March Madness on K Street: Which team’s lobbying game is best?

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The Villanova Wildcats celebrated an NCAA Tournament title in 2018, but they didn’t win the lobbying title. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

How likely is it that No. 13 seed University of California Irvine wins the entire NCAA Tournament? Or that the Anteaters do it by beating No. 16 seed Prairie View A&M in the finals?

The answer is … not likely. But if universities’ 2018 lobbying totals decided who won each round, that’s exactly what would happen.

In the Center for Responsive Politics’ 11th annual K Street Classic, UC Irvine capped its stunning season by winning the Big Dance, thanks to a robust lobbying operation by its parent university.

University of California spent north of $1 million on lobbying in 2018, far more than any other school. UC Irvine certainly doesn’t spend all of that cash itself, but it’s the only school in the UC system to make the tournament in 2019. Irvine did its own lobbying in 2017 and spent just $180,000, but did not spend on its own last year.

Similarly, Prairie View A&M made the finals while riding high on Texas A&M’s 2018 lobbying spending of $604,000. The Panthers came close, but just like Texas A&M last year, had to settle with second place.

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Three of the four No. 1 seeds performed admirably but ultimately fell short of expectations.

  • Led by Zion Williamson and in-house lobbyists, Duke ($450,020) lost to Yale ($570,000) in the Elite Eight.
  • Virginia spent its usual $200,000 in 2018 but got dunked on by No. 9 Oklahoma ($480,000) in the second round.
  • The North Carolina Tar Heels ($350,000) also lost in the second round, getting destroyed by the Washington Huskies ($740,000).
  • Like in the last few years, Gonzaga fell on its face, failing to spend any money on lobbyists in 2018 and getting blown out by Prairie View A&M. The Bulldogs haven’t lobbied since 2015.

Spending the second-most of any tournament team, the Washington Huskies went up against the unbeatable UC Irvine in the Final Four. After winning the Ivy League title, the Yale Bulldogs continued their Cinderella Story season into the Final Four before losing to Prairie View A&M.

Each of the Final Four teams lobbied on issues that extend beyond education, such as taxes, defense, science and immigration. At least 75 universities lobbied on the issue of Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and related bills in 2018, emerging as a lobbying force on immigration reform.

All told, the education field spent more than $77 million on federal lobbying in 2018, down from its 2010 peak of $109 million. Schools in the NCAA Tournament spent just $13 million of that total.

Some of the biggest spenders didn’t make it to March Madness. That includes the once-mighty Pittsburgh ($870,000) and Wake Forest ($600,000), as well as last year’s champion, Pennsylvania ($722,000).


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