The Green Bay Rule

I admit I’m glad the Packers beat the Steelers on Sunday. I think my support of the Browns make me dislike anything related to the Steelers by default (even if I have to live in Northwest PA). But Owen, aka the Ochlophobist, posted a link to an interesting article which makes me even happier that the Packers won (from here):

Those Non-Profit Packers

In a season where N.F.L. owners have steadily threatened to lock out the players next year unless they secure more profits in the next collective bargaining agreement, it’s poetic justice to see the Green Bay Packers, the team without an owner, make the Super Bowl. Actually, it’s not quite accurate to say the Packers are without an owner. They have a hundred and twelve thousand of them. The Packers are owned by the fans, making them the only publicly owned, not-for-profit, major professional team in the United States. The Pack have been a fan-owned operation since the primitive pro football days of the nineteen-twenties, when N.F.L. teams could be won in card games and no one foresaw the awesome power this sport would hold over both the American imagination and the American wallet.

In 1923, the Packers were just another hardscrabble team on the brink of bankruptcy. Rather than fold they decided to sell shares to the community, with fans each throwing down a couple of dollars to keep the team afloat. That humble frozen seed has since blossomed into a situation wherein more than a hundred thousand stockholders own more than four million shares of a perennial playoff contender. Those holding Packers stock are limited to no more than two hundred thousand shares, keeping any individual from gaining control over the club. Shareholders receive no dividend check and no free tickets to Lambeau Field. They don’t even get a foam cheesehead. All they get is a piece of paper that says they are part-owners of the Green Bay Packers. They don’t even get a green and gold frame for display purposes.

The shareholders elect a board of directors and a seven-member executive committee to stand in at N.F.L. owners meetings. But football decisions are made by General Manager Ted Thompson, perhaps the luckiest and happiest G.M. in sports. This structure allows Thompson to execute decisions, even unpopular ones, without an impatient, jittery billionaire breathing down his neck. Since his hire in January 2005, Thompson has made his share of controversial moves. But unlike his G.M. brethren around the league, who carry little or no job security, Thompson has been given the space to see his moves succeed or fail on their own accord. It was Thompson who decided to jettison legendary quarterback Brett Favre in 2008 for the unproven but younger and considerably lower maintenance Aaron Rodgers. Today, Favre is officially (we hope) retired and Rodgers stands at the pinnacle of his sport.

The Packers’ unique setup has created a relationship between team and community unlike any in the N.F.L. Wisconsin fans get to enjoy the team with the confidence that their owner won’t threaten to move to Los Angeles unless the team gets a new mega-dome. Volunteers work concessions, with sixty per cent of the proceeds going to local charities. Even the beer is cheaper than at a typical N.F.L. stadium. Not only has home field been sold out for two decades, but during snowstorms, the team routinely puts out calls for volunteers to help shovel and is never disappointed by the response. It doesn’t matter how beloved the Cowboys are in Dallas; if Jerry Jones ever put out a call for free labor, he’d be laughed out of town.

Here are the Packers: financially solvent, competitive, and deeply connected to the hundred thousand person city of Green Bay. It’s a beautiful story but it’s one that the N.F.L. and Commissioner Roger Goodell take great pains both to hide and make sure no other locality replicates. It’s actually written in the N.F.L. bylaws that no team can be a non-profit, community owned entity. The late N.F.L. commissioner Pete Rozelle had it written into the league’s constitution in 1960. Article V, Section 4—otherwise known as the Green Bay Rule—states that “charitable organizations and/or corporations not organized for profit and not now a member of the league may not hold membership in the National Football League.”

I talked with Rick Chernick, a member of the Packers board of directors, about whether other communities should challenge the N.F.L. constitution and be like Green Bay. Chernick expressed doubt, saying:

I’m just not sure in today’s day and age a team could follow the Packer way. The cost of ownership is a ton today, thus being almost an impossible task without deep pockets. Green Bay is truly a special, special situation.

Chernick makes a valid point. But there is a strong counterargument as well. It may be exorbitantly expensive to run a team, but people don’t buy N.F.L. teams as a civic service. Being an N.F.L. owner is like having a license to print money. Television contracts alone run in the billions, with the 2006-2011 contracts valued at approximately $3 billion annually, $800 million more than the previous contracts. In addition, N.F.L. teams have received $6 billion in public funds to build the current crop of stadiums. In other words, the public is already shouldering a great deal of the cost and debt for N.F.L. franchises. But these public dollars, through some sort of magic alchemy, morph into private profits that often flow away from the communities that ponied up the dough. In the United States, we socialize the debt of sports and privatize the profits. Green Bay stands as a living, breathing, and, for the owners, frightening example, that pro sports can aid our cities in tough economic times, not drain them of scarce public resources.

Fans in San Diego and Minnesota, in particular, where local N.F.L. owners are threatening to uproot the home teams and move them to Los Angeles, might look toward Green Bay and wonder whether they could do a better job than the men in the owner’s box. And if N.F.L. owners go ahead and lock the players out next season, more than a few long suffering fans might look at their long suffering franchises and ask, “Maybe we don’t need owners at all.” It has worked in Green Bay—all the way to the Super Bowl.

By Dave Zirin


3 thoughts on “The Green Bay Rule

  1. As a Cleveland boy and Browns diehard living 40 miles from Pittsburgh, I have had my share of pain. Especially when he-who-shall-not-be-named moved the team to Baltimore, leaving us Browns-less, and then–who could believe it–the Ravens become champs. The Green Bay model of ownership would be ideal for Cleveland, too. But the next closest thing is probably the Rooney’s who own the Steelers, but who have done so for decades and are a Pittsburgh community fixture and a truly class act.

    At least being a Browns fan teaches humility, patience and long-suffering. But does that lesson (at least in football) really have to last a lifetime? I am 60, and the last time the Browns were champs I was 13. Come on, Browns, I’m running out of time!

  2. Father, you know how much of a die hard Steeler fan I am but something inside of me knew the win wasn’t going to be with the Steelers. I never liked the Packers due to the fact I am also a Bears fan but over these past two weeks prior to the big game, learned more about the team, players and of course, their Pittsburgh born coach and this feeling of respect started creeping up inside me. They are a class act team! You could see the respect that the players had for each other and there was no trash talk before the game. This game, I believe, was one of the best Super Bowls and the team that wanted it more and deserved the win….got the win. I can’t tell my brothers, but I think that Green Bay has moved into the 2nd spot – they may disown me. I feel bad for all of you Browns fans……always latching on to whatever team plays the Steelers in hopes of some sort of thrill in winning, even though it is not a true win. Most of the time the Steelers get the win and the feeling of loss is with you all again… but enjoy this feeling because we will triumph again and remember STEELERS ARE THE AFC CHAMPS……my congratulations go out to all Packer fans, especially the folks in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

  3. I would just like the official internet record to reflect that as a cradle-Bears fan and convert-Steelers fan, I can’t imagine ever rooting for those cheese-heads! Father is alone in our house on this one.

    I didn’t even read the rest of the article. LOL

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