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where fans rather than a billionaire are the owners

Photograph: Morry Gash/AP

Just days after the Jacksonville Jaguars’ first home game of the season, team president Mark Lamping – who has long been asking the City of Jacksonville to use taxpayer money to part-fund a $2bn stadium renovation – suggested that the team may move if the city doesn’t pony up the dough. In doing so, Lamping joins a well-established tradition among US pro sports teams. According to ESPN, since the early 1990s more than half of NFL franchises have shown “interest in moving to Los Angeles – or at least trying to use the possibility as leverage for new stadiums or renovations.” (That’s just Los Angeles; some franchises have threatened, or actually moved, to other cities.) The threats can be effective: A recent poll showed that 46% of Jacksonville residents would support giving $1bn of public money for the renovation if it was the only way to keep the Jaguars in the city; that’s up from a mere 6% who pledged their support if they weren’t told about the threat of relocation.

Despite some notable recent relocations, most teams stay put after getting what they want: Cities usually capitulate, forking over hundreds of millions of public dollars to fund renovations or build new stadiums. One example is my home city of Minneapolis, after threats to move the Vikings to, you guessed it, Los Angeles. The team subsequently got nearly $500m in public funding to build a new stadium.

Related: The Bills are getting a $1.4bn stadium, but taxpayers will pick up the tab

It’s easy to see why cities want to keep pro sports teams: Gamedays are, in many ways, a platonic ideal of street life. The packed trains, the steady stream of fans strolling into stadiums in an impromptu parade, the encouraging whoops of strangers and smell of charcoal smoke wafting in from a nearby parking lot – these are scenes to which academics and football skeptics must begrudgingly tip their hats.

But publicly subsidized stadiums are almost always a raw deal for cities. Last year, in a survey of 130 studies spanning 30 years, the economists John C Bradbury, Dennis Coates and Brad Humphreys reported that subsidizing professional sports facilities has little to no positive benefit to local economies. The jobs they offer are low-wage and part-time, and the money “generated” by every game is largely just a rejiggering of money already tied up in the local economy. Sports economist Michael Leeds found that sports in Chicago – a city with a host of major league franchises – accounted for less than 1% of the city’s economy. Some studies have shown that some of these infrequently occupied stadiums are parasites, actually depressing wages.

Many argue that cold, hard economics alone can’t quantify the warmth and camaraderie that a stadium, at its best, can bring. Point taken: sports teams bring great joy to their fans. But there are ways to build a sporting scene that don’t funnel enormous sums of taxpayer money to billionaire owners who hold all the cards. In fact, there is one team that may have figured out how to have their stadium and keep it, too. That team is the Green Bay Packers – and it’s all thanks to their status as the US’s only major nonprofit, publicly owned professional sports team.

Instead of a sole wealthy owner who won’t hesitate to leave if the city doesn’t pay up, the Packers are owned by more than 500,000 community shareholders – none of whom can own more than about 4% of the team’s stock. Unlike shareholders of other corporations, Packers owners can’t sell or cash in their shares. And unlike other teams, which generate windfall profits for the team owners, all Packers profits are invested back into the organization. Often these funds go toward stadium updates, giving the team a sort of opt-in public funding model that has repeatedly paid for the Packers’ community-oriented projects – even if they aren’t likely to yield a huge financial return. This structure has enabled the team and city to build a football mecca that, were it left solely to the high-rolling sports market, would have no business surviving in a small city like Green Bay, which has a population only a little over 100,000.

The story of the Packers, who formed in 1919 but were nearly bankrupt by 1923, almost ended as soon as it began. But rather than folding, the owners of the team gave the community a chance to get involved. They organized the Green Bay Football Corporation, which allowed fans to buy shares in the team. Since then, the Packers have opened up their stock to the public six times – often so they can renovate their stadium, Lambeau Field.

The model hasn’t totally ended requests for public funding: After the 1997 stock offering, Green Bay’s Brown county voted to complement Packers’ funding of a major overhaul of aging Lambeau Field with a 0.5% sales tax – a controversial proposal that passed by the slim margin of 53% to 47% and ended in 2015. (Fans I spoke with say those who didn’t ultimately come around to the project are few and far between.) But other expensive undertakings, including an extra 6,700 seats in the south end zone, an atrium revamp, and the development of the 35-acre “Titletown” area – which includes housing, parks, concert facilities, hotels and restaurants near the stadium – were paid for by the Packers organization without asking for public money.

The Packers are a huge part of the local community

The Packers are a huge part of the local community. Photograph: Tork Mason/USA Today Sports

As of the last stock offering in 2021 – which helped fund new 4K video boards and other stadium improvements – the team has 537,460 owners. Owners I spoke with included those who had bought shares after a lifetime of fandom, were gifted them for their first communion, or purchased them as a present for their grandpa. Many I spoke with don’t even attend the annual shareholder meetings or vote in the election of the board that oversees the organization’s major financial decisions; some didn’t even get the owner-exclusive cheesehead merch. Most were just happy to display their shareholder certificates on their walls, showing that – for less than the average cost of a single NFL ticket – they had become proud members of the Packers’ voluntary funding base.

Shareholders have helped make Lambeau Field – which is open to anyone 363 days a year – a community resource. Residents I spoke with, including some self-proclaimed football critics, take prom and wedding photos in the atrium. They go to concerts and movies in Titletown, play with their kids in the district’s park and ice skating rink, or bring them to the stadium to watch European soccer teams like Manchester City and Bayern Munich in preseason games. Their moms staff the concession stands, most of which are run by volunteers from local nonprofits as fundraisers. They visit the stadium’s museum, work security for home games or serve on the snow shoveling brigade.

Shareholder Matt Brunmeier, 36, says fans of other football teams have given him a hard time for buying stock that won’t bring him a direct financial benefit.

“People feel like they need to inform you that you can’t trade it, it has no market value,” he says. But, he says, to him it’s an investment in a team that he loves. “It’s a pretty unique way to be able to participate in the fanship of a team,” he says.

Like many shareholders, he sees his stock purchase as a commitment to an ownership model that removes corporate owners’ leverage over cities. “It’s awesome that they fund that burden with people who are obviously willing to put their own money directly towards it, instead of levying taxes against the state or the city,” he says.

So, why don’t other teams follow Green Bay’s lead? Well, according to current NFL policy, they can’t. In 1960, then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle wrote into the league’s constitution – in a section known as the “Green Bay Rule” – that future teams must be organized as for-profit entities. In 1980, the NFL decided that no team – with the exception of the grandfathered-in Packers – could have more than 32 owners, and that at least one owner must hold a minimum 30% share. Federal lawmakers have pushed back since the 1990s, occasionally introducing a bill that would require owners to give local residents the option to buy a team before moving them, and prohibit any professional sports league from having rules in place that limit the possibility of public ownership. But the Give Fans a Chance Act has never made headway. Meanwhile, ownership restrictions keep tightening: today, NFL teams can have no more than 25 owners.

This football season, challenging NFL ownership rules is probably the last thing on most fans’ minds. But Green Bay residents have seen the benefit of the community ownership model – a model that could help keep sports in American cities, without the economic toll on residents. Like every other NFL team, the Packers’ raison d’être is to serve their owners’ best interests. But unlike every other NFL team, those owners are the fans themselves.

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