The National Football League (NFL) is, by many metrics, the most dominant cultural force in the United States. An estimated 113 million people tuned into the Super Bowl in 2023, and 82 of the 100 most-watched U.S. television broadcasts in 2022 were NFL games, with five more coming from college football for good measure. In fact, the only non-NFL game in the top 20 was the State of the Union address, which came in below 19 different NFL broadcasts.
The league’s tremendous popularity has also led to tremendous revenues. Estimates for 2021, the most recent year available, put the league’s total revenue at $18 billion for the season, with each team receiving more than $345 million from the league. Amazon agreed to pay $1 billion per year for 11 years in exchange for the rights to a single night of games, and this is despite the reputation for Thursday Night Football as the home of the week’s worst matchup. Additionally, the revenue distribution from the league builds on whatever local revenues teams earn from sources like ticket and concession sales and stadium parking fees.
Yet, despite the ballooning broadcast rights deals and sponsorship agreements, the NFL has a financial problem: its teams are too expensive to own.
Each year, Forbes publishes a list of the most valuable teams in sports worldwide. Even though the NFL (and football in general) is essentially only popular in the United States, NFL franchises made up 60 percent of Forbes’ most recent top 50 most valuable team list. Four of the top five most valuable franchises come from the NFL, with the Dallas Cowboys and their $8 billion valuation holding the top spot since 2016. With 30 of its 32 teams making the list, the NFL is the undisputed financial king of the sports world.
The most recent sale of an NFL team came in 2022 when the Denver Broncos were sold for $4.65 billion, setting a new record for United States sports franchises. Rob Walton, one of the heirs to the Walmart fortune, will be the primary owner alongside his daughter Carrie Walton Penner and her husband, Greg Penner.
The sale of the Broncos was necessitated after Pat Bowlen, who purchased a controlling stake in the team for $78 million in 1984, stepped away from the team due to his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2014. From Bowlen’s death in 2019 until the sale to Walton and the Penners, the team was controlled by his trust. But instead of passing the team to his children, as has frequently been the case when an NFL owner dies, the trust elected to sell the franchise as none of the children could agree to an arrangement that would make one of them the owner.
In other leagues, this might not have been a problem. Bowlen’s eight children could have simply divided his ownership stake equally, allowing them to function as co-owners. But NFL bylaws require the principal owner of the team to control at least 30% of the franchise, and it quickly became clear that none of Bowlen’s heirs had enough capital to afford the record-setting price tag that the Broncos were to fetch.
League rules on ownership further stipulate that no more than $1 billion of a team’s purchase may be debt financing, which prevented any of the Bowlen heirs from using the team as collateral in a potential deal. Now, with the Washington Commanders possibly for sale owing to current owner Dan Snyder’s lengthy history of misconduct, the league could be running out of buyers.
The other major US sports leagues — Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Hockey League (NHL), and the National Basketball Association (NBA) — all saw the valuation cliff coming. In a world where even the majority of corporate oligarchs cannot afford to purchase a professional sports team, the MLB, NHL, and NBA changed their bylaws to allow private equity firms to purchase stakes in teams. In 2022, the NBA went as far as permitting sovereign wealth funds to buy up to one-fifth of a team’s controlling interest. While no NBA team has come up for sale yet, we could soon enter a world similar to that of European soccer, where oil-rich Gulf States outbid one another for the rights to basketball teams.
After the NBA became the first U.S. league to allow private equity funds, the money poured in, with three funds — Arctos Sports Partners, Dyal Homecourt and Sixth Street — owning stakes in seven different franchises, including a combined 25 percent of my beloved Sacramento Kings. The NFL could be forced to make peace with the corporatization of their teams’ ownership structures, whether with the Commanders or the next team that comes up for sale.
The Green Bay Model
Or maybe not. What if, instead of making our nation’s biggest cultural fixation the plaything of human rights abusers and centibillionaires, the league instead gave fans control over the teams whose uniforms they wear and players they support?
While this idea may sound far fetched, there are many examples, starting with none other than the NFL’s own Green Bay Packers. In 1923, the Packers moved to community ownership structure. The team, then in its fourth year of existence, found itself in desperate financial straits and issued 1,000 shares and $5 apiece. This arrangement has continued to this day, as the Packers are grandfathered into the NFL’s ownership limitations and the most recent offering coming in 2021.
Unlike a typical equity for sale on a stock exchange, shares in the Packers come with a host of restrictions. Technically, shares are sold for the Green Bay Packers Foundation, a nonprofit that owns the actual football team. No individual may own more than 200,000 shares in the foundation, which as of the latest sale amounts to roughly 4 percent of the team. Shares of the Packers cannot be sold, except back to the team at a steep discount, and may only be transferred to immediate family members. Ownership provides no dividends or protection under shareholder laws. Instead, investing in the Packers comes with something far more valuable: the right to have your voice heard.
All Packers shareholders are entitled to a vote on team matters. Most critically, shareholders vote on the team’s board of directors, who in turn select the team president. Currently, the president is Mark H. Murphy. He is the only paid member of the foundation and represents the team at league functions. Murphy also hires and fires the team’s general manager, who is responsible for the day-to-day football decisions, such as hiring a coach or trading a player, as with every other team.
If shareholders, who are typically Packers fans and Green Bay community members, are unhappy with the direction of the team, they can vote in new directors at the annual shareholder meeting, but this is unlikely to occur anytime soon. The team has the best winning percentage in league history, as well as four Super Bowl wins. Financially, the team is equally successful. Since the team is controlled by a nonprofit, the Packers are the only team whose financials are made public each year. In 2022, the team reported a record profit of $77.7 million
This unique ownership structure also ensures that the Packers will never leave Green Bay. With a population barely over 100,000, the city is by far the smallest in the country with a major professional sports team. But unless tens of thousands of shareholders collectively decide to abandon their own hometown, the Packers are staying in Green Bay for good.
Other countries’ sports leagues, primarily for soccer, take public ownership even further. All the soccer clubs in Argentina, the most recent World Cup champions, are owned by their members. Brazil, the nation with the most World Cup titles, has hundreds of member-owned not-for-profit soccer clubs, including nine of their 12 “major” clubs.
In Spain, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of the most famous teams in the world, are still run according to Spain’s socio system. Members, known as socis, pay an annual membership fee in exchange for voting rights. The socis are represented by an elected president of the club, a position roughly analogous to that of general manager in US leagues. The two teams, much like the Green Bay Packers, have achieved unprecedented success both on and off the field, no private equity funds or billionaire oversight needed.
Other major soccer teams, including Manchester United, AS Roma, and Borussia Dortmund, are traded publicly on stock exchanges. While a decidedly more capitalist approach to sports management than member-management, this approach is still more democratic than the NFL’s current all-private approach, as theoretically any individual could invest in shares of the team and vote on matters pursuant to the host nation’s security laws.
And while the ability as a fan to have a say on roster management or stadium upgrades would be nice, there are critical, community-oriented reasons to abolish the oligarchical ownership structure of the NFL. The league knows its teams are cultural linchpins of their cities, with no mayor or governor wanting to go down as the one who presided over a team’s relocation. Yet since, outside of the Packers, no team’s fans have any financial or political control over their favorite franchise, the billionaire owners essentially hold cities, counties, and even entire states hostage when negotiating tax breaks and stadium funding.
Judith Grant Long, professor of sports management at the University of Michigan, estimated that taxpayers have provided the funding for 70 percent of the cost of building and operating the stadiums where NFL teams play. However, despite raking in unprecedented revenues, the public receives very little of the profits generated by the teams playing in the stadiums they funded.
Take the case of the San Francisco 49ers. After ending negotiations with the city of San Francisco in 2006 when then-mayor Gavin Newsom insisted the stadium be privately financed, the 49ers opened negotiations with the distant suburb of Santa Clara. The team sponsored their handcrafted Measure J for city elections in Santa Clara in 2010. Passing easily, the measure exempted the new stadium, now known as Levi’s Stadium, from taxes. It also created a new public agency, the Santa Clara Stadium Authority, to own and operate the stadium.
In order to construct the 49ers’ new home, the Authority took out $850 million in financing from Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and US Bank. The NFL gave the 49ers a comparatively paltry $200 million, meaning the public paid for more than 80 percent of the stadium’s construction costs. The returns on the city’s investment have not been as expected.
In late 2022, the city settled a multiyear lawsuit with the 49ers over the team’s management of non-NFL events at Levi’s Stadium. Despite the majority of the stadium’s funding coming from the city, the 49ers retain management of other events like concerts and college bowl games held at the site. The city council, which is team CEO Jed York’s favorite battleground, alleged that the 49ers were withholding revenues from these events from the city and failing to follow state wage laws, neither of which would be a problem if the team was owned and operated by those who funded its stadium — the people. The city of Santa Clara currently faces a $27 million budget deficit. The York family is worth more than $2.5 billion.
An hour’s drive north into the East Bay, the Oakland Coliseum sits empty from October until April. Once home to the infamous Black Hole, the costume-clad section of passionate Raiders fans, the Coliseum is a stadium without a football team after team owner Mark Davis moved the franchise to Las Vegas in 2020. The primary impetus for the relocation was, again, stadium financing.
Balking at rising rents from the city of Oakland on the city-owned Coliseum and aware that the decades old facility was badly in need of repair, Mark Davis, whose net worth is nearly $2 billion, accepted $750 million in public funding to build the new Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas instead. The city of Oakland sued for damages after the team left the city, accusing the NFL of operating as an economic cartel, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the team had not demonstrated sufficient harm to bring a case against the team.
Imagine instead if the two teams had been owned by fans or the government. It is highly unlikely that Bay Area residents and lifelong fans would have voluntarily moved the teams out of their metro area, as was the case in San Francisco, or out of state entirely, as happened with Oakland. If the city, county, or state owned the teams and stadiums they helped construct, they could redistribute the proceeds from the games — and concerts and special events — held at the sites back to their communities.
This hostage situation, where billionaires demand public financing for their arenas or else move their teams, is not limited to the Bay Area. At the southern end of the state, the city of San Diego now has no football team after city residents rejected team owner and multibillionaire Dean Spanos’ demands for public funding to build a new stadium. St. Louis too lost their team, the Rams, to a relocation to Los Angeles. While the city, unlike Oakland, was successful in their lawsuit against the city, there is no amount of cash that can recreate the feeling of having a local team to support for city residents.
Across the country, after rumors swirled that the Buffalo Bills, whose owners, the Pegulas, are worth nearly $6 billion, would be moved to Toronto or Austin, Texas, New York governor Kathy Hochul announced a plan to give the team a record $850 million in public funding for a new stadium. The public will also foot the bill for an estimated $280 million in planned maintenance and improvements over the life of the new arena. Hochul asserted that economic activities caused by the Bills will allow New York taxpayers to recover “100 percent” of the public investment, but 30 years of economic studies on the issue disagree.
But while there has been a recent spate of high-profile examples of elected officials caving to the demands of billionaire sports owners, the general public’s appetite for stadium construction funding is declining. The only three (out of 30, as two different stadiums are shared by two teams) all-privately funded stadiums in the NFL have all been built since the turn of the century. The core reason the Chargers, Rams, and 49ers, and to a lesser extent the Raiders, moved was because local voters rejected public handouts to team owners. And in Chicago, where Illinois taxpayers are still paying off the last round of renovations to Soldier Field, the Bears have already announced they will not seek public funding for their proposed new stadium in the suburbs.
The experience of Packers fans with their Lambeau Field could not be more different. The past two times the team wanted to improve its facility, it first sought approval from its thousands of member-owners. Then, instead of demanding millions from Green Bay or Wisconsin, the foundation controlling the team simply sold more shares, creating more member-owners while simultaneously raising the funds necessary to complete the proposed improvements. Relocation was never on the table.
There are three main ways in which the 32 NFL teams could be converted from the world’s most expensive toys for our most spoiled billionaires to a true public good. The first and most dramatic would be through the exercise of eminent domain.
In the Fifth Amendment, there is a clause that reads “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” This phrase serves as the legal foundation for the concept of eminent domain, which is when private property is converted into public ownership. Historically, eminent domain has been used to further racial segregation and redlining. Nationalizing the NFL is an example of how the legal maneuver could finally be used to restore power to the people.
While it seems reasonable that, since the public has contributed at least $7.3 billion since 2000 to the construction of 19 different NFL stadiums, the stadiums themselves would be public property, try setting up for a picnic or going for a jog in your local NFL stadium. You’ll find out quickly that they are not, in fact, open to the public. If the cities, countries, or states that host NFL teams elected to exercise eminent domain and retake the stadiums they have largely paid for, the stadiums could become community gathering spots.
But the use of eminent domain could go further. Why stop at seizing the stadiums? A professional team would be nothing without its fans, and those fans are the public. The 30 cities with NFL teams could take ownership of the franchises themselves, converting them to public control. Unhappy with your team’s coaching or play style? You could vote out the director of the agency in control instead of suffering at the whims of a distant billionaire no more connected to your community than a chain restaurant.
If managing an NFL team proved too much work for a local government, the United States could create a federal Department of Sport. As one of the few major nations without an equivalent body, this new department could oversee not only the newly public NFL, but Olympic and World Cup athletics as well. This new agency could employ athletes training to represent our nation on the world’s stage full-time. Gone would be the days of Olympic athletes relying on GoFundMe and part-time jobs to afford their training.
Unfortunately, the far-right Supreme Court seems more interested in giving natural gas companies the power to use eminent domain to build more pipelines than it does in extending the right to cities looking to rescue their football teams from despotic owners. A decidedly legal and explicitly capitalist alternative to the use of eminent domain would be to require the NFL to convert each team to a publicly traded corporation.
This alternative has some precedent. There are the soccer examples listed above, as well as the case of Madison Square Garden Sports Corporation. Also known as MSG Sports, the company is publicly traded and owns the NBA’s Knicks and NHL’s Rangers. The MLB’s Boston Red Sox came close to selling approximately 25 percent of the team to a publicly traded corporation in 2021 before the deal collapsed. The NFL currently bans corporate ownership, but as team valuations climb ever upward, the league may not have a choice but to change its laws.
Taking each team public would be a nominal improvement over the current all-private structure, but it would come inherent with the myriad issues of late-stage capitalism that plague the rest of our economy today. For example, less than 7 percent of shares in MSG Sports are held by retail investors, which means shareholder votes are essentially decided by the institutional funds that control the company.
Then there is the member-owner structure of the Green Bay Packers, Argentine and Brazilian soccer, and the socios of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. While not a perfect example of public control, as members must have enough capital to buy into the voting class, this system represents a significant return of power to the people when compared to the oligarchy that currently controls the NFL.
The Packers reside in the smallest metro in the league, but will never leave and abandon the city in the middle of the night. They have renovated Lambeau Field twice in the last 15 years at a cost of $0 to the people of Wisconsin. In fact, revenues last season reached record heights. On the field, the team has the best record in league history and is regularly in Super Bowl contention. It certainly seems as though giving the community a say in how its team is run works out for all involved.
If the league was to adopt this model for the other 31 teams, I would make one significant change: reserve a certain portion of team ownership for the players. The athletes of the NFL are members of one of the most recognized unions in the nation, the NFL Players Association. Through collective bargaining, the NFLPA has achieved 20 percent salary increases, pensions and healthcare for life for former players, and revenue sharing with the league. In 2030, when the league’s current collective bargaining agreement expires, players should insist on receiving a stake in the team’s that employ them.
When the Packers last issued shares in 2021, at least two of the team’s players, AJ Dillon and Aaron Jones, bought a stake in their team. They are now entitled to vote on team matters, including indirectly on their boss. This is an additional right not afforded to players of the other 31 teams in the league. Converting the teams of the NFL to a hybrid employee co-op, community-owned league would be the innovative solution our nation’s premier pastime deserves.
The 31 owners will never willingly surrender their dictatorial control over the teams. They will continue to hold communities hostage over stadium funding, going unpunished for explicit examples of racist and sexist behavior, and colluding to underpay the players who make up their teams. If owners can leverage the threat of relocation to get what they want from state and local governments, it is time for the government to fight back.
Cities should dangle the threat of eminent domain seizures of the stadiums or even teams, years of expensive and complicated litigation where the owners would have to prove that they deserve to retain control of the stadium they did not pay to construct and the team that is unquestionably central to a community’s cultural identity. Like the owners, the cities should make it clear that they will drop the threat so long as their terms are met — which would be the extension of the Green Bay model to the other 31 franchises. Cities could collaborate with the NFLPA to support a hybrid employee co-op model as well.
Sports are often seen as an escape from reality, a few hours on a Sunday afternoon where you can cheer for your team and forget about bills and work and chores. Owners are increasingly depriving communities of that escape, clouding the joy of watching a football game with anxiety about stadium financing or relocating an entire team when they don’t get what they want. It is time to take NFL teams out of the hands of billionaires and place them into the hands of their employees and supporters by converting our national pastime into our nationalized pastime.