• Sumo

By Ken Reed

Dave Zirin had a good piece this week about Bernie Sanders visiting the Los Angeles Dodgers spring training home and reflecting on the pain it caused him and millions of other Dodger fans in Brooklyn when Walter O’Malley chased the money in California and left a loyal diehard fanbase in New York.

“It was a disaster,” said Sanders.

“Walter O’Malley, his name remains in infamy. It really was a very deep thing. Because when you’re a kid and the name of the team is called the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Brooklyn Dodgers, you assume that it belongs to the people of Los Angeles or Brooklyn. The idea that it was a private company who somebody could pick up and move away and break the hearts of millions of people was literally something we did not understand. So it was really a devastating moment. I remember it with great sadness.”

Without mentioning it directly, Sanders comments point to the need for a community ownership model in professional sports, a model like that of the Green Bay Packers, in which the fans own the team. Due to the ownership structure, the Packers are never leaving Green Bay, no matter how small the market might be.

Here’s an excerpt from my book How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan on the community ownership model:

The best town in pro sports is also the smallest: Green Bay, Wisconsin, home of the Packers. The Dallas Cowboys aren’t America’s team, the Green Bay Packers are.

The Packers are owned by the fans, not a wealthy owner/corporation operating with a profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) philosophy. The Green Bay Packers are a publicly-owned non-profit with a unique stock ownership structure.

The Packers issued stock to the public in 1923 in order to stay afloat as a franchise. Ownership pays no dividends and doesn’t provide any other perks (Most notably, there aren’t any game ticket privileges!). The Packers have conducted a few additional rounds of stock sales since 1923. Today, the franchise has 112,158 shareholders who own 4.7 million shares. Most shareholders live in the Green Bay area, or at least the state of Wisconsin, although there are no residency requirements. Nevertheless, all profits are invested back into the team.

Green Bay’s bylaws state that the Packers are “a community project, intended to promote community welfare.” What a refreshing concept.

“It makes them an example,” according to sports and culture writer Patrick Hruby. “A case study. A working model for a better way to organize and administer pro sports.”

The Green Bay model works.

“Green Bay is a dangerous example for [sports] owners,” contends Zirin. “Because the franchise proves the argument for public ownership in practice.”

Michael N. Danielson, in his book “Home Team: Professional Sports and the American Metropolis,” writes, “Professional team sports in the United States and Canada have always been rooted in places. Major league teams have fostered close identification with the urban areas where they played, and sports fans are primarily interested in the fortunes of their home team ….”

Due to the close identification a city’s fans have with their local teams and the prestige and civic self-esteem that pro sports franchises can sometimes bring a community, the stakes are high for cities when they play the “pro sports game.” Cities compete for the limited number of pro sports teams available. They fight to acquire sports franchises and make a concerted effort to protect the ones they currently have.

“Threats to relocate arouse public concern largely because of the emotional and symbolic connections between teams, places and people,” according to Danielson.

As a result, for the last half-century, pro sports’ wealthy owners have taken advantage of the economic and political advantages we’ve given them as a society, along with the loyalty and close identification fans have with pro sports franchises, to secure new sports palaces with little out-of-pocket expense on their part.

The clear answer to this situation is community ownership. However, pro sports owners recognized the threat that community ownership represented to their golden goose decades ago and have formally and informally taken steps against community ownership. In fact, Pete Rozelle changed the NFL constitution in 1960 to try and prevent another Green Bay Packers ownership situation. Article V, Section 4 of the NFL constitution, the “Green Bay Rule,” says 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.”

The NFL owners said no to community ownership because they can. They’re free to establish any policies they’d like. They’re a self-regulated monopoly; blessed by our government with great profits, while taking almost zero risk.

It’s a situation that should be changed by the politicians who represent sports fans across America.

For it was politicians, via antitrust exemptions and other owner-friendly legislation, who initially created the self-regulated monopoly (Read: cartel) pro sports leagues currently enjoy. The result is the ugly (and as Sanders expressed, sad) franchise blackmail and relocation environment we have today in pro sports.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans

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