American Football: A small-city club's unique affair with its fans

Publicly owned and Super Bowl-bound, Green Bay are different. Rupert Cornwell drives up Route 41 to see the excitement building
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The Independent Online

My travel agent is an NFL owner. Well, sort of. Jean West and her husband Mac possess a single share of the Green Bay Packers, acquired for $200 in 1997. They are one of over 112,000 people to own stock in the most unusual franchise in the world's richest sports league.

The share, by any normal yardstick, is the lousiest investment imaginable. It does qualify you to buy an "I Own a Piece of the Pack" T-shirt, but by statute, no dividend can ever be paid on them. They are not traded on any public market, and cannot be sold except back to the Packers for a fraction of the original price. If the team were ever wound up (admittedly a prospect as unlikely as a snow storm in Tahiti), the proceeds would go to charity. And last but not least, being a shareholder gets you nowhere near a season ticket.

But sound financial judgement has never been the distinguishing hallmark of a sports fan. To the delirium of a small (and presently glacial) city in northern Wisconsin, the joy of Wisconsin exiles like the Wests and the quiet satisfaction of gridiron neutrals everywhere, the Packers are off to the Super Bowl.

Almost whichever way you cut it, Green Bay stands out from the National Football League pack. It is one of the NFL's oldest franchises, a holdover from the small-town origins of the NFL, a century ago. Their name is not one of those macho ones usually favoured by football teams – as in Chiefs, Titans, Giants, Eagles, Jets and so on. The Packers part derive from their original sponsors back in 1919, a wartime venture called the Indian Packing Company that two years later ceased to exist, but has found immortality of sorts on the football field.

They have won more titles than any other NFL team, 12 in all and five under Vince Lombardi, arguably the greatest coach in League history, who gave his name to the trophy for which the Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers will compete on Sunday. Lombardi must have been a Bill Shankly on steroids, a phenomenal motivator of men whose methods are studied to this day, and whose quotes have passed into the language: "If you aren't fired with enthusiasm you will be fired with enthusiasm," for one – and of course,"Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."

Lombardi took over a terrible team when he came to Green Bay from New York in 1959. He left just under a decade later, bequeathing a winning machine unmatched in NFL history, taking three successive championships between 1965 and 1967, including the first two Super Bowls. And all this in a city of barely 100,000 souls – the smallest to boast a major league team in the US in any sport.

Sturdy and unassuming Green Bay has several distinctions, among them the fact it is home to the country's biggest trucking company and to a paper industry that has earned it the nickname of "the toilet paper capital of the world". But its true claim to fame is the Packers, and its true heart is Lambeau Field, where the team are roared on by the "Cheesehead" supporters – Wisconsin is a cheese-making region.

Drive up from the south on Route 41 on a typically frigid winter's day, and turn right into the city on Lombardi Avenue. The stadium emerges like a cathedral from the mist and swirling snow, a red brick structure towering over everything around, its entrance guarded by huge statues of Lombardi and Curly Lambeau, the team's founder, early star player and coach, after whom Lambeau Field is named.

The field itself is locked and buried in snow, but last Monday morning the team store was jammed by fans stocking up on Super Bowl memorabilia. Some would then descend into the vaults to visit the Packers' Hall of Fame, filled with ancient and modern team artifacts displayed like holy relics – and surely the only establishment of its kind to be dedicated by a sitting president (Gerald Ford in 1976).

But the most remarkable thing of all about the Green Bay Packers is that they are the property not of some billionaire owner, but of the fans themselves – more than 112,000 at the last count, and including my travel agent and her husband.

Such an arrangement is far from uncommon in Europe: think Real Madrid or Barcelona with their socios, the clubs of Germany's Bundesliga or a handful of lower division Football League clubs like Brentford (not to mention FC United of Manchester.)

But in all major league US sport, the Packers are unique – and community ownership has bred an extraordinary bond between fans and team. "There's an emotional attachment," says Mac West, "a sense of incredible pride that we play on the same field as Chicago, New York or Dallas."

Naturally, the Wests don't have season tickets. Few do. Every Packers home game since 1960 has been sold out, and the waiting list now exceeds the 73,000 capacity at Lambeau Field. So rarely do season tickets become available that applicants from the 1960s are only now starting to get them. Tickets are passed down the generations like family heirlooms; frequently they have been the thorniest issue in Wisconsin divorce suits.

The fragmented ownership however has many advantages. For one thing, if you're a fan-owner, not only do you get to vote in the election of the franchise's directors. You can also attend each July the annual shareholders meeting – or, more exactly, a giant mid-summer tailgate party at Lambeau Field.

More important, it has kept the team in Green Bay, out of the clutches of a rapacious owner who would otherwise have long since relocated the franchise to some major-market city willing to pay a king's ransom for the privilege. As it is, no-one can hold more than 200,000 Packers shares, less than 5 per cent of the total.

Public ownership also means the Packers are the only team in the League to publish financial results, offering a rare glimpse into the finances of the $9bn-a-year industry that is the NFL – not least at a moment when an unresolved labour dispute could disrupt or even shut down the 2011 season.

The Packers' 2010 report, issued in January, shows an operating profit of $10m, down from $34m in 2007 as a result of soaring player costs that far outstripped revenue growth. Small wonder a huge fight is brewing as the billionaire owners seek to claw back part of the $9bn pot from their millionaire employees, in the negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one expiring on 31 March.

For all these reasons, owners loathe the Green Bay model; indeed, the NFL's statutes now specifically bar any "non-profit or charitable entity" from membership. But for exactly those reasons, most ordinary fans love it – and why, you suspect, the uncommitted among them would love a Packers triumph on Sunday, on football's grandest stage of all.

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