L.A. should follow the cheeseheads


With all the recent attention over who may one day own Los Angeles’ NFL football franchise and where it will play, it is appropriate in this week of Super Bowl hype to focus on championship-bound Green Bay, which has the only publicly owned franchise in American professional sports.

Unlike Georgia Frontiere, who broke our hearts by moving the Rams to St. Louis, or Al Davis, who stole our wallets when he took the Raiders back to Oakland, Green Bay is not shackled to a single owner. It is owned by the Wisconsin community. For more than 90 years, this little hick town of 100,000 has persevered with a major-league NFL franchise while mighty Los Angeles has not.

The reason for Green Bay’s survival is its unique public ownership structure. It has 112,158 shareholders, of which I am one. None of us can own more than 200,000 of the Packers’ 4.75 million outstanding shares. The stock pays no dividend. It does not entitle you to a ticket to a game. It cannot be sold or transferred, except to family members. Nor can the team move except through dissolution of the Packers corporation, which until 1997 required all proceeds of the sale of the team (which now would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars) to go to a World War I memorial at the local American Legion post.


Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed, and now the proceeds will go to the Green Bay Packers Foundation, which has distributed more than $2 million to charities in Wisconsin since its founding in 1986. Besides the Packers Foundation, profits from the team go to the team as salaries, not into the pocket of some greedy owner.

As a result, Green Bay is liberated from the egomaniacal ownership of a Jerry Jones in Dallas, the tyranny of an Al Davis in Oakland or the team paralysis of a McCourt divorce as with the Dodgers. Unlike the owners in Minneapolis, Buffalo, N.Y., or Jacksonville, Fla., there can be no idle threats to move the team to Los Angeles in an effort to blackmail the community into building luxurious stadiums the local governments can ill afford. Yet, NFL rules prohibit any team other than Green Bay from being owned by more than 30 owners.

Historic Lambeau Field, home of the Packers, is reflective of the franchise’s community spirit. No corporate monolith governs the food and beverage sales. Rather, by community tradition, each concession stand is staffed by local charities, which raise close to $1 million annually from their efforts. Thirsty for a beer? Try the booth staffed by De Pere Knights of Columbus. Hungry for a bratwurst? Volunteers from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh girls softball team are there to serve you. My personal favorite for years was a buttery grilled cheese sandwich served up by the Green Bay East High School Athletic Booster Club.

Green Bay’s community approach to professional sports breeds success. The Packers, as every sports fan knows, have won more NFL championships (12) than any other franchise. This year, the Packers triumphed over one big-city team after another on their way to the NFL’s biggest show. They beat New York twice (the Giants and the Jets), Chicago twice, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Not bad for a bunch of cheesehead rubes, huh?

Nor does Green Bay’s small population hurt attendance. Lambeau Field has not had an unsold seat since 1960. The waiting list for season tickets is more than 80,000 — a hefty backlog for a stadium whose capacity is just 72,928.

Some 20 years ago, my California bride surprised me by putting my name on the waiting list. I am not holding my breath for those precious ticket rights. After more than two decades, I am up to number 40,354. With an average of just 90 tickets changing hands each year, it will take 448 years for me to win the rights to a seat in the third-oldest stadium in major professional sports. Only baseball’s Wrigley Field and Fenway Park have been in use longer.

Think about it. If 300,000 Angelenos each paid just $3,500 for a share of a new Los Angeles NFL franchise, we would replicate the Green Bay experience with cash to spare. We could have a true community-owned team that wouldn’t break our wallets or hearts by abandoning us again. And rather than have a franchise that is a personal plaything like the Clippers, we could have a team that was truly owned by us.

As Los Angeles struggles again for its NFL franchise, our community leaders would be well served to look at the hicks of Green Bay. The wealthy businessmen who are fighting over the awarding of a franchise in L.A. should urge the city (and the NFL) toward public ownership of the team — if they truly care about this community rather than their egos or pocketbooks. Instead of allowing luxury boxes for the rich and famous, our elected officials should insist on public ownership in exchange for zoning variances and any other public subsidies a franchise would need for a new stadium.

For all our big-city sophistication in Los Angeles, our model should be those hardy souls on the frozen tundra of Green Bay, who by public spirit and service have captured what we in Los Angeles have not: a permanent and successful professional football team.

Mark Neubauer, a Wisconsin native, is a Los Angeles attorney. His brother holds the family’s season tickets at Lambeau Field.