For almost all my life, even since childhood more than six decades ago, I have been an avid football fan. I grew up with my Dad taking me to Philadelphia Eagles home games as far back as when they used to play at Franklin Field on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. I haven’t been to any live games the last few years, and since I moved to New Jersey I follow the Giants and Jets as much as I continue to follow the Eagles. I am also a follower of the NFL and other sports franchises as well including major league baseball and the National Basketball Association. The business of professional sports teams does interest me, and to that extent I have always been concerned and frustrated as to how professional sports in the US is controlled and monopolized by just a handful of billionaire team owners, who almost always put profits ahead of the people and communities they profess to represent. These same team owners are demographically diverse as a convention of the Ku Klux Klan.
Over the last few years American professional sports teams, and especially National Football League franchises, have witnessed an obscene amount of increase in value, much greater than the cost of living, national income and gross domestic product. A handful of almost all white, all male team owners have appropriated the surplus value produced for their benefit at the expense of their workers, players (with a very few exceptions, mostly quarterbacks), their fanbase and local communities. Even more frustrating is the tendency of NFL owners to shop around for moving their franchise to the cities where they can get the best deal, including taxpayer giveaways, to maximize their profits and enhance their team’s value. The best example, most recently, is the move of the Raiders football franchise, an intergenerational family business, from an economically distressed, predominantly poor and black, small market community of Oakland, California, to the epitomy of predatory, American Capitalism, the ultimate marketplace for greed and avarice, known as Las Vegas. As if the billionaire Davis family wasn’t wealthy enough, they now need to increase their wealth by even more billions of dollars, by rejecting their fanbase of poor and mostly black people in favor of catering to a rich, white fanbase like themselves.
To make matters worse, so illustrative of the thirst for more and more profits and wealth to benefit a billionaire oligarchy in professional football, is the continuous and unstoppable expansion of commercial and economic exploitation of football fans. From advertising and promotional gimmicks, lucrative TV deals that benefit large markets, even selling multi-million dollar naming rights for stadiums to large corporations for promoting their brand image. There is a small amount of profit-sharing, but not for workers, fans and community, but rather between large market teams and small market teams. A perfectly typical example of trillionaire capitalists sharing a small amount of their wealth with small market billionaire owners.
As I grew older and more disillusioned with the predatory capitalist interests that control professional football in the United States, I noticed that one team, the Green Bay Packers, seemed to avoid the trend of gross exploitation of their community and its fanbase. The home of the Green Bay Packers, Lambeau Field, did not have its named changed for millions of dollars to corporate interests. I was curious about that, as well as the fact that Green Bay, a very small city in Wisconsin, does not have a large fanbase, even for a “small” market, to support an NFL team financially feasible as every other team in the League. In fact Green Bay is not only the smallest market team in the NFL, it has the lowest population and smallest metropolitan fanbase than any other professional sports team in North America.
Recently, I finally decided to do a little research. I was curious about ownership of the Green Bay Packers, and reasons why one of the oldest and most respected franchises in all of professional sports did not seem to participate in maximizing financial profitability as every other NFL team. What I discovered really had me shocked and amazed. The answer was very simple and could be summed up in two words; community ownership.
It is not by coincidence that the Green Bay Packers are a community asset. They are not only one of the oldest franchises, but also widely respected and admired teams, with a very loyal fanbase throughout North America. Fans of the Packers are described as “cheeseheads” (Wisconsin is known for its various brands of cheese) who represent probably the most loyal fanbase among North American sports teams.
One of the oldest professional sports franchises in North America, the Green Bay Packers were organized 1923 in the State of Wisconsin as a community-owned, nonprofit corporation. Although the team has issued 5 million shares to 537,000 public, shareholders, there is no shareholder in possession of more than 200,000 shares. The shareholders do not have an equity interest, and they do not receive profits, capital distributions or dividends. The only rights to shareholders is to vote for a Board of Trustees and officers, compensation and other benefits, and management decisions requiring shareholder approval. The team cannot be sold without shareholder approval, and any funds received as sale proceeds are to be deposited into a charitable trust, the Green Bay Packers Foundation, to benefit the Green Bay community.
As a result of the nonprofit corporate structure the Green Bay Packers have invested their surplus revenue into the community through the Green Bay Packers Foundation, instead of distributing surplus revenue as “profits” to private capitalist investors. The last few decades the Green Bay Packers Foundation donated millions of dollars to charitable groups and organizations. In a controversial move they even donated to Planned Parenthood for which they got many complaints from the usual suspects, especially reactionary conservatives and other misogynistic bigots.
For more than a century the Green Bay Packers have been an exemplary source of stability, solidarity and responsibility to their community. Unlike all the other NFL franchises that depend on profits for owners and investors, the Packers have a symbiotic relationship with their community and fanbase, a mutual respect and consideration that comes with community ownership. Unlike other teams which routinely sell-out to corporate interests for naming rights and other capitalist schemes, taxpayer subsidies and constant threats of moving to more lucrative and profitable big market cities. the Green Bay Packers are a source of community pride and mutual respect which puts people interests, specifically fans, ahead of greed and avarice for more and bigger profits. That is why the Packers have refused naming rights for their stadium worth millions of dollars and won’t sell-out to corporate interests as every other franchise in the NFL has done. Instead their stadium continues to be named “Lambeau Field” in memory of their founder and first manager, “Curly” Lambeau.
As the Green Bay Packers are the only major professional sports franchise in North America which features community ownership, there are other examples of community or fan ownership in other countries and international markets. Generally, these sports teams are organized as nonprofit “clubs” where club members and/or fans own the team. Throughout the world professional sports is a trillion dollar industry, and progressive activists who want to democratize professional sports need to take a more pro-active role in their communities to ensure that professional sports becomes more accountable to their fans and respective communities, rather than serve the interests of private team owners and investors seeking to maximize their bank accounts at the expense of players, fans and the general public.
Perhaps the most appropriate comment originates from a Green Bay Packers shareholder who expressed the hope that community ownership in the NFL would become as common as it is in fan-owned European football clubs such as FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. He referred to the original Cleveland Browns owner, predatory capitalist Art Modell, who screwed the city of Cleveland and its fans when he moved the team to Baltimore which was a more lucrative, profitable big market community. A few years later the Cleveland Browns franchise was awarded to another Capitalist owner, Jimmy Haslam, who extorted millions of dollars worth of tax subsidies and payments from Cleveland’s taxpayers. As it was observed, it would have been cheaper and more beneficial to the community in the long term if taxpayer money was used instead to organize a community-owned team that would have put the interests of Cleveland residents and fans ahead of the quest for predatory profits:
“Could the community in Cleveland have re-formed the Browns without Jimmy Haslam? . . . That would have been an even better story. It helps create an identity and a community rooting for a common goal with people you might not know. How great would it be if the community supports it instead of through tax subsidies?”
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