As we prepare for the celebration of obscene profits, commercialism, and grandstanding so unfortunately displayed in increasing amounts at each Super Bowl, let us give thanks for an exception to the profit-driven madness: the Green Bay Packers.
You won't see some wealthy owner hosting famous football watchers in an ultra-luxury box for the Packers at the Super Bowl this year. That's because, of course, the Packers, unlike any other NFL team, are owned by individual stockholders. And they're not greedy investors who want the board of directors to make bad long-term business decisions in favor of higher dividends; the funders of the Packers include working people who proudly display framed certificates of partial ownership in their finished-off basements. Stockholders get no dividends, and would receive only what they put in if the team is dissolved. They're not even entitled to an advantage in the competition for season tickets. It's run as a non-profit—a word that is almost heresy in the Super Bowl world of fat endorsement contracts, expensive ad buys, high salaries for players and even higher profits for owners. Its bylaws state, “This association shall be a community project, intended to promote community welfare...its purposes shall be exclusively charitable.” [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]
Yet, despite the prevailing theory that an operation has to be profit-motivated to succeed, the Packers are successful. They've won three Super Bowls and are headed to a fourth. The games consistently sell out. And most importantly, the setup means that the team cannot be outsourced by some capricious owner with an eye on a bigger market and a glitzier stadium. Lambeau Field is owned by the city, and there is realistically no way that the rank-and-file ownership of the Packers will agree to a move—especially since the team is nonprofit. [The Year in Pictures: 2010.]
How much more enjoyable it would be if every NFL team—even every professional sports team—was run as a non-profit and with close ties to its own community. The Packers are loved by Green Bay, and the team gives back; since tickets to games are so hard to get, the Packers host a Family Night once a year, playing a scrimmage game and giving away their own jerseys (“Jerseys Off Our Backs”) to lucky fans. Green Bay has barely more than 100,000 residents; if the team were owned by someone with a strong profit motive, it's likely the Packers would have relocated long ago. Buffalonians live in constant fear of their team moving to Toronto, a bigger but far less enthusiastic and loyal football market than beleaguered Buffalo offers. A move would not only be psychologically devastating and economically damaging to the region, but it would deprive the league of the remaining romance it has left. Some people fantasize about scoring a big lottery win and retiring on a Caribbean Island. I daydream about winning the lottery, buying the Buffalo Bills, and taking the team public so it would never leave the city that has loved and supported the team, despite a series of tough seasons. [See photos from the White House state dinner with Hu Jintau.]
Whether they win or lose against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, the example of the Green Bay Packers is one the rest of the league should follow.