As the whistle blew last Sunday in Chicago, the Green Bay Packers proved that their preseason hype wasn’t undeserved. With highlight-reel performances from players like Aaron Rodgers and B.J. Raji, the Packers were unstoppable. Every analyst in the sporting world recognized that. However, very few understood the true strength of the Green Bay Packers, a trait that can’t be seen on the field.
Unlike the 31 other professional football teams, or any other sports team for that matter, the Packers are not owned by some wealthy individual (or group of individuals) seeking a profit. Instead, they’re owned and managed by 111,968 devoted fans. In that lies their power.
The unique ownership model embraced by Green Bay harkens back to the early days of football in the United States, when the sport was still an amateur pastime. As time passed and the gradual professionalization of football occurred, what were previously community teams either folded or moved to larger cities as owners sought to increase profits. However, initial financial failure forced the Packers into community-ownership, and the team was able to stay in a town of a hundred thousand while others struggled in cities of millions. In the days since, the locally owned Packers have won more NFL championships than any other team and accumulated an unbelievable 40-year season ticket waiting list. Clearly, they’re on to something.
The fact that nearly the entire city of Green Bay owns a share of the Packers fundamentally ties the team to its city. Not only does this rule out the possibility of an angry owner moving the team in the dead of the night, but it also drastically alters the environment of every home game. As anyone who watched the Seattle Seahawks take on the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Wild Card round will tell you, home field advantage can’t be underestimated. In Green Bay, where many of the 70,000 screaming cheeseheads in the stands are shareholders, “advantage” is probably too weak of a word to describe the atmosphere visiting teams face at Lambeau Field. Sure, Chicago might have its superfans and Oakland might have “raider nation,” but when most fans have a direct stake in the team itself, it gives rise to unparalleled dedication and devotion.
Green Bay fans themselves vote on and serve as part of the board of directors, which appoints the pivotal managerial and coaching staff of the Packers. Unlike most other teams across the nation, when Packers fans are frustrated, they don’t have to suck it up. They have the ability to enact change through shareholder votes and air their grievances directly with Packer management. Many fans of lackluster professional teams, such as the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals or Washington Wizards, dream of having that capability.
Another remarkable thing about the Packers is that the team is a nonprofit enterprise. This is in direct contrast to virtually every other team in professional sports, which are geared toward earning the owner a profit (as anyone who’s been to a Yankees’ game will tell you). While some in the business community might see a nonprofit sports team as a negative company model, I view it as the ideal. As a nonprofit corporation, the Packers have no need to charge outrageous fees for tickets, merchandise or concessions (although these still remain expensive). Instead, the team can focus on football, which unfortunately often takes a backseat to making money in today’s sports industry.
Despite all this wishful thinking, it is not only unlikely but impossible for another NFL team to adopt Green Bay’s ownership structure. In the 1980s, the NFL revised its ownership policy, implementing a limit of 32 owners for each professional football team, with one owner possessing a share of 30 percent or greater.
What this means is that team owners will continue to possess vast power over their respective franchises. This has its pros and cons, as some owners are clearly better than others. For example, owners like Jed York of the San Francisco 49ers, who fired coach Mike Singletary in response to fan frustration, prefer to remain “in tune” with fans. On the other hand, owners like Peter Angelos of the Baltimore Orioles, who fired American League manager of the year Davey Johnson due to a personal dispute, have ignored the pleas of fans. Unfortunately, this also means that unwelcome moves, embodied most recently by the relocation of the Seattle Supersonics to Oklahoma City, will continue, and fans will simply have to endure the will of some not-so-great team owners.
While the current structure of professional sports doesn’t necessarily accommodate the expansion of Packer-esque ownership models, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. As nearly the entire city of Green Bay descends upon Dallas for Super Bowl XLV, it has the chance to prove that an old-fashioned, community-based team can not only survive but thrive in modern professional sports. Their only obstacle: Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers.