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.

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

  1. Mark de Wolf

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

  2. Chris Smith

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

  3. 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.

  4. Matt Gwilliam

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

  5. DaFootball

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

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