The Arizona Cardinals appear to be the first team to make a donation to a federal super PAC, which can raise unlimited funds from individuals, unions and corporations. There has long been a cozy relationship between sports team owners and politicians and the Cardinals recent donation to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s super PAC – JAN PAC – is proof that these super PACs offer yet another way for wealthy NFL owners to ensure that the political game is rigged against fans and taxpayers.
Sports fans are often hesitant to want to mix sports and politics. It’s the single biggest challenge in getting sports fans organized. They see sports as an escape from politics and don’t want to mix the two. Problem is, sports team owners have no problem doing so. In fact, they have been doing so for decades, which is why sports leagues in America are legal monopolies.
Back in the mid-60’s, National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle lobbied Congress hard for an antitrust exemption for its merger with the American Football League. When pro-merger legislation ran into opposition in the House in 1966, the merger legislation was attached to an uncontroversial tax credit bill. One of the bill’s leading proponents was Louisiana Representative Hale Boggs. Michael MacCambridge, author of America’s Game, describes exactly how such a large and controversial merger was able to gain its antitrust exemption:
Walking up the stairs of the Rotunda, when the vote looked like a sure thing, Rozelle was his usual humble self. “Congressman Boggs, I don’t know how I can ever thank you enough for this. This is a terrific thing you’ve done.”
Boggs had been a veteran of Louisiana politics too long to let such transparent politesse go unremarked. “What do you mean you don’t know how to thank me?” he said. “New Orleans gets an immediate franchise in the NFL.”
“I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen,” Rozelle assured him.
At that point, Boggs stopped and turned on his heels, heading back to the committee room, “Well, we can always call off the vote while you – “
Rozelle took two giant strides after Boggs, turned him gently around and said, “It’s a deal, Congressman. You’ll get your franchise.”
Just one week later, New Orleans got its franchise. Meanwhile, the NFL got its merger, along with language that grants the league nonprofit tax status. That’s right, the most profitable sports league doesn’t pay any taxes. Its head, Roger Goodell, made $12 million last year, which is just less than double what the head of the American Petroleum Institute made. Is Big Football in America bigger than Big Oil? (Okay, maybe not, but consider that all 32 NFL teams are among the top 50 most valuable sports teams in the world.)
Seattle received a franchise immediately after a Washington Senator helped kill a bill in 1976 that would have permanently banned television blackouts. While it’s true that Seattle had previously been mentioned as a possible expansions city, as Stephen Lowe points out in The Kid on the Sandlot, “it is unbelievable that Magnuson’s deliberate efforts to stall the antiblackout bill and Seattle’s receipt of an NFL franchise were merely coincidental. If nothing else, the Washington senator was returning a favor to the league.”
To this day, and perhaps more so than ever, the NFL has a big presence in Washington. Since 2009, the NFL has racked up nearly $5 million in lobbying expenditures. It has established a PAC of its own – the GRIDIRON-PAC – which was already spent nearly $750,000 this cycle.
It should come as no surprise that NFL owners are overwhelmingly Republican. (You’ll find no better example of the 1% than an NFL owner.) Other than the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Dan Rooney, you’d be hard pressed to find an NFL owner who leans left. (And obviously excluding the Green Bay Packers, who are publicly owned.) In the 2008 election, NFL owners gave to John McCain over Barack Obama at a rate of 6-1.
That said, owners tend to give to local and state candidates from both parties fairly evenly. This is the case because owners generally put their money behind incumbents. Owners – like many other business owners and executives – realize that they are much more likely to curry favor from those already in power than by betting on the challenger. And what kind of favors are they looking for?
Tax dollars, tax breaks and antitrust exemptions.
Professional sports in America is a glorified real estate scam that largely depends on the public contributing huge amounts of tax dollars to build ever bigger, ever more lavish stadiums. Economists across the board agree that these stadiums provide little to no economic benefit to the surrounding communities. (Think about it – if stadiums were such a great investment, why wouldn’t owners simply pay for them themselves?) Around the country, the public has kicked in at least $7 billion on NFL stadiums. (Not that owners have shown any appreciation of this when it comes to ticket prices and television blackouts.)
In the case of Arizona, the Cardinals play in University of Phoenix Stadium, which cost at least $455 million, 68% of which was from the public primarily via hotel and rental car taxes. Meanwhile, in the suburb of Glendale, the city built a lavish new arena for the Phoenix Coyotes, and then had to pay just to keep the team in town. Here’s how the AP framed the situation:
The city put up $25 million each of the past two years to cover losses by the NHL and keep the team in town. Glendale recently had a round of layoffs, along with tax hikes and service cuts to cover a $35 million gap in the upcoming budget, so a publicly-financed deal to keep the Coyotes — one that includes an average of $15 million in arena operating costs — wasn’t popular with everyone.
Worse, the city of Glendale just threw good money after bad, agreeing to a 20-year, $325 million lease agreement which in essence pays a new owner to run the arena the city built. All while raising taxes and slashing social services.
It’s unclear if the Cardinals ownership, the Bidwells, have any specific motivations in donating to Brewer’s super PAC. It always helps to score political points with the governor for future projects. As Think Progress’ Travis Waldron writes: “When franchises can open their wallets to buy political friends, taxpayers will have to open theirs even wider to pay for the luxuries the teams want.”
Brian Frederick is the Executive Director of Sports Fans Coalition. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication and is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter here.