"People had already taken ownership of the Pabst brand emotionally," said Brian Flatow, president of The Ad Store. "We saw an opportunity for ourselves and people like us to take ownership in more than just a metaphorical way, but to actually own the company."
For evidence that such a plan could actually work, a potential donor wouldn't have to leave Pabst's home state of Wisconsin. In 1923, with the Green Bay Packers $2,500 in debt, Curly Lambeau, Andrew B. Turnbull, attorney Gerald Francis Clifford, Dr. W. Webber Kelly and Leland H. Joannes incorporated the team as a non-profit company and sold 1,000 shares at $5 apiece. Shares were sold three more times — from a bid to bail the team out of receivership in 1935 to a push for money to renovate Lambeau Field in 1997 and 1998 — until the team amassed 112,120 shareholders with 4,750,937 shares.
The Packers have an executive board and chief executive much like other public companies, with football operations left to team management as with any other franchise. However, unlike most companies and franchises, stakeholders are capped at 200,000 shares to ensure no one has control of the team and the shareholders have a direct voice in capital projects like stadium investment. Each July, tens of thousands of shareholders meet at Lambeau Field, with some wearing suits beneath baseball caps reading "NFL Owner." Though NFL ownership rules changed in the 1980s to limit teams to a maximum of 32 owners, the Packers' model was exempted through a grandfather clause and has helped keep Green Bay — the NFL's smallest market in a city with little more than 100,000 residents — a viable and thriving franchise.
"Everyone here has emotional ties to the team, but some took that a step further and said 'Wow, I'm going to support them financially," Packers spokesman Aaron Popke says. "My wife is a physician here in town, and she's got her share up in her office next to her medical diplomas."
The Packers ownership model is envied by supporters of the Buffalo Bills, where fans hope strong ties to the community can overcome a tough local economic reality. Though a change of heart by league owners seems unlikely as the Bills and the Jacksonville Jaguars are targeted to become the Los Angeles NFL team, public efforts to preserve entities as local as a soul-food restaurant and as broad as an online encyclopedia always start small.
"You don't have to have a lot of money, education or 1,001 different connections," the Pink Tea Cup's Kwubiri says. "If you're passionate about something, other people will follow."
—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.