Guest post by Doug Von Korff, staff intern
The “invisible hand” has once again selected a publicly-owned, nonprofit organization by sending the Green Bay Packers to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl on Sunday.
Does the notion of a “publicly-owned nonprofit” competing in the pinnacle of American competition and corporate capitalism sound odd? That’s because the Packers are the only franchise of its kind in the league.
Current NFL rules outlaw public team ownership, but you have to wonder why. Shares of Packers stock first went on sale to the public in 1923. Since then, the team has won 12 league championships: 9 prior to the Super Bowl and 3 Super Bowl victories – more than any other NFL team, and all while publicly-owned.
Ownership pays no dividends and yields no perks (not even preference for season tickets!). Shareholders get only the privilege to vote in elections for the team’s Board of Directors. No single stock owner can own more than 200,000 shares, which ensures that no individual has undue influence over the voting process. This system of governance is often cited as the reason the team has never moved from Green Bay, a town of barely more than 100,000, to a larger market.
There’s something we can learn from the Packers about delivering public value.
While other NFL teams have to balance earning a profit for their owners against putting the best team possible on the field, public ownership means the focus of the Packers organization isn’t split between entertaining and making a profit from their fans.
Now of course, public ownership alone isn’t enough to win a football game. You need to recruit players with dedication, smarts, agility and strength; hire coaches who know the game well, and who are respected by their players; build stadiums and concessions… you get the idea.
That’s not so different from our government. Government doesn’t exist to turn a profit, but to protect the public and lay the foundation that makes it possible for every person to strive for success. To do that, you have to find and retain smart and capable public servants; elect public officials who understand what’s at stake; build schools and roads…you get the idea.
I think the major difference between the Packers ownership model and our notion of government ownership isn’t the profit incentive, or a capitalist creed. It’s the enthusiasm of the shareholders, and a recognition of what is delivered for our dollars.
Packers fans happily support their team financially and participate in its governance – they get nothing in return save the satisfaction of being part of a winning team. They pay in to the system because they think that what they receive by having a well-managed, winning team is worth the price.
On the other hand, a steady stream of talk-radio shock jocks and talking heads on cable TV have told Americans that public funds can’t fix problems; that the profit incentive is the only way to ensure efficiency; that the public institutions in which we share ownership (public schools, public power/water districts, ferry systems, etc.) are failing. And if you believe that, well, it’s difficult not to resent paying your taxes – that is, buying shares in your government.
But Washington taxpayers actually receive a huge return for a relatively small investment – roads and ferries that can take them across the state in a matter of hours; seaports and airports that make our state a hub for international trade; nation-leading public universities and an outstanding community and technical college system…the list goes on. Could we improve those structures and services? Of course we can, and we should.
The point is, if we can get it together for a football team – just for the sake of winning – shouldn’t we be able to muster some enthusiasm to pay for a government that makes it possible for everyone to win, instead of fixing the rules so that only the few profit?