Taking Ownership

Most people who enjoy professional sports tune into games and analysis as an outlet from the pall of their everyday routines. Sports serve as a solid recreational following that incite emotions, curiosities, a natural fascination with human feats of athleticism, and copious beer consumption. For fans of the New York Knickerbockers of the NBA, however, this recreational following has devolved into a self-destructive pastime akin to banging your head against a wall repeatedly, without stopping, from October until April.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m sure that somewhere in a young suburban or outer borough child’s bedroom, or tucked into the deep recesses of the internet, there are people who actually enjoy watching the Knicks on a nightly basis. They follow the season with earnest, no matter how much the team’s stars don’t care or how run-down the bench looks. They pay little mind to the pitifully shortsighted approach of the front office and coaching staff in prioritizing high priced, mostly washed talent in favor of developing young potential. For these fans, the Knicks are a joyous treasure, regardless of garbage contracts, tilted trades, or embarrassing losses.

The rest of us are jaded. We’ve been Dolan’d.

James Dolan, son of Cablevision founder Charles, is the executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company, which includes under its umbrella the New York Rangers of the NHL and the Knicks. He was bequeathed the company and both franchises by his father, and though the Rangers have experienced a solid run of consistency over the past few years, the Knicks have been a raging dumpster fire ever since.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end with pathetic Ls and missed playoff opportunities—for the Knicks, it’s organizational incompetence from the top down. Dolan has hired basketball legends turned failed executives, signed marginal stars to monstrously questionable contracts, and most recently booted a team legend from Madison Square Garden (the Mecca of basketball!) before suggesting he should get help for alcoholism.

But of course, no matter how heinous his personnel choices, abhorrent his front office decisions, or reprehensible his behavior, Dolan is the owner of the team. He can do whatever the hell he wants with them, to them, for them, against them. In essence, the Knicks are a dictatorship, with all those who fall under their domain answering to King James (no, not that King James—this one).

Sure, Knicks fans could up and root for some other team with a less shitty owner—today’s technology certainly makes it easy—but where’s the fun in that? Most people grow to love their hometown sports franchise because of that local connection, and no sport or team connects to New York like basketball and the Knicks.

So what’s a fan to do? There have been countless petitions to unseat Dolan or force him to sell the team, which are as silly as they are fruitless. Misguided as they are, though, these fans are correct that change comes through them.

Those who pay for tickets, concessions, merchandise, and cable packages are the lifeblood of any professional sports franchise—without fans, what’s the point of even having a team? Of course, it’s unreasonable to expect every single person to stop buying tickets to a given team’s games, especially in a place like New York City, where Knicks games count as a tourist attraction. And that’s not to speak for the endless numbers of kids around the country who have never been to Madison Square Garden to watch the orange and blue, but want to rep their faraway favorite with a hat or jersey. To call on an entire fanbase to stop spending money on a team is noble; to expect it to happen is wholly unrealistic.

Fans would be less likely to call for a boycott or blackout if they felt a visceral, tangible stake in their favorite team’s success or failure. There are, of course, some organizations that understand this fact and have played directly to it. A number of teams across the globe, most notably soccer clubs, boast public ownership, where fans can buy and hold stock. Two of the most valuable sports franchises on the planet, Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona, are owned and operated by their supporters.

In the United States, the trend hasn’t exactly caught on, and likely never will—for business magnates, owning a professional sports team is a passage of conquest, and the big wigs aren’t about to hand over control to a bunch of nitwits who spend their free time calling into sports radio shows. One American franchise, however, proudly boasts its public ownership, and some would argue they’re more successful for it.

The Green Bay Packers are arguably the most successful franchise in the history of the National Football League, with 15 total NFL titles (four Super Bowls), 18 division championships, and 32 playoff appearances. At last tally, they also have 360,760 stockholders who own more than 5 million shares in the team, which are periodically sold by the team to give their fans a chance to call themselves owners of an NFL franchise.

Admirable though it may be, this ownership structure was born out of necessity, when the team faced financial hardship in the early 1920s. Curly Lambeau (for whom the Packers’ football stadium is named) found a number of financial backers to help fund the team. Though the NFL later outlawed public ownership of its franchises, the Packers were grandfathered in, having operated as a non-profit corporation since 1923.

Bill Povletich, award-winning documentary filmmaker, author, and lifelong Packer fan, explains that this ownership structure gave the fans more reason to show out and take pride in their hometown team.

“It creates a lot of civic pride surrounding the Packers,” Povletich tells BTRtoday. “As the other small town franchises were dissolving, the Packers were able to persevere because they were receiving municipal support from fans who were coming out to support the team.”

Povletich’s 2012 book “Green Bay Packers: Trials, Triumphs, and Traditions” chronicles the team’s history off the field, including key figures that never wore a helmet. The organization’s Board of Directors has been heralded as one of the steadiest ownership collectives in football over the years, which has identified top coaching and player talent for decades—one look at the Packers Hall of Fame will tell you all you need to know about Green Bay’s triumphs.

There are some, however, who would refer to this public ownership with a harsher term: scam. Deadspin did just that in a 2011 article detailing the number of privileges afforded to those who shelled out the $250 for shares when the Packers sold them following the team’s most recent Super Bowl victory—and they’re just this side of none. Packers stockholders can’t sell their shares for profit, and they don’t have any real say in the team, outside of an invite to the annual stockholders meeting, where they’re invited to vote on the board of directors. In essence, the Packers have sold loyalty to their fans, who at every opportunity have gobbled it up enthusiastically.

Fans like Povletich believe the term scam is a misnomer in this instance, citing the fact that the organization makes it clear from the start that the shares can’t be sold for personal profit and don’t give you any say in who the team should draft or sign to play running back.

“A scam implies that you were promised one thing, and then after you purchased it you were handed something else,” he says. “The Packers aren’t saying that because you buy a stock, all the sudden you can start making personnel decisions. It’s to have the privilege of saying you’re an owner of the Packers, and to go one level closer in your connection with the team.”

Imagine 360,000 people voting on whether or not to fire the team’s head coach or who should start at quarterback this week. Chaos would ensue, and the team would stink for decades. The real purpose is to bring fans closer to their team, and boy does it work well—according to that Deadspin piece, within 11 minutes, the Packers had sold $400,000 worth of shares. Meanwhile, the board of directors and executive committee (and Aaron freaking Rodgers) keep the machine humming and Green Bay steadily successful.

That has to be better than some sports oligopoly headed by some fat-pocketed dimwit, right?

Not necessarily. As Povletich explains, the Packers collective ownership provides steady guidance, but can make team struggles even more difficult.

“Between [1968] and the 1992 season when the team finished 9-7, the Packers were terrible, and there was a lot of dysfunction within the organization,” he says. “When it works, it’s great, but when it isn’t working, it’s really hard to make changes because you don’t have that single owner who can make executive decisions in the moment.”

In business, particularly sports, those types of decisions are important not only in determining the direction of a franchise, but in sending a message to those who work and root for it. When the person in that role is a steady-handed, thoughtful, intelligent person who considers multiple opinions and maintains a long term vision with short term goals, things can work out beautifully. When that person is James Dolan, you get the Knicks. After the last 17 years of hapless basketball at MSG, a “meaningless” certificate of ownership and board of directors sound pretty damn good.