A Super Bowl musing: Can pro sports be more than a billionaire bacchanalia?

A cyber-savvy deep pocket is claiming he has the key to ‘democratizing’ our sporting landscape.

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Image Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

he billionaire owners of the NFL might like to think they have — in their annual Super Bowl extravaganza — the world’s biggest sports event. But the driving passion of more fans globally than any other sport remains what the world calls football and what Americans see as soccer.

Global football, of course, also has its billionaire owners, and one of them — or, to be more exact, one of their sons — has just done something that he claims will “democratize” his sport.

That claim has raised eyebrows — and interest. Heaven knows, professional sports certainly need democratizing. Billionaires the world over currently command sports franchise fiefdoms that routinely exploit their fans and their communities. These billionaires shake down ticket-holders with deep emotional attachments to their teams, use threats of exit to extract government subsidies, and routinely use up and spit out beloved players who’ve spent years giving fans their all.

No sports league enables more of this behavior than the NFL in the United States.

“The league makes relatively few demands of these owners, other than requiring that they are terribly wealthy,” as New York Times journalist Michael Powell once observed. “And it offers them a prime directive: build ever-grander stadiums and make sure that every stream of revenue — suites, seats, concessions, parking — sluices into your coffers. Do this, and we’ll help you gang tackle cities and states.  We’ll even throw in a Super Bowl to boot.”

Can entrepreneur Kiat Lim, the “democratizing” 28-year-old son of Singapore billionaire Peter Lim, actually give us a new model of how sports could operate? Some media outlets certainly seem to think so. Lim’s effort, gushes one press report, could “truly revolutionize the fan experience” by allowing fans everywhere a stake in sports franchises they can use to influence club decisions “even from afar.”

“Billionaire Peter Lim’s Son,” reads the headline over the Forbes coverage, “Democratizes Sports Ownership.”

Kim and his pals, former players from Manchester United’s illustrious class of 1992, have chosen the trendy crypto notion of the “decentralized autonomous organization” — or DAO for short — as the building block for their new sports “democracy.”

“The DAO structure democratizes professional sports ownership and breaks traditional barriers to allow more opportunities for involvement,” exults Lim. “Building on the principles of an ownership economy and leveraging Web3 technology, we are creating a more inclusive and engaging environment for fans to be involved in decision-making, participate in the whole ecosystem of the game, and share in all the aspects of success together.”

What exactly does a DAO do?

DAOs — “Internet-native” organizations owned and managed by their members — run on open-source, computer code blockchains that anyone can view and audit. They typically operate by selling tokens to raise funds. Tokens extend voting rights to those who buy them.

DAOs, enthuses one proponent, give “like-minded folks around the globe” an “effective and safe way to work.” No CEOs “can authorize spending based on their own whims.” Everyone in the organization “has a voice.”

“By allowing anyone to propose an idea and everyone to vote on it,” cheers another enthusiast, “DAOs foster an Idea Meritocracy that cultivates all of the available talent within an organization, as well as distributing the decision-making power in favor of the Wisdom of the Crowd.”

That all sounds enormously promising, but a closer look at the fine print quickly reveals that the “democratizing” Lim and his partners are pitching bears little resemblance to what sports fans might consider real democracy in the games they love and avidly follow.

In a real pro sports democracy, loyal fans who live and die by the outcomes of the games their teams play would have a significant say in how their teams operate on an ongoing basis. They might elect their team’s board of directors, for instance, or have the right to veto a pro franchise’s move to abandon one city for greener — and more profitable — pastures elsewhere.

Kim and his pals from Manchester United’s class of 1992 seem to have something else entirely in mind. The “democracy” they’re creating revolves around turning fans into investors who can help them make the most out of lucrative sports-related business opportunities.

“We have access to unique sporting projects and want to work together with fans to create value together,” explains Gary Neville, one of the former Manchester United players partnering with Lim.

Lim and company are calling their effort the “CO92 DAO,” and the projects they’re contemplating may include buying football clubs with high growth potential or diving into new football-related technologies. We’ll always, says Lim, be “selecting the best projects and doing it right by the community and fans.”

So “democracy” in sports to the Lim crowd, sums up Bloomberg business reporter Joanna Ossinger, boils down to creating “an organization that will allow fans to make sports-related investments alongside them.”

That conception hardly seems to match what most sports fans would see as “what democracy looks like.”

What would democracy in pro sports look like? Maybe something like the Green Bay Packers, the only franchise in the NFL without a billionaire principal owner. The Packers operate as a community-owned nonprofit corporation. The team last year had 361,300 shareholders, with no single shareholder — under the team’s bylaws — holding over 4 percent of the club’s shares.

Fans who currently own Packer shares — $250 each at the team’s last share offering — collect no annual dividends or get any price break on tickets. They can’t trade their shares on the open market either. They do get the right to elect Green Bay’s board of directors and the team’s seven-member executive committee that hobnobs with the billionaires at NFL league meetings.

The Packers, pro football’s third-oldest franchise, have basically operated this way since the 1920s. Green Bay has essentially been grandfathered into a world of grasping billionaires. Current NFL rules, adopted in 1960, forbid any other NFL team from operating on the Packers governance model.

But NFL rules, Packer shareholder Harvey Wasserman has pointed out, don’t have to shut the door on public ownership of football’s pro franchises — or any other pro franchises in modern America.

“Why do we allow our precious sports clubs to be the playthings of a bunch of wealthy degenerates?” Wasserman asks, “It’s time to use the Packer green and gold as a starter model for all franchise ownership.”

The vehicle for that transformation? Eminent domain, the constitutional right that allows local governments and other public bodies to take property with “just compensation.”

Mega-rich pro sports owners, Wasserman notes, “have been gouging out public subsidies for stadiums, tax breaks, and too much else over the decades.” With eminent domain, public entities could “condemn” all these franchises and buy out their billionaire “owners.” Each team could then operate under public ownership, a la Green Bay, “in partnership with the unions of the players.”

Could the Green Bay model ever scale up to an entire nation’s pro sports structure? To some extent, that’s already happened — in Germany. Until 1998, nonprofit “members’ associations” ran all German football teams. The new model that emerged that year allowed private ownership in Germany’s top football league, the Bundesliga, but limited commercial investors to a 49 percent stake in any one club.

This “50+1” rule has left fans with a majority ownership stake in Germany’s highest-tier teams and created, within German football, what arguably rates as Europe’s healthiest sports environment. The Bundesliga has been, writes Goal.com’s Ryan Kelly, “regularly dominating the average attendance charts of European football” with “ticket prices remaining relatively affordable for fans.”

Over in the UK, a sports land where billionaires rule, progressives have been looking longingly at the German model. In 2019, the Labor Party campaigned on a platform that included democratic reforms for the nation’s top-tier Premier League.

“Let’s take the beautiful game away from the billionaires,” declared then-party leader Jeremy Corbyn, “and hand it to the fans instead.”

The Labor reforms would have, among other provisions, given nonprofit “supporters trusts” representation on club boards of directors and enabled these trusts to buy shares when clubs change ownership hands.

“Sport must be run in the interests of those who participate in it, follow it and love it, not just for the privileged and wealthy few,” the Labor Party urged. “We will ensure that supporters have a say over how their club is run and review how fans can have more of a say about how all of our sporting bodies are run.”

The UK’s right-wing media predictably raged against the Labour sports proposals — one daily blasted “Corbyn’s radical ‘communist’ plan” to nationalize football clubs — and billionaires today still have as much sway as ever in UK football.

But interest in democratizing the sports landscape most definitely does remain. Even billionaire families — as the Kiat Lim “DAO democracy” gambit illustrates — now recognize how potent interest in democratizing sports can be.

That leaves the rest of us with an important task: making sure that deep pockets like Kim don’t get away with poisoning the notion that our sports can indeed be truly democratic.

What would democracy in pro sports look like? Maybe something like the Green Bay Packers, the only franchise in the NFL without a billionaire principal owner. The Packers operate as a community-owned nonprofit corporation. The team last year had 361,300 shareholders, with no single shareholder — under the team’s bylaws — holding over 4 percent of the club’s shares.

Fans who currently own Packer shares — $250 each at the team’s last share offering — collect no annual dividends or get any price break on tickets. They can’t trade their shares on the open market either. They do get the right to elect Green Bay’s board of directors and the team’s seven-member executive committee that hobnobs with the billionaires at NFL league meetings.

The Packers, pro football’s third-oldest franchise, have basically operated this way since the 1920s. Green Bay has essentially been grandfathered into a world of grasping billionaires. Current NFL rules, adopted in 1960, forbid any other NFL team from operating on the Packers governance model.

But NFL rules, Packer shareholder Harvey Wasserman has pointed out, don’t have to shut the door on public ownership of football’s pro franchises — or any other pro franchises in modern America.

“Why do we allow our precious sports clubs to be the playthings of a bunch of wealthy degenerates?” Wasserman asks, “It’s time to use the Packer green and gold as a starter model for all franchise ownership.”

The vehicle for that transformation? Eminent domain, the constitutional right that allows local governments and other public bodies to take property with “just compensation.”

Mega-rich pro sports owners, Wasserman notes, “have been gouging out public subsidies for stadiums, tax breaks, and too much else over the decades.” With eminent domain, public entities could “condemn” all these franchises and buy out their billionaire “owners.” Each team could then operate under public ownership, a la Green Bay, “in partnership with the unions of the players.”

Could the Green Bay model ever scale up to an entire nation’s pro sports structure? To some extent, that’s already happened — in Germany. Until 1998, nonprofit “members’ associations” ran all German football teams. The new model that emerged that year allowed private ownership in Germany’s top football league, the Bundesliga, but limited commercial investors to a 49 percent stake in any one club.

This “50+1” rule has left fans with a majority ownership stake in Germany’s highest-tier teams and created, within German football, what arguably rates as Europe’s healthiest sports environment. The Bundesliga has been, writes Goal.com’s Ryan Kelly, “regularly dominating the average attendance charts of European football” with “ticket prices remaining relatively affordable for fans.”

Over in the UK, a sports land where billionaires rule, progressives have been looking longingly at the German model. In 2019, the Labor Party campaigned on a platform that included democratic reforms for the nation’s top-tier Premier League.

“Let’s take the beautiful game away from the billionaires,” declared then-party leader Jeremy Corbyn, “and hand it to the fans instead.”

The Labor reforms would have, among other provisions, given nonprofit “supporters trusts” representation on club boards of directors and enabled these trusts to buy shares when clubs change ownership hands.

“Sport must be run in the interests of those who participate in it, follow it and love it, not just for the privileged and wealthy few,” the Labor Party urged. “We will ensure that supporters have a say over how their club is run and review how fans can have more of a say about how all of our sporting bodies are run.”

The UK’s right-wing media predictably raged against the Labor sports proposals — one daily blasted “Corbyn’s radical ‘communist’ plan” to nationalize football clubs — and billionaires today still have as much sway as ever in UK football.

But interest in democratizing the sports landscape most definitely does remain. Even billionaire families — as the Kiat Lim “DAO democracy” gambit illustrates — now recognize how potent interest in democratizing sports can be.

That leaves the rest of us with an important task: making sure that deep pockets like Kim don’t get away with poisoning the notion that our sports can indeed be truly democratic.

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