The Green Bay Packers are in the middle of a stock offering that allows their rabid fans to purchase shares for $300 each, a model that other franchises might mimic with new technology.getty images
In less than 72 hours last week, the Green Bay Packers raised almost $40 million by selling 119,000 shares of “stock” to fans for $300 each, finding willing buyers even though the shares carry almost none of the benefits commonly associated with ownership such as dividends, profit distribution and the ability to sell the share at an appreciation. It’s more memorabilia than equity, which the team makes clear.
If the Packers, as planned, sell all 300,000 shares they made available in this offering round, they’ll raise $100.5 million, including $300 per share and a $35 handling fee. And they can do it again in the future — this was the team’s sixth such offering and first since 2011 — because they will still have 4.7 million shares authorized to sell.
The ability to repeatedly raise that kind of capital with no risk and minimal cost is unique to the Packers in American sports. It reflects their outlier status as the only community-owned nonprofit among the major leagues, as well as their extensive fan base.
But something similar is possible for even privately held, for-profit teams, according to innovators in the world of blockchain technology, who point to new-age products that allow teams to monetize fans’ passion with little upfront cost or loss of control.
Several top-tier European soccer clubs, including AS Roma, Juventus and Paris St. Germain, have worked with the cryptocurrency startup Socios to create fan tokens. The Socios tokens are a form of cryptocurency that entitle holders to vote on certain low-level team matters – such as what songs will be played in the stadium during the game – and can, in theory, appreciate because holders can trade them on digital marketplaces.
Like the Packers’ shares, those tokens carry no equity, but they do give devoted fans something to point to that distinguishes them from the casual masses, said Socios Chief Strategy Officer Max Rabinovitch. The tokens raise money for the teams at issuance, but also kick back part of transactions later on if fans trade their tokens on a marketplace, with few costs other than revenue sharing with Socios.
Socios, a cryptocurrency startup, has created fan tokens for several European soccer clubs, including Inter Milan of Serie A. getty images
“It’s the ultimate expression of fandom, it is a feeling of partial ownership, or at least that you have a voice in the team,” said Rabinovitch. “Teams like Green Bay do it with stock that doesn’t pay a dividend, but it is a tangible way for people to show that they’re not just some Packers fan, but they’re holding onto a piece of paper that allows them to touch the team. Fan tokens and fan communities draw upon that same concept.”
Crucially, these tokens are products for sale, not equity or membership, meaning that closely held American sports ownership groups could sell them without going public or otherwise altering their corporate structures. Tokens also give teams a way to monetize increasingly global fan bases, Rabinovitch said.
Socios already has 24 team sponsorships in the NBA, most recently adding the Los Angeles Lakers, and it recently landed its first sponsorship deal with NFL and MLS teams in a pact with the New England Patriots and Revolution, both of which are owned by Kraft Sports and Entertainment. NFL league rules currently ban teams from issuing tokens, though Socios’ deal with the Patriots is seen as a preliminary step if those rules change.
Last summer, the Mexican soccer side Necaxa sold a 1% share of the team in the form of an NFT, a digital asset on a blockchain. Unlike Socios’ fan tokens, it is an actual equity interest, so it does have a real cost, said Al Tylis, a real estate investor who was part of the group that acquired half the club in May. But structuring it as an NFT got extraordinary attention, and that 1% share sold to one person for $1.5 million, Tylis said, which was a “slight premium” to his own purchase price.
“We ended up having a billion and a half media impressions around the world, and even today it comes up in conversations with fans, sponsors, media; it comes up a lot,” Tylis said. “From a cost/benefit perspective, it wasn’t cheap, creating this from scratch … but we couldn’t be happier that we did it, and got it done. I think it’s valuable for us, and valuable for others to see.”
Tylis’ original idea — which most international securities laws prohibit without the team actually going public — was to sell a collection of tokens that would all have some small ownership stake in them along with fan perks.
Whether through the Packers’ old-school paper certificates or new-age blockchain concepts, the animating force behind these efforts is a sense that sports teams still have not maximized their fans’ extraordinary loyalty and desire to be more than just passive observers. The major North American leagues are unlikely to radically alter their individual rules that encourage simple ownership structures — and most teams don’t want to become true public companies — but technology opens the door to some middle ground.
This isn’t all as foreign a concept as it might seem. After all, sports teams have long found a way to sell little more than enhanced fan status. They’re called personal seat licenses.