For just the fifth time in their 92-year history, the publicly owned Green Bay Packers launched a stock offering this week, issuing at least 250,000 shares to anyone who wants to count themselves as an owner of an NFL team. It's an irresistible offer for a devoted fan, and within 11 minutes of stock going on sale, the Packers had sold $400,000 worth of shares. If the initial 250,000 shares sell out before March, the team is authorized to issue up to 880,000 shares. At $250 apiece (not including a $25 "handling fee"), the Packers could raise as much as $220 million—more than enough to pay for their planned $143 million renovation of Lambeau Field. Thirty-one other NFL owners are seething with jealousy. They wish they could get money from their fanbase so easily.
But what's in it for the new shareholders? Let's start with what you don't get.
• You don't get money. What the Packers are offering is Common Stock, which isn't stock as most people understand it. It can't go down, it can't go up, you can't sell it, and you can't cash in. On the front page of their Offering Document, the Packers make this distinction quite clear:
COMMON STOCK DOES NOT CONSTITUTE AN INVESTMENT IN "STOCK" IN THE COMMON SENSE OF THE TERM. PURCHASERS SHOULD NOT PURCHASE COMMON STOCK WITH THE PURPOSE OF MAKING A PROFIT.
Even if the team should ever be sold, shareholders will not receive a slice of the purchasing price, or even get their initial investments back. Any profits from the sale of the team will go to the Packers' charitable foundation in Green Bay. (Until 1997, the beneficiary of a billion-plus dollar sale would have been the local American Legion post.)
• You don't get a real say in the team. While a share does confer voting rights, the Packers make very clear that you have almost zero say. Under the heading "Limited Influence," they do the math for you: because there will be at least five million outstanding shares, your vote might as well be worthless. And since no one is allowed to own more than 200 shares, you can't buy clout. Even if you could, most votes concern electing members of the 45-person Board of Directors, who in turn select a seven-person Executive Committee, which is the braintrust that makes the actual franchise decisions.
• You don't get to criticize the Packers, or other teams, or any NFL employee. Although the NFL's rules on ownership are drafted and aimed at the typical multimillionaire owner, they apply just as much to you, Betsy from Sheboygan. While the league isn't going to be monitoring message boards for your negative comments, what about a national writer? Andy Hutchins of SBNation is a Green Bay fan, but his day job is writing about football, which necessarily means having to criticize NFL figures on occasion. He'd love to own a piece of the Packers, but by the letter of the law, that would be a conflict of interest. It's an ethical dilemma, and one he's not sure he's willing to take on.
Now that the negative stuff is out of the way, here's what you do get for your $250. You get a certificate suitable for framing. You get an invite to the annual shareholders meeting. You get "the opportunity to purchase exclusive shareholder merchandise."
Congratulations! You just joined a team fan club! (For what it's worth, the Ravens' kids club costs an order of magnitude less, and you get pizza coupons.)
What Packers fans/owners are doing, in essence, is making a donation without the tax break. The team wants money for renovations and other things, so they send up the Pack Signal and the cash just rolls in. This is fairer than forcing through taxes or stadium bonds on helpless local residents, and it's also easier for the team. So why don't other owners pull the same move? They can't. NFL ownership rules since the 1950s require a franchise's largest owner to possess minimum percentage of shares, and only Green Bay was grandfathered in.
So the Packers keep their distinction as the only publicly-owned North American sports franchise (UPDATE: forgot about multiple CFL teams), and fans will keep buying stock every time it's offered just to own one-five millionth of the team.
"I could have just as well thrown my money out the window for what I get for it, other than a feel-good," one Packers fan told the AP. But if it costs $250 to feel good about your team, and about your team's ownership, maybe that alone makes it a smart buy.