Lessons from the NFL: There is a better way of running our football clubs

There’s a long way to go in improving the accountability of professional sport in England, but the success of the Green Bay Packers shows there is a better way.

By Martin Tiedemann

Today sees Super Bowl XLV, pitting the Green Bay Packers against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s no surprise that the Packers are back in the final – they have won more league championships than any other team in the NFL.


On the other hand, however, for the Packers to still compete at the highest level at all is incredible. They are the last remaining “small town team” at the top of American Football. Green Bay is a city of just 100,000 people, located at the less populated end of a backwaters state, Wisconsin.

My father’s family live up in northern Wisconsin; at this time of year it’s mile after barren mile of flat farmland blanketed in snow. There’s nothing much to do for miles in any direction except good ice fishing or opening a bottle of Miller in front of Sunday’s game. The Packers have been able to compete and withstand commercial pressures to move largely because of their ownership model. They are the only non-profit, community-owned franchise in American professional sports’ major leagues. (There are some similar pro-teams at lower levels in various sports, but none share the Packers’ record.)

Share ownership is widespread, no one owner may own more than a certain amount, and the redemption price is minimal, with a guarantee that if the club were sold, the beneficiary would be a charitable foundation. Share ownership brings voting rights and election to the board but no benefit in terms of season tickets and minimal dividend. The Packers are the only American major-league sports franchise to release its financial balance sheet every year.

Should this matter? Well the Packers have managed to bring sporting success while running their business effectively and transparently and remaining rooted in the community they were founded to serve and entertain. Contrast this with the prevalent trend in North American sport (and English Premier League football):

Expensive season tickets funding overpaid stars and crippling club debt;

• Companies used to leverage borrowing rather than investing in their communities;

• Clubs happy to change their names and relocate, leaving behind generations of loyal fans to increase television audiences and merchandise sales.

Outside the US and UK, mass ownership of sports clubs is not unusual, and is not at the expense of sporting success either. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Boca Juniors are football teams of the highest order, run democratically by their fans, with elections of often higher profile than for city mayor or national assembly.

In the Bundesliga, famously, a minimum of 51 per cent of the club must be owned by club members, i.e. fans, still allowing private investment but ensuring that supporters have the greater say over their club. It is by no means a panacea but can be insulation against mismanagement and the whims of individual owners or commercial interests.

The English Premier League is some way behind this model but Supporters Direct are working hard to boost the ever growing number of supporters trusts, an army of fans organised on co-operative lines to increase supporters’ involvement and community ownership in UK football. Trusts can be found at more than 160 clubs, with more than 120,000 people and providing £25 million of new funding into the game; 15 clubs are owned or controlled by their trust and more than 110 have some ownership.

There’s a long way to go in improving the accountability and proper management of professional sport on either side of the Atlantic, but the success of the Green Bay Packers, regardless of whether they manage to beat the Steelers tonight, shows that there is a better way.

36 Responses to “Lessons from the NFL: There is a better way of running our football clubs”

  1. Geoff Walker

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  2. Matthew Owen

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  3. alexsmith1982

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  4. Jack Barker

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  5. James Mills

    RT @alexsmith1982: RT @leftfootfwd: Lessons from the #NFL: There is a better way of running our football clubs //bit.ly/fiwnsL by @ …

  6. Martin Tiedemann

    My first foray into sports writing >> RT @leftfootfwd: Lessons from the #NFL //bit.ly/fiwnsL by @MTiedemann #SuperBowl

  7. Co-operative Party

    RT @leftfootfwd: Lessons from the #NFL: There is a better way of running our football clubs //bit.ly/fiwnsL by @MTiedemann #SuperBowl

  8. Ian Preston

    RT @leftfootfwd: Lessons from the #NFL: There is a better way of running our football clubs //bit.ly/fiwnsL by @MTiedemann #SuperBowl

  9. neilrfoster

    RT @leftfootfwd: Lessons from the #NFL: There is a better way of running our football clubs //bit.ly/fiwnsL by @MTiedemann #SuperBowl

  10. MustBeRead

    From @LeftFootFwd: Lessons from the NFL: There is a better way of running our football clubs //j.mp/h6l1wU

  11. Mark de Wolf

    I loathe meat puppet American football, but fair dues to the #NFL ownership structure – a model for all pro team sport //bit.ly/fiwnsL

  12. Chris Smith

    RT @leftfootfwd: Lessons from the #NFL: There is a better way of running our football clubs //bit.ly/fiwnsL by @MTiedemann #SuperBowl

  13. Matt Gwilliam

    Nice post. But the comparison between the Packers and Barcelona/Real Madrid is a false one and the issue is deeper than simple ownership. Ironically, given the US’s normal enthusiasm for free markets, American and Canadian sports have a model that is very good at redistributing the wealth and sharing the success of a particular club. Proceeds from TV rights are spread amongst the “franchises”. Another example is the Ice Hockey Draft, which generally allows the weaker teams in the league first pick of new talent, preventing a successful club dominating the transfer market the way the Barces, the Reals and the Man Utds do. If Wolves stay in their current position, the only thing they’ll get at the end of the season is the parachute payments. Salary caps and players unions are also structural differences to most European sports.

    Instinctively, I have a fondness for the idea of fan-owned clubs. If I had the opportunity to invest in or buy a share of my premier league club in a one off payment of say, a months wages, I probably would. But even if 160,000 Man Utd fans felt like this and each donated say £1000, only £160m would be raised, well short of the approximately ~£1bn valuation of the club.

    The Barcelona, Real Madrid model is even further removed from the North American model than the premier league. The Spanish league allows clubs to sell TV rights individually. Many would say this has led to Barcelona and Real Madrid generating huge amounts of cash and running away with it; just look at the stats on how many times those clubs have lost in the domestic league. The premier league is also dominated by an elite, but few would argue it is as one (or two) sided as La Liga, and the premier league’s collective selling of TV rights does give the smaller club a larger share of the spoils from the league’s success.

    The imposition of the North American model, where the spoils are more equally shared on the premier league may lead to a more community orientated, organic “fans experience” but would it be really allow the Chelsea, Man United and Arsenals to compete with the Barce’s? Proponents of this have to acknowledge that the change required must cover the whole of international football or be prepared to see British clubs be outplayed.

    But I agree, we need to see change.

  14. Matt Gwilliam

    None of what I have said should detract from the Packer’s amazing achievements though.

  15. DaFootball

    Lessons from the NFL: There is a better way of running our …: There's a long way to go in improving the accoun… //bit.ly/fw4Mk0

  16. Hitchin England

    RT @leftfootfwd: Lessons from the #NFL: There is a better way of running our football clubs //bit.ly/fiwnsL by @MTiedemann #SuperBowl

  17. Sunder Katwala

    Thanks. Interesting post on Green Bay. The argument about club management prompted me to make the broader (macro) argument for US sporting socialism – that Brian Clough is no longer possible, while Vince Lombardi is – and redistribution to level the playing field, over at Next Left
    //www.nextleft.org/2011/02/vince-lombardi-versus-brian-clough-why.html

  18. nahummer

    Great post, agreed that more league’s should follow the NFL’s lead. Sadly, the owners have opted out of the CBA which has brought stability and wealth to the league and we face a lock out March 5th. The owners are simply trying to take advantage of the downturn in the economy to gain a higher percentage of the profits. Ironically, they’re doing this in a Marxist way, whipping up the people’s anger against millionaire players, trying to paint them as the greedy ones. In fact, the owners are demanding the players play more games for less money, another sad chapter in American short term profit seeking capitalism. Go Packers! More of my thoughts here – //theendisalwaysnear.blogspot.com/2011/01/xlv.html

  19. Mr. Sensible

    I cannot say I am a watcher of NFL, but I certainly think we need change within the premier league.

    I personally advicate something close to the German model.

  20. Shamik Das

    Clear majority at the#SuperBash backing the Packers in the #SuperBowl! Is this why?! //bit.ly/fiwnsL //myloc.me/htzpd

  21. Eben Marks

    Why you should support the Green Bay Packers tonight //bit.ly/h2i4mb #superbowl

  22. Shamik Das

    As kick-off in the #SuperBowl nears, check out @NextLeft: //bit.ly/ezIl0c and @MTiedemann on @leftfootfwd: //bit.ly/fiwnsL

  23. Daniel Elton

    @tom_lutz sorry meant to say: why lefties luv the packers //bit.ly/fiwnsL

  24. Pers Fin Update

    Estate Planning: Lessons from the NFL: There is a better way of running our football clubs //ow.ly/1bdcEO

  25. riveca10

    @smonserrattec pa que lo leas //bit.ly/fSYcNE

  26. Andy Walker

    More on the Packers and community ownership at //bit.ly/fSYcNE

  27. Steve Busfield

    Packers Superbowl win is a victory for socialism. Or something RT @danielelton why lefties love the #packers //bit.ly/fiwnsL #SB45

  28. Matt Hall

    RT @Busfield: Superbowl win 'victory for socialism'. Or something RT @danielelton why lefties love the #packers //bit.ly/fiwnsL #SB45

  29. Joe Fortune

    RT @leftfootfwd: Lessons from the #NFL: There is a better way of running our football clubs //bit.ly/fiwnsL by @MTiedemann #SuperBowl

  30. Socialism Won The Superbowl | Homebrewed Theology

    […] Lessons from the NFL: There is a better way of running our football clubs (leftfootforward.org) […]

  31. Nik Darlington

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  32. Chris

    Great article stating that #premiership #epl #football should take the lead of Green Bay Packers in #NFL //bit.ly/fiwnsL

  33. Celebrating the influence of player unions in US sport | Left Foot Forward

    […] Martin Tiedman brilliantly extolled the virtues of the Green Bay Packers’ democratic and transparent ownership model on these pages last month, and over on Next Left, Sunder Katwala’s excellent piece on “America’s sporting socialism” highlighted the use of the ‘draft’ system to narrow wealth inequalities between teams. […]

  34. No last orders for Sky as sporting stranglehold remains | Left Foot Forward

    […] Lessons from the NFL: There is a better way of running our football clubs – Martin Tiedemann, February 6th […]

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    […] Lessons from the NFL: There is a better way of running our football clubs 6 Feb […]

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