Who Owns the Green Bay Packers? And Why Should Congress Care?

If you ever get tired of your local wingnut’s paeans to corporate capitalism and threats to “Go Galt,” you might try a four-word answer: the Green Bay Packers.  They aren’t owned by some vampire squid.  But who does own them?

At the New Yorker, Dave Zirin thinks he knows about The Pack’s owners:

They have a hundred and twelve thousand of them. The Packers are owned by the fans, making them the only publicly owned, not-for-profit, major professional team in the United States. The Pack have been a fan-owned operation since the primitive pro football days of the nineteen-twenties, when N.F.L. teams could be won in card games and no one foresaw the awesome power this sport would hold over both the American imagination and the American wallet.

Legally, though, this raises more questions than it answers.  The vast majority of “not-for-profits” in the United States do not, strictly speaking, have owners: they are, in California state law parlance, “nonprofit public benefit corporations”, which do not have shareholders. 

In any event, if they have shareholders, then how are they different from any other public company?  A few years ago the evil Boston Celtics became a public company for awhile, and Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan would always end his weekly column with the closing Celtics stock price.  Nobody made a big deal about that.

Looking very briefly through Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code, which classifies more than 20 sorts of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, it’s not clear whether any of them qualify, because a requirement at least of the most popular forms (I didn’t look at all of them) is that they forbid what we normally think of as shareholders: no one is allowed to get personal financial benefit from the organization’s profits.  Maybe that’s why, as Zirin says, “shareholders get no dividend check and no free tickets to Curly Lambeau Field” — that would be illegal, or at least deprive The Pack of a tax exemption.  In any event, it’s still not clear to me how a firm can be 1) a nonprofit while 2) having shareholders who 3) don’t get any of the benefits of holding shares.

In the end, I agree with Zirin’s conclusion: this is an ownership form that should be replicated.  Fans are tired of being blackmailed by owners who threaten to move: Seattle’s loss of the Sonics was a crime.  As Zirin notes, current NFL rules prohibit more teams operating like the Packers, but given the league’s own tax exemption under 501(c)(6), and the corruption of the current system, this deserves a Congressional response.  I don’t expect the GOP to initiate anything, given its coziness with the super-wealthy, but the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction, should begin hearings.  I wonder whether some committee members, such as Minnesota Vikings fan Amy Klobuchar and Seattle Sonics fan Maria Cantwell, both of whom are up for re-election next year, might have some interest in spending some time on the matter.