Green Bay Packers are romantic oddballs in the kingdom of capitalism
Super Bowl one game away for franchise that’s owned by own community
Andrew Quarless of the Green Bay Packers leaps into the crowd after scoring a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in the first quarter of the 2015 NFC Divisional Playoff game at Lambeau Field on January 11. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty Images
‘How can you not be romantic about baseball?” asks Brad Pitt in Moneyball and for all of the well-documented ills in American football – the brain injuries, the mounting lawsuits, the inherent violence, the gun culture, the murders, the Thug Life predilections of too many of its feted athletes and the inexcusable frequency of advertising breaks – you can always ask the same question of the Green Bay Packers whenever they are on the brink of something special.
In American sport, the owner is king and they can sell or move their franchises from city to city as they see fit, which is why Green Bay is such a wonderful and distinctly un-American example of how professional sports can flourish in a way that benefits the local community.
The Packers have no owner or, rather, have 364,000 of them, all ordinary people who expect no share benefit, no free tickets or nothing tangible for their investment in the team except the security of knowing that they are helping to preserve the entity that has made a small Wisconsin city famous. In terms of Wall Street values, Green Bay Packers shares are the dumbest in the history of capitalism. Yet fans can’t get enough of them.
Like so many football teams in the nascent years of the gridiron game, the Packers almost foundered before they came to dominate the game and in 1923, gripped by desperation or genius, the owners decided to sell shares to the community rather than off-load the team.
In the original document drafted it was laid out that any profits arising from the sale of the team should go the American Legion and the building of a soldier’s memorial. Funds were raised to keep the Green Bay’s football team alive and they won a first NFL title in 1929 before dominating the recession-ridden 1930s and then enjoying a supreme period of success under Vince Lombardi in the high-flying 1960s.
Shareholder purchases are limited to 200,000 so there can never be a majority holder and the shareholders elect the board of directors and the executive committee. Their ticket prices are amongst the lowest in the league.
Lambeau field is not dominated by gawdy advertising hoardings: the stadium is like stepping back into the mid 1900s. Volunteers work the food and drink stands at Lambeau Field, where the prices are cheap and a good chunk of profits are redirected to charities. Home games have been sold out for decades and the waiting list for tickets is 86,000 strong. Only five share offerings have been up for grabs, the most recent being in 2011.
They are not quite a socialist utopia because the stars and coaches earn salaries comparable to the other elite teams but the Green Bay Packers are, nonetheless, the rarest thing in professional sport and a downright curiosity in America: a non-for-profit, publicly owned and fully solvent sports organisation. Their survival is a stubborn, on-going and, it seems, unbreakable miracle.
Indefatigable underdogPerhaps it all would have fallen apart if Green Bay hadn’t achieved the 13 championships that enabled them to cock a finger at the major cities and label itself “Titletown” while somehow retaining the image of being the indefatigable underdog.
Every big sports team has its mythological figures and dates. Green Bay was fortunate to have Earl Lambeau as a founding father, one of a seemingly endless range of handsome, energetic figures who through ambition and force of personality shaped America in the 20th century. The city was lucky to secure the services of Lombardi after the 1959 season and the Packers’ worst ever season record (1-10-1) when the future viability of the team was in doubt. Lombardi was 46 years old and not particularly sought-after when he went to Green Bay but it was a match made in heaven: the Brooklynite son of Italian immigrants turned out to be a football savant. Deeply religious, taciturn, hot-tempered, progressive and individualist, it was in Green Bay that he dreamed up the wisdoms and one-liners that are still quoted by aspiring managers in all of sports today.
They even made the most of the miserable weather, facing down the Dallas Cowboys on New Year’s Eve 1967 in -15 degrees for a game that became known as the Ice Bowl and was remembered for the visual starkness of the scene. And, of course, because the Packers won.
Even the Packers on-field folk heroes seem fated to end up on the last stop of Interstate 43. Prior to arriving at Green Bay, Brett Favre’s NFL record was comically unpromising: four passes, two interceptions, no completions. It was impossible to pay even fleeting attention to the NFL in the 90s and 00s without being aware of the combustible force of energy that was Brett Favre in his Green Bay Packer years.
Earned his stripesIf Favre’s surrendering of his quarterback role to Aaron Rodgers was reluctant, to say the least, it was surely because he didn’t want to believe that he couldn’t keep playing with Green Bay forever. And Rodgers earned his stripes the hard way, regarded as too small to flourish in the big league and passed over by 23 teams in the 2005 draft before Green Bay selected him and backed him to become one of the most prized quarterbacks in the NFL.
This weekend, the Green Bay carnival arrives in Seattle for a place in this year’s Super Bowl against either the New England Patriots or the Indianapolis Colts.
Whether they make it there or not, the Packers’ continuing good health is vital in an era when so many sports clubs are subject to the whims and debts of their owners. The guardians of the NFL were careful to introduce a clause in the 1970s prohibiting “charitable organisations and/or corporations not organised for profit” from owning a franchise, an article commonly known as the Green Bay rule. It effectively meant that Packers are an anomaly in an aggressively profit-driven business. The shareholders changed the original charter to invest profits in charities rather than the original soldier’s memorial in the 1970s.
And so to Seattle, a city where many sports fans are still pining after the Supersonics, NBA champions in 1979, but dismantled and moved to Oklahoma (where they franchise was reinvented as the Thunder) after the new owners failed to attract public funding for a new arena in 2008. The city of Seattle was given $45 million in compensation but was left without a basketball team. It is just as well that the Seahawks are doing well.
But sports teams can just disappear from cities. The Green Bay Packers won’t. Not with owners like they have.