Spreading the Cheese

by by David Adler

illustration by by Robert Sandler

With Christina Aguilera holding the final note of the National Anthem for over 10 seconds, it was easy to forget who exactly was competing in this year’s Super Bowl. However, Green Bay’s appearance on the big stage is pretty shocking when you look at the numbers:

Price of 30-second advertising spot: $3,000,000

Number of viewers in Super Bowl XLV: 106,500,000

Population of Green Bay: 102,313

In the most lucrative national event of the year, the team that has thrust itself into the spotlight belongs to a city whose biggest claim to fame (after its football team) is the free Wi-Fi available in its downtown Broadway district. Green Bay is remarkable for its microscopic economy not because it stands alone as the only NFL team of its kind—cities like Baltimore and Detroit are paradigms of shrinking urban industry and commerce—but because Green Bay has never in its history been the bustling metropolis that either of those others were in the past. Green Bay, Wisconsin has the 286th biggest population of any American city, in a state with the 21st biggest economy. And in a league with a wallet practically as big as the city of Green Bay, one has to wonder how the Packers have survived.
The success of Green Bay’s storied franchise certainly has something to do with the Cheeseheads of America, the rabid fan base that encompasses much of the Midwest. Lambeau Field, the Packers stadium, has sold out every game since 1960. What’s more, with 78,000 names on the waiting list for season tickets in Green Bay, it would take longer than the span of one lifetime to reach the top. Most season ticket-holding elders make sure to state clearly in their wills that their seats be passed on safely to a privileged successor. Green Bay is so dedicated to its team that the city’s seal features not only the green and yellow logo of the team, but has “Titletown, USA” written across the bottom, a reference to the old nickname for Green Bay and its many NFL championships. The unbridled enthusiasm that these fans maintain is truly a testament to the greatness of the franchise, but in the NFL, where teams are bought, sold, and traded by ruthless, unflinching businessmen, the fans only count for so much.
The real reason the Green Bay Packers have remained in Wisconsin is because the NFL legally can’t rip the team away from it, not for lack of effort. Fans in Green Bay, unlike those of any other team in the league, enjoy not only territorial claim over their Packers, but economic claim as well: stock in the Green Bay Packers is distributed among a community of over 110,000 fans, a system of public ownership that ensures continued residence of the Packers in their Green Bay home. This unique formulation provides an economic haven from the profit-seeking executives of a league that has long sought to put its biggest teams on the biggest stage in the biggest cities. The non-profit ownership of the Packers has provided fans and players alike with a sense of commitment that in turn drives Green Bay’s success as a franchise.

The history of the non-profit Packers began in 1923, when the 4-year-old team faced economic hardship that brought them to the brink of bankruptcy. Earl “Curly” Lambeau, the team’s founder, struggling to support the finances of his team, decided as a last resort to open its shares to the public. The Green Bay community, seeking to save their beloved franchise, saddled up: each member contributed a few dollars to keep the Packers alive. In the following years, backed by the support of their fans, the Packers became a force in the American Professional Football Association, the league that would ultimately become the NFL. The Packers won NFL titles in 1929, 1930, and 1931, while setting a record with 30 consecutive home wins that still stands today.
However, community ownership does not mean that these fans are getting rich off of their athletes, nor does it mean the fans are the ones making the decisions on behalf of the Packers. Stockholders, both then and now, are not entitled to special privileges as fans: they do not collect dividends or pick up free tickets, nor are they even provided complimentary parking at games.
Nonetheless, community ownership has allowed the voice of the fans to permeate the entire Packers’ organization. Stockholders have the opportunity to elect their 45-person Board of Directors, which oversees the majority of the football operations. And the president—who sits in for the team at ownership meetings—is the only member of the Board of Directors that is actually paid for his services.
This democratization of sports management cannot be found anywhere else in major league sports. When Green Bay opened up stock sales to help pay for the new Lambeau Field, the franchise raised over $24 million, spreading stockownership to a grand total of 112,015 fans. “In a world where money is increasingly consolidated in the hands of a few, the Green Bay community has managed to spread the wealth and cling tightly to its team even as the city of Green Bay, WI continues to drift further into the periphery of American commerce.”

At times, the stormy waves of this sea have splashed up against Green Bay: in 1960, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle tried to put an end to community ownership once and for all, declaring in Article V, Section 4 of the NFL’s constitution that “organizations not for profit” may not have ownership of an NFL team. Green Bay, however, made its case for maintaining community ownership, pointing to its 40-year history. The NFL finally agreed to allow the Packers to continue their operations. When their style of ownership again proved unsatisfying for the commercial interests of the NFL, the league decided to write over its ownership rules to require further consolidation of stock: only 32 people can hold stock of an NFL team, and among them, one owner must keep at least 30% of the stock to himself. Again, Green Bay rallied successfully for its grandfather clause, much to the dismay of the league. For the NFL, keeping the team in Green Bay means losing out on media markets that could rake in millions of dollars; a team in Los Angeles, for example, with the hype of celebrity and glamour, would bring a renewed attention to the league that would lead to more lucrative contracts with television stations, the NFL’s biggest source of income. With recent threats mounting for a lockout next season—where players seeking larger salaries face a stalemate in negotiations with owners that may prevent the season from going forward—community ownership has never been more relevant to the NFL than it is right now.
But beyond sports, the case of Green Bay serves as a microcosm for the larger conflict in this nation between community ownership and privatization. As Republicans rail against Obamacare for “spreading the health,” as Glenn Beck so affectionately puts it, many Americans find themselves uncomfortable with the idea of enforced distribution of health care to the masses. However, give any sports fan the choice between private ownership and the chance to own a piece of his team and he wouldn’t hesitate to accept the public option. Health care and football are undoubtedly different, but community ownership in Green Bay, in giving the underdeveloped American city a chance to survive in a league of commercial giants, makes a compelling case against the private sector. And in continuing to take a stand against the commercialization of sports, Green Bay has demonstrated that a team can unite a community and provide a stable foundation for local unity and pride in an economy where jobs, education, and everything else seem to be in free fall.
At the close of Super Bowl XLV, hoisting the trophy over his head to the chant of “Go, Pack, Go,” MVP Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said it best: “The [Vince] Lombardi Trophy is coming back to Titletown,” he smiled, back to “the best fans in the league.” Looks like Green Bay is here to stay.

DAVID ADLER B’14 only watches for the commercials.