By Neil deMause
A sports powerhouse announced its long-awaited stadium plans last week, and the verdict was: Rather than replace their historic building, the club would conduct extensive renovations to add new seating, restaurants, and a partial roof. The entire $800 million cost will be paid for out of team revenues, which was one reason a new building was rejected as too great an expense.
The renovations, though, won't take place unless they're approved by the team's 222,000-member fan base. Because, after all, they're the team's owners.
No, this isn't some kind of alternate-reality fantasy of Dave Zirin's. The team is F.C. Barcelona, the until-recently universal choice as the best club team in international soccer, which last summer reloaded by acquiring Brazilian wunderkind Neymar to go with soccer supergod Lionel Messi (though they've had trouble keeping them both healthy at the same time). Barça, as the team is known to its Catalan-speaking fan base, has no media magnate or sheikh in its owner's box: Rather, the team is collectively owned by its socios, the members of the supporters' club who pay about $240 a year to own a share of the team. For the price, they not only get a chance to buy season tickets in the supporters' sections, but the right to vote on major decisions like hiring team management.
To the American sports fan, this sounds like crazy talk, but it's fairly common in European soccer. Three other Spanish clubs (Real Madrid, Osasuna, and Athletic Bilbao) are likewise socio-owned; in the German Bundesliga, meanwhile, a "50+1" rule requires majority ownership of all clubs by individual fans -- preventing a billionaire or corporation from taking control of a team. It's a model that's been praised by European soccer leaders as the "ideal," and that has been credited with keeping German ticket prices far lower than they would be otherwise: The cheapest season tickets to Bayern Munich, the reigning European champions, go for just a little over $90, or less than some single-game upper-deck Yankees tickets.
The reasons for this are historical: Fan ownership in Germany and Spain goes back to the early years of the 20th century, when it was considered an unremarkable way to raise money for a team. (British teams originally had a similar structure, but eventually saw a shift to private ownership because there were no rules to stop one individual from buying up all the stock.) In the U.S., meanwhile, where the sports business evolved as mostly a way for local rich guys to promote their products (beer magnates were especially popular), only one prominent team followed the fan-owner model: the Green Bay Packers, who were set up in 1923 as a private non-profit, later adding a rule that no one individual could own more than a small percentage of shares. After that you have a couple of minor-league baseball teams (the Rochester Red Wings and Syracuse Chiefs most prominent), three Canadian Football League franchises, and that's about it for the continent.
On the face of it, there's nothing stopping more North American teams from being fan-owned - nothing, that is, except for the intransigent opposition of the major sports leagues. The NFL passed a rule in 1960 that outlawed not-for-profit franchises, effectively eliminating not only any copycat Packers, but even such notions as giving the public a share of ownership in exchange for taxpayer stadium subsidies. And other sports leagues have been equally antagonistic toward even the whiff of public ownership: When Ray Kroc, owner of the San Diego Padres (and a little thing called McDonald's), died and his widow, Joan, tried to give the team to the city of San Diego as a public trust, MLB stepped in and nixed the deal. There have been a few U.S. sports teams that have sold stock for brief periods -- the Cleveland Indians and Boston Celtics come to mind -- but these have always been minority shares with no actual voting control.
The reasons are simple: Existing team owners absolutely hate the idea of letting representatives of the outside fan world into their little club - these are guys who will lock the door even to someone they've decided is the wrong kind of billionaire, after all - and also aren't crazy about team finances becoming a matter of public record. Besides, ruling out public ownership by fiat is a great way to stop fans and politicians from griping that they should be allowed a stake in their local team: "So sorry, old chaps, but there's a league rule against it. What a pity."
So what's it like, rooting for a team with no top-hatted, cigar-chomping plutocrat at the helm? As any Packers (or Rochester Red Wings) fan can tell you, not all that much different from the usual: Rich guys typically hire professional management to run their teams, after all (the ones who don't just appoint their stepsons, anyway), and fan shareholders are free to do the same. Spanish and German club members only get to vote on occasional big decisions -- no setting game-time strategy from the stands -- though an enterprising Barça fan did recently force the team president to resign by filing a lawsuit over the hidden bonuses management had snuck into Neymar's contract. (Mets fans, you are hereby authorized to fantasize about doing the same over Bobby Bonilla.)
One big difference in Europe is that teams are far less likely to hold up their home cities for stadium upgrades; when FC Barcelona realized that a new stadium would saddle their team with too much debt, they never considered simply ringing up the mayor of Barcelona and asking for a few hundred million euros from the city treasury. (Though Barça and their socio-owned rivals Real Madrid do get preferential tax breaks from the Spanish government, something that's spurred an EU investigation.) But that's more a function of the structure of European soccer, where what here would be called "major" and "minor" leagues are just one big organization, with teams being able to earn promotions to the next level up by finishing at the top of their level. It would have been tough for the Minnesota Vikings, say, to have extracted a billion dollars in public cash for a new stadium by threatening to move to Los Angeles if the state of Minnesota could have turned around and said, "No worries, we'll just get a minor-league team and let them work their way up to the majors."
In fact, fan-owned teams show that many of the problems besetting sports are embedded in the nature of the industry, regardless of who signs the checks. Certain teams still dominate over others, thanks to richer fan bases: Barça and Real Madrid's supremacy in La Liga makes the Red Sox-Yankees duopoly look like an egalitarian utopia. Ticket prices may be kept a bit lower, but they still can't be too low, as teams still have an incentive to boost profits in order to bid for top talent. And fan-hired execs can be just as incompetent or underhanded as the corporate kind: The Syracuse Chiefs recently switched management teams after the old one all but ran the team into the ground, and even the sainted Packers arm-twisted county residents into spending $295 million in tax money on a renovation of Lambeau Field, through the time-honored fat-cat technique of threatening that the team would move or disappear if the public didn't cough up the dough.
Still, there is something nice about not having a one-percenter raking in all the benefits of sports ownership, not to mention having an occasional vote available on issues that affect the people who actually pay the bills. All we need now is to reset the entire structure of American pro sports industry to make this possible. In theory, Congress could step in and force leagues to allow fan ownership, but you know, Congress. Anybody have a time machine that we can set for 1923?
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Neil deMause is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has covered sports economics for Slate, the Village Voice, Baseball Prospectus and a bunch of other places you wouldn't remember. He runs the stadium news website Field of Schemes, and co-authored the book of the same name.