You know it’s been a long year for Boston’s Boys of Summer when the highlight of the Red Sox season was trading three of their best players to the Los Angeles Dodgers in order to create salary flexibility. Wow. Seems like just yesteryear we were all celebrating another World Series Championship, singing “Sweet Caroline” in the streets, and actually selling out every game at Fenway. Then last September’s collapse occurred, followed by an off-season that couldn’t have been handled any worse by majority owner John Henry and his Fenway Sports Group. And now, to put it mildly, Sox fans are fed up with the charade that has become Red Sox Nation. Just how did this degenerate transition happen?
“We started spending money like the Yankees,” eulogizes ESPN’s Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons. “Our charming, broken-down, illogically constructed museum of a baseball park was overhauled and turned into a cash cow (same for the streets surrounding it). The owners relentlessly pimped the Red Sox brand inside the stadium, on their website, on their 24-hour TV channel, on your street, in your house, on your forehead and everywhere else you could imagine … only we looked the other way because they kept funneling so much of their profits back into the team.”
Well, all that, plus a Fenway Sports Group business partnership with none other than LeBron James. (The Curse of the King, anyone?)
Simply put, it’s gotten pretty bad. So when Charlie Gasparino recently reported for Fox Business that the Fenway Sports Group was considering selling the Red Sox, I immediately started dreaming of a new ownership group, made up of the still-devoutly-devoted Red Sox faithful, who would pool money and effort together akin to the fans of the Green Bay Packers, to achieve franchise ownership community style. (Majority owner John Henry denied the report, of course. But as the saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. So why not fan fire?) If fans are no longer buying the overly-mediated Sox brand, maybe we could buy the team from its mediators. After all, if it can work for the Packers, why not the Sox?
America’s only community-owned sports team, the Green Bay Packers, are controlled by some 300,000 or so stockholders, who together own some 4.7 million shares of pigskin pride, with no individual allowed to hold more than 200,000 shares.
“The nonprofit [Green Bay Packers] team is financially solvent, competitive, and deeply connected to the community,” Dave Zirin writes in Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love. “It has created something beautiful: a throwback that is also forward-looking. It deserves to be replicated.”
And what better place to replicate it than Boston, the hub of sports obsessiveness? I’ll bet we could entice at least 300,000 fans to purchase ownership stock of the Sox. Sure, it would be a lot of money, up to $1.5 billion including the team, Fenway, and NESN all together, estimates Adam Wells over at Bleacher Report. But we have strength and solidarity in numbers! And if it’s still too expensive, who needs NESN anyway? Let someone else buy the Fenway Sports Group’s television mouthpiece, and bid for the right to cover our team’s games.
Sounds pretty good? I agree. Except … Except franchise ownership by fans is no longer allowed to happen … Regardless of the Packers exception … Except that.
“The late commissioner Pete Rozelle, in 1960, wrote into the league’s constitution that no one could ever again ‘nonprofitize’ their team,” continues Zirin.
The league “grandfathered in the Green Bay Packers,” Smith College Professor of Economics Andrew Zimbalist tells me. “Packers stockholders can’t sell their stock on the open market, only to family members.” And the MLB doesn’t allow public ownership either, he adds.
Joan Kroc, the widow of MacDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, tried to donate the Padres to the city of San Diego back in 1980s. She even included a $100 million trust fund to cover the team’s operating expenses. Which seems like a great offer for the city. But the deal was nixed by the other owners. And she ended up selling the Padres to current Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner.
“She wanted to give the team to the city,” notes Zimbalist, “not to the people.” So it wouldn’t have specifically been a cooperative ownership structure, as is the case with the Packers. Nonetheless, it would have been a refreshing change from the litany of billionaire private owners our leagues are inundated with today.
Alas, fan ownership is no longer allowed by our sports leagues (aka the owners), regardless of how much devotion we shower of favorite franchise with. And how disparagingly those owners can treat we the fans.
“One of the best reasons for community ownership is keeping money in the community,” Zimbalist says, noting that too often, team owners demand money for a new stadium from taxpayers, under threat of moving the team to another (more tax-friendly) city. He adds that the current Red Sox ownership group actually renovated Fenway Park with their own money.
Which is nice. Fenway Park does hold a special place in our sports landscape, both locally and nationally. And the Fenway Sports Group did bring two World Series titles to Beantown. Maybe they do know what they’re doing. Maybe some day soon the beer and chicken fiasco, Bobby Valentine, and the supposed sell out streak will all be a distant memory. Maybe Sox fans can get off the proverbial bridge. Not rush into judgment. At least for now.
Of course, as any longtime Sox fan knows all too well, there’s always next year.