Why big sports leagues are spending big money on the midterms

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

For many election watchers, tuning into a football or baseball game can be a welcome diversion from the daily grind. Behind the scenes, however, North America's major pro sports leagues are playing politics too.

Major League Baseball and the National Football League's political action committees have donated almost $1.1 million combined during the 2014 election cycle. It's a record-setting year for MLB, which has contributed over $600,000 to campaigns, more than any other election since its PAC was founded in 2002.


The National Hockey League and National Basketball Association do not have PACs.

Like other big businesses, pro sports leagues work to protect their interests before Congress. Controversial issues like steroids in baseball and concussions in football have been the subject of congressional hearings in recent years that have tarnished the image of the leagues.


In addition, MLB is exempt from antitrust laws and the NFL is classified as a non-profit. These statuses endow the leagues with major economic advantages and they've lobbied to preserve those benefits.

The amount of money spent by pro sports leagues might seem like a drop in the bucket when you consider it cost $10.4 million on average to win a Senate race in 2012. But it still matters.


Russ Choma, a money-in-politics reporter at the Center for Responsive Politics, said "nobody is going to win this fall" because of donations from MLB or NFL.

"But the fact that the NFL did give them money probably means the NFL spending time with these members," he added. "So when they decide to hold hearings, these donations are very helpful."


Let's take a closer look at the MLB and NFL political action committees, which pool together funds from the league's employees and ownership groups.


Sports leagues, like most major corporate interests, want to build relationships with people in power. That means they donate to incumbents in both political parties. Only two candidates not currently in Congress received money from MLB.

"It's the devil they know," said Choma. "They would rather keep working with the people they know rather than learning new faces."


As of Oct. 15, MLB's political action committee has given $135,000 to Republicans in the House, who hold the majority, compared to $83,000 to Democratic House candidates, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) data. Over $110,000 went to Senate Democrats, who control the upper chamber, while $84,000 went to Senate Republicans.

Major League Baseball's PAC donated $30,000 apiece to four political committees working to elect Republicans and Democrats to Congress. MLB has also given $80,000 to committees associated with powerful lawmakers, such as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.)


It's not just leaders who benefit from baseball's fundraising. Key lawmakers on relevant committees rake in the cash too.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has received the most money from baseball this cycle. Before he won a special election in 2013, he was a long-serving member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which regulates broadcast, cable, and satellite television.


Markey's example is a reminder, however, that donations don't always influence a politician's position. In March, he compared climate change to steroid use in baseball during an all-night Senate session on global warming.


The NFL's giving mirrors MLB's. House Republicans ($101,500) received slightly more than Democrats ($99,000) through Sept. 17, according to the FEC and Center for Responsive Politics. The NFL's Gridiron-PAC, founded in 2008, has given $47,000 to Democrats in the Senate and $31,000 to Republicans this cycle.

The NFL doled out $185,000 to party committees and PACs associated with individual members.


The only non-incumbent to receive Gridiron-PAC money was Garry Cobb, a former NFL linebacker who is running for a New Jersey House seat as a Republican.

Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), the chairman of a House commerce subcommittee, received $7,500, making him one of the top NFL beneficiaries. Terry held a hearing on concussions in sports in March, where the NFL's senior vice president of health and safety policy, Jeffrey Miller, testified.


Unlike other members of Congress, Terry refrained from directly criticizing the league's handling of the issue.

“We want to better understand the innovations being made by sports leagues, equipment manufacturers and the medical community to make all sports safer," he said in a statement.


Political donations aren't the only way pro sports leagues seek to influence Congress. MLB has spent $260,000 on lobbying in the first half of 2014 on issues like cable and satellite TV, mental health, and stadium security, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Since 1998, Major League Baseball has dished out $14.6 million for lobbying. Spending reached its highest level in the late 1990s and early to mid 2000s, during the steroid era and when Congress passed a major anti-trust law.


The NFL this year has lobbied on broadcast rights, player safety issues like drug testing and concussions, copyright issues, and against internet gambling. Spending reached an apex from 2009 to 2011, when the league was in Congress' crosshairs for concussion problems and an owners' lockout. The league has paid $590,000 on lobbying in 2014 and $13.6 million over the past 16 years.

Last month, the NFL hired Cynthia Hogan as its new top lobbyist in Washington amid a furor over its handling of domestic violence cases. A former counsel to Vice President Joe Biden, Hogan was instrumental in passing the Violence Against Women Act when Biden was in the Senate.


"I suppose it would have been easier for me, in light of the NFL’s mistakes, to say no thanks to working for them," she wrote in Politico Magazine. "But I think the better decision is to join them in their effort to learn more, educate others, and reduce future violence."

Graphics by Adrian Saravia and Alejandra Aristizabal.

Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.

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