The People's Champs?

A case for community ownership in Major League Soccer
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Community ownership has not slowed Barca's march towards immortality

With the announcement that a deal is "near" (or not) for a new soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows Park, bringing a true New York team to MLS and one perfectly placed near several soccer-loving neighborhoods, one can begin to dream a little about an unsullied, likable team in the borough of Queens. But why not dream slightly bigger than that?

What if, instead of being owned by the usual figureheads of inequality—your pick (not really) of hedge-fund managers, real estate machers, Russian oligarchs, and Saudi princes—this team (Los Aeros? El Internacional? SoccerMets?) was owned by the people of New York?

There are innumerable economic and social benefits that would come from a city or community-owned professional team in America's fastest-growing major league sport, especially as the nascent franchise is poised to become the league's signature team. The Green Bay Packers, one of the world's most successful sports franchises, has flourished as a community-owned team (the very idea of which has been so anathema to private interests, it has since been outlawed by the National Football League). MLS has already toyed around with increasing fan involvement in management, with Seattle Sounders fans holding a referendum on their general manager every four years.

Internationally, professional soccer has a long history of community ownership. Fans are the majority owner of all professional soccer teams in Germany, Sweden, and Turkey. This has helped keep ticket prices down, make broadcasts of games free, and, perhaps most refreshingly, kept teams from threatening to pick up and move if cities refuse to build them garish new stadiums. The relationship is utterly the inverse of the usual in American sports, and something very much like a partnership between the team and the community it calls home.

Recently, the English government has encouraged fans to form supporters' trusts. Facing the dissolution of many favorite teams, fans have formed not-for-profit organizations that assumed ownership of the team. While these teams mostly populate the lower divisions of European soccer, the ascendant AFC Wimbledon, which was formed in 2002, has already gone from the ninth tier to the very competitive fourth in just under a decade.

In that mold, the new MLS team could be owned by a non-profit organization, formed by soccer supporters in New York City, who would be willing to donate the upwards of $50 million dollars that Major League Soccer is looking to receive as a franchise fee (some estimates put that figure closer to $70 million). These supporters would become shareholders in the organization, electing, like the Packers, a board of directors, who, in turn, would appoint an executive committee. The chairman of that committee would act as team president. The non-profit would then use money from sponsorships, concessions, and broadcasting rights to pay their players, maintain the stadium, as well as use any excess profit to go towards youth soccer academies and other community-related endeavors. In short, it would be run very much like the Packers, where the team, instead of becoming a shill for a large soft-drink corporation or working overtime to come up with new ways to extract new fees from ticket-holders, is instead one in the same with the community. It would feel a little strange. It would also be really, really cool.

It will never happen.

For one, Major League Soccer is privately funding construction of the new stadium with some help from tax breaks. They'll be looking for a wealthy owner dedicated to maximizing profits and feeding more money into the league's revenue-sharing model; an off-the-rack moneybags, in other words.

Furthermore, MLS advises me that there needs to be a singular majority owner of every team, even if that is a corporation. A non-profit would constitute several owners. This is weird because a publicly traded company like Red Bull—sponsors of, among other teams, the MLS team that plays its games in Harrison, New Jersey, and also of diabetes and jitteriness—also has several owners, thus making each shareholder a part-owner in their multiple soccer teams. But whatever: according to MLS, no non-profits. Also, I guess corporations are people now?

But what about the city itself? In 1995, faced with the possible move of their beloved Senators, Harrisburg bought their minor league baseball team for $6.7 million. The Double-A minor league team was managed by a non-profit formed by the city, and eventually sold for a significant profit in 2005.

New York, which is paradoxically perpetually broke and flush with millions to throw away on stadiums we don't end up owning, could easily put up the franchise fee and run the team as a public utility. The city could even offer a bond measure, putting the purchase of the team up for a vote. If passed, the city would receive the funding to buy the team, then pay dividends to the bondholders based on the profits of the franchise. Run at a loss for the first few years, the team would eventually provide a profit for the city, as well as warrant a type of devotion that New Yorkers are all too eager to give representatives of their city. The profits could go towards maintaining parks, supporting youth sports programs, and a myriad of other public purposes. And the city, as a corporation, would qualify for ownership under the MLS bylaws.

No matter how far-fetched these ideas might be, it's way past time to start thinking about alternative ownership models. As much fun as it is to root for a team named after Red Bull—lord, do I love that stuff—it feels shallow, debasing, and wrong to essentially root for interests that are working against the communities they feign to serve. Contemporary owners take our money in ever more creative and rent-seeking ways, ask for insane tax breaks with ever less trepidation, and eventually extort whole municipalities into capitulation when they object. Whoever emerges as the owner of the new franchise, it seems certain that Billionaire TBD would not run a team that prioritizes the interests of the people of New York the way that the people of New York would.


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Comments

Ironic that someone like Paul Ryan is a supposed diehard Packers fan and yet politics like he does.

Good read. Makes me wonder if the answer lies with the fact that this "experiment" of public ownership worked well in C-list markets like GB & Harrisburg vs a world metropolis. Perhaps in a town or small city where the MLS club is the primary attraction this is an idea that could get off the ground.