On the Green Bay Packers and public sports ownership

Packers ownershipJack Han, formerly of the Montreal Canadiens, now of Habs EOTP, wrote an interesting article yesterday on whether the Canadiens should allow their fans to vote on the team’s captaincy, or, on a larger scale, whether sports are trending towards a non-profit model.

It was only this summer that I found out that such a model was present anywhere, let alone  in the NFL – for a Bears fan, the idea that the Packers are innovative frustrates me to no end – but I spent several hours researching the idea, and was fascinated by what I found. For those that don’t know, allow me to summarize.

The Green Bay Packers are the only publicly owned North American professional sports franchise. That means that, similar to mass companies like Coca Cola, Apple, or Google, the public can buy stock in the team, and therefore literally own a piece of the club they love. Of course there are serious differences. Unlike with the companies I referenced, there are a quite limited number of stocks released only about five times per century, and the company pays out no dividends of any kind. That means that people can’t profit from these stocks. Their value is completely symbolic, except for the fact that fans can attend a once annual “owners’ meeting” at Lambeau Field, where they get to vote on organizational issues – although those are more in the range of “whether to invest in upgrades to the stadium” rather than “how much money to give quarterback Aaron Rodgers on an extension”.

The Packers are a non-profit; they invest any money they make back into the product. When they need more money, such as when stadium renovations are required, they sell more stocks. It’s basically a fool-proof model, after all, there will always be sports fans willing to invest in the team they support. And the system has serious advantages. It is written in the team’s bylaws that if it were ever sold, all of the profit from the sale would be donated to charity (read: it will never be sold). Ticket prices are below average despite constant sellouts. The team won’t move because it won’t be sold and because it makes money (the team recorded record profits last year). It truly is a dream scenario.

So why hasn’t it caught on? Simple. Public ownership is outlawed in just about every professional sports league, the NFL included. How do the Packers get away with it? They outdate the NFL. The Packers were grandfathered into the league as the only team that could be publicly owned. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that this system is the only reason they still exist as a franchise at all.

Consider this, Green Bay is a city – town? – of 300,000 people. That’s good for 262nd biggest in the United States. The next smallest with an NFL team is Buffalo, of 1.2 million people (good for 70th biggest). According to Forbes, the Packers are the 12th most valuable NFL franchise, and a number of studies have found them to be the average American’s second favorite team. With the gleam of warmer climates and massive populations beckoning, there’s no way the Packers would have survived under private ownership, let alone become one of NFL’s healthiest and most recognizable brands. Team, fans, and city all push in the same direction, because they’re literally the same people. And god knows we’ve been told enough times what teamwork can do in the sports industry.

So what does this all mean for the future of ownership? Well as I mentioned, it’s strictly outlawed for any franchise in North America to replicate the Packers’ approach – it’s any other private owner’s worst nightmare – but CBAs don’t last forever. What the Packers have accomplished – and soccer clubs across Europe have replicated – works, and just as we discussed with analytics earlier, things that work tend to catch on eventually. A league of publically-owned sports franchises would be a healthy and stable league, without much of the greed and arrogance that makes up professional sports today. It would certainly be a refreshing experiment.

So should the Canadiens allow their fans to vote for the next captain? Probably not. When you have private ownership, every marketing stunt tends to stink of a marketing stunt. The fans would select P.K. Subban, the Canadiens might not agree, and the narrative of Subban and the fans vs. management would just be further developed. It’s a nice thought, but like public ownership, it’s probably nothing but wishful thinking for the near future. As for the long term, we can always dream.

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