With Brett Favre back in the news of the world of sports, I thought it might be appropriate to do a little political economy of sports.
Professional sports in the United States best resembled a system of slavery until 1975. Before that year, all standard player contracts contained the Reserve Clause, which stated that, upon the contract’s expiration, the rights to the player were to be retained by the team to which he had been signed; essentially the player was the property of the team. Realizing that salaries would quickly escalate if players were allowed to move freely among teams, owners often retained players.
The Reserve Clause became one of the primary concerns of the Major League Baseball Players Association in the early 1970s, and it was eventually struck down in 1975 when it was ruled that pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally could become free agents after playing one year without a contract. Other sports quickly followed suit, establishing free agency in the United States.
Professional sports in United States have witnessed a class-struggle based transition from a slavery system to a capitalistic one in just the past few decades. This raises some interesting questions: what could another transition look like? And what would the transition be to?
I want to offer a look at one alternative: the Green Bay Packers, of which my family is part owner. The Green Bay Packers are the only non-profit, community-owned major league professional sports team in the United States, and considered the last vestige of “small town teams” that were once common in the National Football League. There are over 4,750,000 shares available, and shareholders have voting rights but the shares do not pay dividends. While not quite worker-owned, the Packers franchise certainly offers a very different structure than the typical professional team, owned by one person, a partnership, or some corporate entity (i.e. Nintendo or Cablevision).
And they can still win superbowls. Sometimes.