Friday, June 27, 1997

Franchise Free Agency

There has been a fair amount of attention on the internet and in the popular press about the effects of free agency. Is it a plus or a minus for a small market team like the Packers? Now that the Packers are on top of the heap, does free agency help them (because they are relatively attractive to free agents looking for a shot at a ring) or does it hurt them, because the participants in a Super Bowl always get more attention from other teams than they deserve (see Neil O'Donnell, Larry Brown and, yes, even Desmond Howard).

These are all interesting questions, and I might even have something to say about them one of these days. But my topic today is FRANCHISE free agency, not player free agency.

As a Packer fan, I suppose it is obvious that I have my biases on the question of franchise free agency, but try as hard as I can, I can't see anything good about the present system. Yes, there are some teams with whom the fans have just fallen out of love. I suppose the Oilers are the best example. A year or so ago they had a rally in downtown Houston to try to keep the Oilers, and something like 36 people showed up. This is amazing to me, given how recent it was that the Astrodome was known as the "House of Pain" and was filled to the rafters with nut cases with their faces painted blue. But right now the team has no support in Houston, and I suppose that the owner had little choice but to try to find a new home somewhere else. The Rams are probably another more or less comparable example.

But then there are the Raiders, and the way that Al Davis screwed the City of Oakland, not once but twice. The first time was when he took the Raiders away from sellouts and a solid fan base in a dispute with the city over luxury boxes. And the second time was when he brought them back under the burden of the highest ticket and PSL prices in the league, which are not selling out and which will leave the taxpayers in the City of Oakland holding the bag under the financial guarantees they provided to the Raiders to lure them back.

And the saddest case, to me, is the Browns/Ravens. Browns fans were like Packer fans, in many ways. They had a devoted, working class fan base, they were one of the old time teams in the league, and they had a wonderful history and tradition. And, quite unlike the Raiders, the Browns had an old-time, NFL guy for an owner, not a lifelong renegade like Al Davis. But Art Modell took the Browns away just as ruthlessly as Al Davis took away the Raiders.

The people of Cleveland will be getting a new Browns team in a couple of years, but it won't be the same. Never again will the people feel as if this is really "their" team. They will always know that some rich guy can take it all away in an instant over some future dispute over stadiums, luxury boxes, or something we can't even imagine now.

Compare these situations to the Packers. The fans (or more precisely some of them) actually own the team. It is not feasible to imagine a set of circumstances, other than outright financial failure of the franchise, under which the team would no longer be in Green Bay. There is no reason for a kid, or even an adult, to hold back on giving his heart to this team.

Here is the part that I don't understand. Can't everyone see that this is a better situation for the team, for the fans, and for the league, than the situation in Cleveland, Oakland, Baltimore, Houston, Los Angeles, etc? Then why is it that the league currently prohibits Packer-style public ownership, with the Packers being the sole team that is "grandfathered?" This just seems nuts to me.

I would respectfully suggest that the Green Bay Packer ownership model is the ideal fix for the problem with the league and franchise free agency. The league ought to be encouraging community ownership, rather than prohibiting it. Nothing much can be done with the existing franchises, but as the league adds new teams in Cleveland, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, and as teams are sold, community ownership should be the preferred (if not exclusive) model. The NFL right now is the hottest thing in sports. But they are very close to having the league ruined because of problems like franchise free agency.

If you agree, why not take a minute and write a letter to the Commissioner about this. I have already done so. The address is:

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue
National Football League
410 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10022