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The Quinnipiac Chronicle

The Student News Site of Quinnipiac University

The Quinnipiac Chronicle

How restructuring the NFL would be a game changer for players and fans alike

Enthusiastic+Green+Bay+Packers+fans+decked+out+during+a+game+on+Dec.+28%2C+2014.
Mike Morbeck/Flickr
Enthusiastic Green Bay Packers fans decked out during a game on Dec. 28, 2014.

Nearly half of the U.S. population watches national-level sports at least once a month, with numbers ringing in at a whopping 161.1 million viewers forecasted for 2024, according to Statista. But I would bet that less than 2% understand the business behind them.

I’m not talking about draft picks, compensation or sports betting. I’m talking about ownership, and how a shift in the way each individual team is custodially organized could improve the U.S. league teams for players, fans and everyone in between. But simply because it means less money in the deep pockets of billionaires like Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones, it’s an option that’s often swept under the rug.

If you’re an NFL fan, you know who the Green Bay Packers are. If you’re not an NFL fan and you’ve seen the movie “Pitch Perfect 2,” you know who they are too.

They’re not bad on the field, not bad on the stage and excellent when it comes to ownership organization. The Packers are so good in fact, that every NFL team should take a page out of their book — the nonprofit page that is.

The Packers are the only NFL team in the league that is publicly owned by fans. They’re owned by Green Bay Inc., a nonprofit corporation, and the shares are held by numerous shareholders, many of whom are residents of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and fans of the team. The Packers are governed by a board of directors and a president elected by shareholders, instead of a family or individual who calls all the shots.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

There are several benefits to being a nonprofit-owned team in the league. For starters, the fans own the team, a cool concept that fosters a unique connection between the team and its community. Fans have a direct stake in the team’s success, also keeping the team rooted in Green Bay where it can continue to serve the interests of its fans.

As a nonprofit, the Packers prioritize the long-term success and sustainability of the team instead of generating profits for individual owners or corporations. This focus on financial stability allows the team to invest in its infrastructure, player development and community initiatives without the pressure to maximize short-term profits.

There are certain transparency and accountability requirements for nonprofit organizations as opposed to for-profit ones. Green Bay’s financial statements, governance structure and decision-making processes are more accessible to the public and regulatory authorities, which not only means fans and stakeholders have direct access to what’s going on with the team, but also that the Packers remain accountable for their choices.

Wouldn’t you like to know what your team is up to and what it’s spending money on?

Consumer preferences are changing, and companies and teams alike are observing a difference in the way individuals spend their money. With concerns ranging from climate change to political uprisings, people are careful about what they invest in and which causes they support. If all national league sports teams were as transparent as the Packers and arranged themselves on the nonprofit track, they may even generate more fans.

It’s not just the number of fans generated by the team, but the quality of those fans. These fans aren’t your average Bills Mafia who are slamming onto tables or Philadelphia Eagles fans who cheer when opposing players get injured on the turf. These are fans who are inclusive and so dedicated to their team that they follow the Packers across the country. They even have a website dedicated to Green Bay fans who are traveling and looking for good spots to eat. The cultivation of such a dedicated, yet respectful, group of fans stems from the ownership of the team being in those same fans’ hands.

WHAT’S THE POINT?

Great organizations create great fan bases and therefore build legacies. Even non-fans can have admiration for the community the Packers have built. There’s always some level of hostility between rival franchises and there’s most certainly a difference in goals for each team. Imagine a world where the goals for all sports teams were the same: fostering community, donating to charitable causes and reinvesting in the team in ways that matter.

Feasibility is undoubtedly an issue when it comes to reorganizing the NFL structure, let alone other groups such as the NHL, NBA and MLB. Pulling teams away from the tight grips of their tyrannical, money-hungry owners is its own challenge. If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell read this article, he’d probably print it out just to burn it.

Organizational change is arguably one of the hardest types of change. It’s difficult to get a huge group of individuals with their own opinions to agree on one set structure to apply to teams across the country. People also typically fear that change means they’re losing something of value, or that they won’t be able to conform to new rules and regulations.

Despite all the challenges and differences in opinions, with the right approach there’s a high chance for a shift this large to be achieved. The best strategy for achieving this is called masterful change, where top leaders (owners of each team and high positions in the NFL franchises) spend time engaging with each party and invoking change, supporting each team as they find their own path to nonprofit success.

Eventually, if every NFL team transitions to a nonprofit model and are all on the same page, there is opportunity for restructuring other parts of the league, like concussion protocols and tackle regulations. Where previous owners may have been quick to get their star player back in the spotlight following injury, a nonprofit structure could allow teams and fans to have more decision-making power, which can help with injury prevention and healing time.

The NFL team owners tend to take precedence over the Players Association when rule changes are made, including a recent approval to eliminate the hip-drop tackle. Shouldn’t the athletes actually participating in the game have a larger say in illegal rule-making, not the owners who sit and profit off of games, injury or not?

One tradition for Green Bay Packers fans is for shareholders to wear cheeseheads labeled “OWNER.” (Mike Morbeck/Flickr)

DOES IT REALLY WORK?

It’s difficult to trust this idea when there’s only one NFL team doing it. Who’s to say the entire league wouldn’t fall apart if each team shifted to the nonprofit structure? As a matter of fact, Green Bay isn’t the only franchise that’s taken on this initiative, it’s working for plenty of leagues — overseas in Europe.

Soccer teams Manchester United, Liverpool and AFC Wimbledon are among a long list of teams who have successfully transitioned to nonprofit, fan-owned structures. The results? For most teams, nothing but positive.

Teams found that fan ownership allowed for democratic decision making, community connection and sustainability. By reducing reliance on wealthy investors, fan ownership promotes financial stability for the club, mitigating the risk of debt or mismanagement.

Clubs are also protected from exploitation by external investors and their increased transparency and accountability leads to more engagement, fan loyalty and a larger emphasis of building an impactful legacy for the surrounding community.

The U.K. is not the only country to take on this model. Germany’s Bundesliga — its professional soccer league — is deemed one of the most fan-friendly leagues in Europe, in part to the teams in the league have been mostly fan-owned since 1998.

It’s a concrete execution of the nonprofit model, proving that the NFL would likely have endless success and opportunities if it took power away from wealthy owners and put it in the hands of fans instead.

AS A FAN, WHAT CAN I DO?

Truth be told, there’s not much that individual fans can do, especially from the comfort of their couches, remote in hand. I can’t — in good conscience — recommend you stop watching your favorite teams and stop supporting them by buying their merchandise, because such an ask is simply unreasonable.

I could tell you to start petitions, garner support online and rally fans across the country. I could ask that you spread this information to others in hopes that some big change really does occur, but again, that’s no small feat.

This is just another example of how large the gap is between the organizations and the fans. We have no real power or say when it comes to helping our teams or changing the way they’re run unless we can get enough people to stop supporting a team to the point that they’re forced to listen — that would mean getting hundreds, maybe even thousands of people to care, which is unlikely.

So there’s not much you can do to help. Unless you’re a Green Bay Packers fan, in that case, you could just knock on your neighbor’s door — they’re probably a partial owner.

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A.J. Newth, Opinion Editor

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