The Green Bay Packers: where fans rather than a billionaire are the owners

JJust days after the first home game of the season for the Jacksonville Jaguars, team president Mark Lamping β€” who has long asked the city of Jacksonville to use taxpayer money to partially finance a $2 billion stadium renovation β€” suggested that the team could move if the city doesn’t pony up the dough. In doing so, Lamping joins an established tradition among American professional sports teams. According to ESPNSince the early 1990s, more than half of NFL franchises have β€œexpressed interest in moving to Los Angeles β€” or at least trying to use the opportunity as leverage for new stadiums or renovations.” (That’s just Los Angeles; some franchises have threatened or even moved to other cities.) The threats can be effective: A recent poll showed that 46% of Jacksonville residents would support giving $1 billion in public money for the renovation if it was the only way to keep the Jaguars in town; That’s up from just 6% who pledged support if they weren’t told about the threat of relocation.

Despite some notable recent moves, most teams stay put after getting what they want: Cities usually capitulate and spend hundreds of millions of public dollars to finance renovations or build new stadiums. An example is my hometown of Minneapolis, next threats to move the Vikings to, you guessed it, Los Angeles. The team next received nearly $500 million in public funding to build a new stadium.

It’s easy to see why cities want to retain professional sports teams: Gamedays are in many ways a platonic ideal of street life. The packed trains, the steady stream of fans walking into stadiums in an impromptu parade, the cheers of encouragement from strangers and the smell of charcoal smoke wafting in from a nearby car park – these are scenes that academics and football skeptics alike must reluctantly hang their hats on .

But government-subsidized stadiums are almost always a difficult proposition for cities. Last year, in a questionnaire from 130 studies over a 30-year period, economists John C. Bradbury, Dennis Coates, and Brad Humphreys reported that subsidizing professional sports facilities has little to no positive benefit to local economies. The jobs they offer are low-paid and part-time, and the money ‘generated’ by each game is largely just a reallocation of money already tied up in the local economy. Sports economist Michael Leeds discovered this that sports in Chicago – a city with a large number of Major League franchises – represented less than 1% of the city’s economy. Some studies have shown that some of these rarely occupied stadiums are parasites, actually driving down wages.

Many argue that cold, hard economics alone cannot quantify the warmth and camaraderie that a stadium, at its best, can bring. Point taken: Sports teams bring great joy to their fans. But there are ways to build a sports world that doesn’t involve funneling vast sums of taxpayer money to billionaire owners who hold all the cards. There is even one team that may have figured out how to have and keep their stadium. That team is the Green Bay Packers – and it’s all thanks to their status as the only major non-profit, public professional sports team in the US.

Instead of one wealthy owner who won’t hesitate to leave if the city doesn’t pay, the Packers are owned by more than 500,000 community shareholders β€” none of whom can own more than about 4% of the team’s stock. Unlike shareholders of other companies, Packers owners cannot sell or cash out their shares. And unlike other teams, which generate unexpected profits for the team owners, all Packers profits are invested back into the organization. Often, these funds go toward stadium updates, giving the team a kind of opt-in public financing model that has repeatedly paid for the Packers’ community-oriented projects β€” even if they aren’t likely to yield huge financial returns. This structure has allowed the team and the city to build a football mecca that, if left solely to the high-rolling sports market, would not survive business in a small city like Green Bay, which has only a little over 100,000 residents .

The story of the Packers, who were founded in 1919 but nearly bankrupted by 1923, ended almost as soon as it began. But instead of folding, the team’s owners gave the community a chance to get involved. They organized the Green Bay Football Corporation, which allowed fans to buy shares in the team. Since then, the Packers have opened their stock to the public six times – often to renovate their stadium, Lambeau Field.

The model hasn’t completely ended requests for public funding: After the 1997 stock offering, Green Bay’s Brown County voted to supplement Packers financing for a major renovation of aging Lambeau Field with a 0.5% sales tax – a controversial proposal adopted by the government. narrow margin of 53% to 47% and ended in 2015. (Fans I spoke to say those who ultimately didn’t work on the project are few and far between.) But other expensive ventures, including an additional 6,700 seats in the south end zonean atrium renewal and development of the 35-acre β€œTitletown” area – which includes housing, parks, concert facilities, hotels and restaurants near the stadium – were paid for by the Packers organization without asking for public money .

The Packers are a big part of the local community. Photo: Tork Mason/USA Today Sports

As of the last equity offering in 2021 – which funded new 4K video boards and other stadium improvements – the team has 537,460 owners. The owners I spoke with included those who had bought shares after a lifetime of fandom, given them for their First Communion, or bought them as a gift for their grandfather. Many I spoke with do not even attend annual shareholder meetings or vote in the election of the board that oversees the organization’s major financial decisions; some were not even given exclusive ownership cheesehead merchandise. Most were just happy to hang their shareholder certificates on their walls, showing that – for less than the average price of a single NFL ticket – they had become proud members of the Packers’ voluntary funding base.

Shareholders have helped make Lambeau Field – which is open to everyone 363 days a year – a community resource. Residents I spoke to, including some self-described football critics, take prom and wedding photos in the atrium. They go to concerts and movies in Titletown, play with their children in the neighborhood park and ice rink, or take them to the stadium to watch European soccer teams, such as Manchester City and Bayern Munich at preseason games. Their mothers staff the concession stands, most of which are run by volunteers from local nonprofits as fundraisers. They visit the stadium’s museum, work as security at home games or serve on the snow shovel brigade.

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Shareholder Matt Brunmeier, 36, says fans of other football teams have made it difficult for him to buy shares that don’t provide him with a direct financial benefit.

β€œPeople feel like they have to tell you you can’t trade it, it has no market value,” he says. But, he says, for him it’s an investment in a team he loves. β€œIt’s a pretty unique way to be able to participate in the fandom of a team,” he says.

Like many shareholders, he sees his stock purchase as a commitment to an ownership model that removes the influence of business owners over cities. β€œIt’s great that they’re funding that burden with people who are clearly willing to put their own money directly into it, rather than raising taxes on the state or the city,” he says.

So why aren’t other teams following Green Bay’s lead? Under current NFL policy, they can’t. In 1960, then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle wrote into the league’s constitution β€” in a section known as the “Green Bay Rule” β€” that future teams must are organized as for-profit entities. In 1980, the NFL decided that no team – with the exception of the grandfathered Packers – could have more than 32 owners, and that at least one owner had to own a minimum 30% stake. Federal lawmakers have backed down since the 1990s, occasionally introducing bills that require owners to give local residents the opportunity to purchase a team before moving it, and prohibit any professional sports league from having rules that limit the possibility of public ownership. But the Give Fans a Chance Act never made progress. Meanwhile, ownership restrictions are becoming increasingly strict: Today, NFL teams are allowed to have no more than 25 owners.

This football season, challenging the NFL’s ownership rules is probably the last thing on most fans’ minds. But Green Bay residents have seen the benefit of the community ownership model β€” one that could help keep sports in American cities without the economic toll on residents. Like any other NFL team, the Packers’ reason for existence is to serve the interests of their owners. But unlike every other NFL team, those owners are the fans themselves.