WASHINGTON – As people chant the mantra “stick to sports,” professional sports leagues, unions and teams are doing anything but that when it comes to influencing the federal government.
Since 1999, professional sports organizations in the United States have spent at least $41.3 million lobbying Washington on a range of bills and issues, a Capital News Service analysis found.
The NFL makes up the largest portion of this pie, having spent more than $27.5 million, about two-thirds of all pro sports lobbying, on such issues as internet gambling, concussion legislation and antitrust issues.
This was one of many findings of a Capital News Service examination of pro sports organizations’ lobbying efforts in Washington. CNS also found:
- After the NFL’s $27.5 million, MLB was second in spending — close to $4.4 million since 1999. The NBA spent between $3.3 million and $3.55 million, and the NHL used lobbyists less frequently — spending between $370,000 and $500,000.
- The two teams that have spent the most on lobbying in Washington are based close to Capitol Hill. The Washington NFL team has spent at least $530,000, all since 2014, and the Major League Soccer team D.C. United spent between $440,000 and $480,000.
- Players’ unions also wielded influence on Capitol Hill, but spent less than the leagues. The NFL Players Association has spent just over $3.1 million on lobbying and the MLB Players Association spent between $1.07 million and $1.35 million (the NBA and NHL players unions did not appear on any disclosures).
- The NFL has lobbied frequently on the PRO Sports Act, a bill currently in the House that would remove the tax-exempt status of major sports leagues, mentioning it on eight disclosure forms since 2013.
The money used to pay these lobbyists is coming out of the wallets of sports fans, according to those familiar with the lobbying industry.
“As ticket prices continue to rise, as memorabilia and jerseys and uniforms continue to rise in price, the average fan is likely subsidizing the lobbying contributions and the campaign contributions through increased ticket prices, through increased memorabilia (prices) as a result,” said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs for Common Cause, a nonpartisan money-in-politics watchdog group.
All four major leagues — the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL — were active on Capitol Hill in 2017. The Washington NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL Players Association also lobbied this year.
The Steelers, for example, frequently list “NFL team trademark” as a lobbying issue, while the NFLPA is concerned, among other things, with privacy and the league’s personal conduct policy enforcement and criminal justice issues.
It may be that leagues are looking out for teams’ interests within their lobbying activities. The last year that pro leagues combined to spend less than $1 million — 2006 — was also the year that teams combined to spend the most, at least $500,000. From 2007 through 2016, the leagues spent more than $2 million per year while individual team spending dropped off.
One of the few teams still spending a significant amount is the Washington NFL team. Dan Snyder’s franchise began lobbying Congress in 2014 to discuss the activities of the Original Americans Foundation, the team’s Native American-focused charitable foundation started in 2014, as well as “discussions of team origins, history and traditions.”
Tony Wyllie, the Washington NFL team’s senior vice president of communications, did not return multiple requests for comment on the team’s lobbying efforts. Representatives from the NFL, NBA, and MLB did not return requests for comment. Representatives from the NHL could not be reached for comment. Lobbyists contacted for this story also did not return requests for comment or declined to comment.
MLS did not appear in the lobbying database, and D.C. United was the only MLS team to appear in lobbying disclosure forms.
D.C. United spent between $440,000 and $480,000, mainly in the middle of the 2000s, as it tried to get approval to build a new stadium in Washington, D.C. The stadium was approved in 2013 and is set to open next year. A D.C. United spokesperson did not return a phone call requesting comment.
Federal lobbyists are required to file reports with the U.S. Senate with limited detail on their work on behalf of clients. CNS reviewed lobbying disclosure forms filed between 1999 and the third quarter of 2017 in the Senate’s public database, searching for mentions of every major professional league, the teams in those leagues, players’ unions and other related entities.
The disclosure forms require lobbyists to indicate exactly how much money they spent on a client in a given quarter, unless they spent under $5,000 ($10,000 prior to 2008). This uncertainty is why CNS reported a spending range for some teams and leagues, because the true amount in some quarters could have been anywhere between $1 and $10,000. Specific values above $5,000 represent a “good faith estimate” rounded to the nearest $10,000, according to disclosure rules.
The disclosure forms require registrants to list specific issues or bills in question, along with “issue codes.” There is a code for sports and athletics: “SPO.” But sports organizations also lobbied on a variety of other issues, including aviation, transportation, health, labor issues and antitrust law.
The NFL’s lobbying has spanned 21 unique issue codes since 1999. Its most recent forms indicate it has lobbied the U.S. Trade Representative on “consistency of Canadian television programming with NAFTA,” as well as speaking with members of the House and Senate about “cable and communications issues,” “labor contract issues” and “player health issues.”
One of the dozens of issues affecting the NFL is the tax-exempt status of sports leagues.
In 2015, in the face of public scrutiny, the NFL league office stopped claiming its tax-exempt status. Still, the league could reclaim the status at any time and the issue has become politically charged in recent months.
Weeks after President Donald Trump spoke at a rally in Alabama and attacked players who kneel during the national anthem, he tweeted, “Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!”
Freshman Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, is the lead sponsor of the Properly Reducing Overexemptions for Sports Act, also known as the PRO Sports Act, which would remove tax-exempt status for all sports leagues with annual revenues exceeding $10 million.
A version of the bill was first introduced in 2013, while its current version was introduced in January 2017. Gaetz became the lead sponsor in September.
Gaetz said he was motivated to sponsor the bill because of protests during the national anthem that have taken place in the NFL. Players who have participated in the protests have said they are protesting police brutality and racial injustice, not the anthem itself.
“The NFL has embraced unpatriotic conduct,” Gaetz said. “There’s no doubt that people have the right to protest, but they shouldn’t be getting subsidized by the taxpayer while they’re doing it.”
The PRO Sports Act is mentioned specifically on eight different disclosure forms the NFL filed between 2013 and 2015, but Gaetz said he has not heard from the league’s lobbyists about the current iteration of the bill.
“I think many are too embarrassed to oppose it,” he said.
Another issue currently under discussion in Congress that could have wide-ranging effects for pro sports leagues is that of tax-exempt municipal bonds. Cities use these bonds to help teams pay for new stadiums with public money.
The bonds are currently tax-exempt, but a provision in the Republicans’ signature tax reform bill that passed the House in November would remove the exemption for stadiums.
The provision was not included in the Senate version of the bill, however, and it did not make it into the final version of the bill that emerged from a conference committee on Friday. Allowing tax-exempt bonds to remain available for stadiums in the final legislation was a priority for Trump, according to a Wall Street Journal report
Sports leagues frequently lobby on the issue, as the loss of tax-exempt status for these bonds could increase the cost of financing the construction of new stadiums and arenas.
The NFL, NBA and MLB have noted the issue on their disclosures a combined 39 times since the earliest mention in 1999. The NFL has not lobbied on the issue specifically this year, but it did list “issues related to tax reform” on multiple disclosures in 2017.
There are also bills before Congress that directly affect sports leagues, but the legislation is not always specifically named on disclosure forms. One example is the Baseball Diplomacy Act, which Rep. Jose Serrano, D-New York has introduced 10 times since 1999, most recently in January 2017.
The bill would allow Cuban players to stay in the United States on visas during the season and give them the opportunity to return to Cuba in the offseason.
Serrano told CNS that Cuban baseball players are held to an unfair standard, denied the same rights as other international players because of the United States’ relations with Cuba.
“The Cubans are the only ones who are expected to leave their country and in all honesty, if we’re going to discuss politics, they’re expected to say something nasty about their country before they’re picked up here to play for a team,” Serrano said.
“I feel if given an opportunity to play baseball here and go home at the end of the season, most Cuban baseball players would do that, and that would destroy the whole theory that nobody wanted to go back to Cuba,” he said.
MLB has not lobbied on the bill since the most recent version was introduced in January. But the bill illustrates the advantages of having a lobbying apparatus in place. Bills affecting sports leagues are frequently introduced in Congress and it’s essentially impossible for leagues and other organizations to remain completely removed from politics.