the United States. “We are really unique in many ways. There are 141 professional sports teams in North America at the major league level, and then hundreds of teams at the minor league level, but we are the only one owned by the fans and run by a board”, says Packers Vice President of Sales and Marketing Tim Connolly.
“I always tell people – your grandparents bought tickets, your parents bought tickets, and now it’s your turn. And your children will do the same when it’s their turn…it’s a tribute to the people in this town.”
Whilst the vast majority of NFL franchises are based in America’s great cities, the Packers were founded and remain rooted in the Green Bay community, which today has a population of approximately 105,000. Founded in 1919 by Earl ‘Curly’ Lambeau (after whom the Packers’ stadium is named) and George Whitney Calhoun, the original Articles of Incorporation stated that the franchise could never be sold for profit, and that the sole beneficiary of any sale would be the local American Legion post (in 1997, shareholders voted to change this to the Green Bay Packers Foundation). It is these Articles, and the thousands of individual shareholders, that make the Packers such a unique phenomenon in the multi-billion dollar world of American sport.
Five times during the history of the franchise, new shares have been made available in order to raise finance for specific projects. Connolly describes the most recent offering, which began in December 2011 and lasted until February 29th 2012: “More than 250,000 people sent us $250 each to put in new scoreboards, a new sound system and add 7,000 new seats. We’re closing the south end horseshoe that had been open, and when we’re done, Lambeau Field will be the fourth largest stadium in the league, in a town of 105,000.”
Shareholders have the right to vote in elections that select the Packers Board of Directors, but no dividends are ever paid, and to safeguard the club as a democratic community asset, no one person can hold more than 200,000 shares. This stands in contrast to the other 31 NFL franchises, which under league rules must have no more than 32 owners, with one of those 32 and their families having to hold at least 30%.
If this reminds you of the Community Shares schemes launched by the likes of FC United and Wrexham FC, it’s because the principles underpinning both practices are the same. “People ask me all the time – what makes Green Bay different? And I say, one thing. Every fan wants their team to win, every team I’ve ever worked for, whether that’s the Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings or Kansas City Chiefs, all their fans want to win. But in Green Bay, the fans not only want the team to win, but also want the team to prosper and succeed financially, because they never want to lose the team.” That desire to keep the team rooted in its local community has led to some of the NFL’s most fervent support – the Packers website states: “Lambeau Field has been sold out on a season ticket basis since 1960 and we’ve been accumulating names on our legendary season ticket waiting list ever since.” According to Connolly, that list currently has more than 100,000 names – “We had a 99.8% renewal rate last year…we win together, we lose together.”
Of course, the ownership structure is only one part of the equation that makes the Packers such a successful institution, in terms of financial and social value; something that Connolly was quick to highlight. “Of course we get a lot of help from the league’s revenue sharing structure, and the fact that we have a hard salary cap. So there’s no going out and paying $25 million for a Brazilian striker!”
“We share the common revenue and put a cap on what everyone can spend. You could be Manchester United and have a billion dollars in the bank but your payroll can’t be more than $200 million, for example.” The process that led to the NFL’s current structure involved many hours of negotiation, but the benefits are beyond dispute. Collective, centralised distribution of revenue means the league is arguably the most competitive in the world, with franchises bound by the salary cap, the draft system and scheduling programme – both of which are based on the previous year’s standings.
The result is parity rarely if ever seen on this side of the Atlantic, with only four current teams still without a Super Bowl appearance at some point in their history. Connolly cites this governance structure as the key factor in the success of the Packers: “Somebody at this league was smart enough to say that the strength of the league is only as good as the weakest member…there would be no Green Bay Packers if there weren’t central control over budgets.”
Like the Bundesliga in Germany, the NFL stands as proof positive that pursuit of financial success by sporting competitions does not have to supersede the need for sustainability amongst their members. Both aims can be achieved through consensus and proactive regulation. The Green Bay Packers show that under such a system, community ownership is not only a possibility; it is a viable, flourishing alternative. To find out more about the Packers, visit their website.