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How the People of Green Bay Came to Own the Packers

© Mark Cowan/Icon SMI/Corbis

At some point during each NFL season (or protracted NFL lockout), fans are bound to hear an announcer mention that the Green Bay Packers are “owned by the people of Green Bay.” Really? Let’s take a look.

Are the Packers really publicly owned, or is that just a myth?

It’s no myth. The team is indeed publicly owned by some 112,150 shareholders. At present, there are 4.75 million shares of Packers stock floating around, and team rules stipulate that no single person can own more than 200,000 shares. This situation keeps a dominant Jerry Jones-type owner from snapping up shares of stock in a hostile takeover bid and potentially moving the team to a larger city with a more lucrative media market.

How did the team end up with this odd structure in the first place?

It’s hard to imagine now, but once upon a time the Packers were very, very broke.

According to Don Gulbrandsen and LeRoy Butler’s Green Bay Packers: The Complete Illustrated History, the team finished its disappointing 1922 campaign saddled with $2500 in debt.

Things were so dire that season that at one point the Chicago Bears canceled a game against the Pack because Green Bay couldn’t rustle up the funds to cover a $4,000 box office guarantee to the Bears. It didn’t help matters that the team finished the season in eighth place, either.

After that season, fans of the cash-strapped franchise realized that the danger of the team folding was very real, so they began a grassroots campaign to finance the squad with a quick infusion of cash. Any fan who would pledge $5 to the team would get one share of stock. Any fan who bought five shares would get a season ticket for the 1923 campaign. The team officially incorporated as a nonprofit corporation with 1000 outstanding shares of stock in August 1923.

So are these shares publicly traded?

No, don’t go scanning the stock ticker just yet. The shares are largely symbolic. The stock doesn’t pay a dividend, can’t be sold, and can only be transferred to a family member.

Does owning shares get you on the season ticket list?

No, the shares have no season ticket privileges. If they did, there would be a lot of irritated shareholders thanks to the team’s, er, lengthy waiting list for tickets. A January story from Gary D’Amato of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that if you got on the Packers’ season-ticket waiting list today, you could expect your name to be called for tickets in 955 years. (Insert your own joke about whether or not former Packer Brett Favre will have retired by then here.)

What if the team is sold?

That’s where things get really interesting. Under the Green Bay Football Corporation’s original ownership structure from 1923, if the team had been sold, dissolved, or relocated, the shareholders wouldn’t have seen the profits. Instead, the funds would have gone to the local Sullivan American Legion Post to build a memorial to soldiers who died in World War I.

Amazingly, this rule remained in place until 1997. (Think about the monument a modern nine-figure payday could build!) That year the team changed its rules to stipulate that any funds from a sale would have gone to the Green Bay Packers Foundation, a charitable group that’s been around since 1986.

So if there’s no owner, who runs the team?

The shares of Packers stock do carry voting privileges like normal shares of stock, so shareholders elect a board of directors that runs the squad.

Who shows up at the league’s owners’ meetings, then?

For these meetings, the team’s president serves as the stand-in for the Packers ownership.

What’s the hidden upside of this ownership structure?

If the Packers find themselves short on cash, all the team needs to do is sell a little more stock. When Lambeau Field needed some spiffing up in the late 1990s, the team offered fans the opportunity to buy new shares of stock at $200 a pop. Over late 1997 and early 1998, the team added nearly $24 million to its coffers and close to 106,000 stockholders to its rolls.

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