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Non-conformist brands | Part three: Green Bay Packers

  • Green Bay is the only franchise in US pro sport to be owned by its members
  • Packers are one of the most successful NFL franchises – on and off the pitch
  • Community outreach programme is essential for establishing links with fans

Click here to read the first part of this three-part series about German football club St. Pauli and click here to read the second part of this series about the Chicago Cubs Major League Baseball franchise.

Part 3 – team: Green Bay Packers

Identity: US sport’s only non-profit franchise and a David in a land of billionaire Goliaths

Look up any list of NFL franchise owners and you will find a broad cross section of American billionaires drawn from old money and new. There’s Terry Pagula, owner of the Buffalo Bills, with a net worth of over $4bn from his natural gas interests. Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft with Bill Gates, is doing a little better for himself, with a net worth of $20bn. Robert Wood ‘Woody’ Johnson IV is a scion of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical dynasty founded in 1886.

The list goes on: real estate whizz Stephen M. Ross owns the Miami Dolphins; Robert Kraft of the Kraft Group owns the New England Patriots; biotech businessman Bob McNair owns the Houston Texans; and shopping-mall moguls the Glazer family, who also run a well-known soccer franchise in Manchester, England, own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

There is one name on the list that doesn’t fit the pattern – the Green Bay Packers. The Packers are owned by their members – their fans – and are a non-profit organisation. That makes them unique not only in the 32-team NFL but in all major US professional sports leagues.

PICTURE: Green Bay Packers fans celebrate a touchdown (Getty Images)

Unique

The Packers are also the oldest NFL team operating under the same name in the same location. The franchise was born out of two editorial meetings, on August 11 and August 14, 1919, at the offices of the local newspaper, the Green Bay Press-Gazette, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Michigan.

In 1921, the team joined the National Football League. In 1923, the Green Bay Football Corp, elected Andrew B. Turnbull as its first president. The unique shareholder structure was born that year. The club was in financial difficulty, so the local community basically passed the hat, with fans throwing in a few dollars each in return for a share in the club. The team went on to win the NFL title three times in a row between 1929 and 1931. Forced into receivership in 1933, it was reorganised as Green Bay Packers Inc, which remains in operation today.

In the place of a single sugar daddy, the Packers have 360,920 shareholders who hold 5,011,562 shares. No individual can own more than 200,000 shares, to prevent any kind of hostile takeover from an entrepreneur eyeing those multi-billion TV contracts. A board of directors chooses a seven-member executive committee which runs commercial operations. The committee appoints a general manager who handles the sporting side. Since 2005, that has been Ted Thompson.

The franchise’s unique ownership structure has not stood in the way of success on the field. The Packers have won 13 NFL titles, more than any other team, with the most recent Super Bowl victory coming in 2011. Not surprisingly, there are many seasoned NFL-watchers who believe it has been a major contributory factor. For example, Thompson has been able to make some controversial calls without having an anxious owner breathing down his neck.

PICTURE: Aaron Rodgers is the Packers' star quarterback (Getty Images)

Special relationship

Aaron Popkey, director of public affairs at the Packers, argues that the special relationship between club and its fans also feeds into performance on the field.

“We feel our fans have an extra special connection to the team as many of them are actual owners of the franchise as shareholders,” he tells SportBusiness International. “We stress that fact often to everyone with the franchise, including players. We feel our bond with the fans goes beyond the normal fan support due to those reasons, and our players take that to heart.”

Nor has shareholder ownership prevented the franchise from becoming one of the most valuable in the league. Last year, it was rated the 13th most valuable by Forbes, at $2.35bn. Turnover was $391m and operating income was $101m. The NFL’s innate egalitarianism – sharing media-rights revenues equally and operating a draft system to spread talent fairly – goes a long way to accounting for that. But the Packers also generate income of their own, with a lot of brand value rooted in its unusual history.

“Because of our uniqueness and incredible fan loyalty, the Packers do appeal to a variety of companies,” Popkey says. “Companies have a desire to align themselves with our brand. That is an asset.” Those companies include major national brands such as American Family Mutual Assurance, Associated Banc Corp, Bellin Health, MillerCoors, Mills Fleet Farm, Oneida Nation, Shopko and Verizon.

PICTURE: Packers fans are renowned as among the most loyal in the NFL (Getty Images)

Community bond

These days, every professional sports club can boast some kind of community outreach programme. There’s no question that for the vast majority it has become an important part of their identity and is not just about ticking the CSR box. But with the Packers, the bond with the community is older and seems deeper than usual.

The Green Bay Packers Foundation, set up in 1986, provides support and funding to local charities or initiatives that have one of the following goals: perpetuating a community environment that promotes families and the competitive value of athletics; contributing to player and fan welfare; ensuring the safety and education of children; and preventing cruelty to animals. Each year additional funding is made available for projects active locally in one of the following areas: helping the elderly, tackling homelessness, combating hunger, the arts and culture, athletics, education, animal welfare, protecting the environment and helping victims of drug- and alcohol-related or domestic violence. And the foundation is just one of multiple community initiatives.

“There are many aspects of our community involvement we’re proud of,” Popkey says. “We feel an extra sense of duty to the community, because of the way they’ve supported this team through nearly 100 years. We wouldn’t have survived in pro football without the all-out support we receive. It is now imperative for us to return the favour, not only through our charity impact, which is now over $8m a year, but through efforts to increase the economic development in our region by leveraging the interest in the team and our iconic stadium, Lambeau Field.”

Or as The New Yorker magazine put it: “The Packers’ unique set-up has created a relationship between team and community unlike any in the NFL. Wisconsin fans get to enjoy the team with the confidence that their owner won’t threaten to move to Los Angeles unless the team gets a new mega-dome. Volunteers work concessions, with 60 per cent of the proceeds going to local charities. Even the beer is cheaper than at a typical NFL stadium. Not only has home field been sold out for two decades, but during snowstorms, the team routinely puts out calls for volunteers to help shovel and is never disappointed by the response.”

For the local population of about 100,000, the Packers are more than a team, they’re a way of life. And all of these unique factors – from the ownership model to is community roots – have contributed to making the Packers the second favourite team of almost every NFL fan.

The team and stadium “represent what is good about sports,” as Popkey puts it. “The Packers are a great example of why fans are so passionate about sports. It’s the ultimate David versus Goliath.”

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