The Packers Have a Unique Way To Fund Stadium Improvements: Ask Fans for Money

The Green Bay Packers have won their last six meetings with the Chicago Bears and are looking like possible Super Bowl contenders. The Bears, meanwhile, look likely to miss the playoffs again. But that’s not the biggest difference between the teams. The Bears have been threatening to move to the suburbs unless the Chicago city government pays to upgrade their stadium. The Packers, despite playing in the National Football League’s smallest market, are asking their fans to fund their stadium improvements voluntarily.

NFL rules require most franchises to be owned by an individual or a small group of owners. The Packers have an exemption: The team has been owned by stockholders since 1923, when it sold shares of the organization to keep the team afloat and to keep it in Green Bay. To prevent owners from selling the team to move it to a larger market, these shares could only be sold back to the team at a fraction of the price.

The Packers held similar stock sales in 1935 and 1950 to financially stabilize the team, and in 1997 and 2011 to fund additions and redevelopment to their stadium. Another stock sale is ongoing now. The shares provide minimal benefits: an ownership certificate, an invite to the annual owners meeting, and trivial voting rights on the future of the franchise. Even so, the sales have been enormously popular, with the offerings raising $24 million in 1997, $64 million in 2011, and a projected $90 million this time around.

It’s common for sports teams’ billionaire owners to push cities into bidding wars for new taxpayer-funded stadiums. The Bears’ current threats are hardly the only example. The Raiders recently moved from Oakland to Las Vegas, where Clark County shelled out more than $645 million in bonds to fund a stadium. The project is going so predictably poorly that the county had to pull reserve funding multiple times to meet its bond payments. Another Packers rival, the Minnesota Vikings, secured hundreds of millions of dollars from both the state of Minnsota and the city of Minneapolis to fund ta new stadium. Minneapolis has had trouble holding up its side of the bargain, and it recently asked the state to pick up the tab for them.

The Packers’ fan-funded model is far preferable (even if Brown County voters once approved a sales tax to fund stadium improvements) and should be available to other franchises. The New Orleans Saints are a perfect example of a team that could benefit from this structure. Saints owner Gayle Benson has stipulated that when she passes away, she wants the proceeds of the sale of the team to go to charity and the team to be kept in New Orleans. Rather than find a traditional owner, why not let the fans purchase the team outright? Between the television broadcast rights and the league’s strict salary cap, all NFL teams are essentially ensured to operate at a profit. This model would basically guarantee the team will be kept in New Orleans and would make it easier for the team’s most dedicated fans to fund the team’s expenses voluntarily.

Back in Chicago, Alderman George Cardenas has introduced a plan for the city to buy the Bears and then sell the team to the fans. Needless to say, there are serious problems with the idea of the city government paying for the team, even if it owns it only temporarily. But at least they’re thinking about alternative models of team ownership and funding; maybe they’ll make it all the way to a market-based system. If Bears fans are borrowing ideas from the hated Packers, they must be ready for something new.

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