With the Super Bowl around the corner, NFL money blitzes Washington

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Tom Brady of the New England Patriots follwing the AFC Championship Game. (Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

The youngest head coach in NFL history and his high-flying offense dubbed “The Greatest Show on Turf 2.0.” versus one of the most-storied quarterbacks in NFL history at age 41 seeking yet another ring. In a rematch of the famous 2002 Super Bowl XXXVI, the revitalized Los Angeles Rams are taking on the always dominant New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII on February 3. And much like politics can be, the NFL is all about the money.

The Super Bowl is the most valuable sports event on Earth and in 2018 Super Bowl LII generated $414 million from ad revenue alone. For the Super Bowl LII host city of Minneapolis, hosting the most-watched television event every year brought in $370 million in new spending. And now that sports betting is legal in all 50 states, estimates are $6 billion is expected to be gambled on the game.

The owners of the two Super Bowl LIII teams donated $1 million each to Donald Trump’s inaugural committee. Russian President Vladimir Putin also allegedly took one of the Patriots’ Super Bowl rings.

The NFL itself is a powerful institution flowing with cash. It regularly hauls in $14 billion per year and continues to grow. A massive, culturally significant business can’t afford to stay on the sidelines of American politics and rather than waiting on a Hail Mary pass, the NFL takes control of their fate through lobbying and its PAC. The outcome of an NFL game even got a Senate floor speech during the longest government shutdown in history.  

Faced with continued controversy over national anthem protests, domestic violence and spotty officiating during the playoffs, the NFL is likely trying to tackle their PR problems and spent a high of $1.64 million on lobbying in 2018.

Primarily, the NFL focused their lobbying efforts on legislation affecting broadcasting policies, regulatory policies regarding players’ health and antitrust, stadium security, franchise relocation and had opposed the Supreme Court’s decision allowing states to legalize sports betting. It also lobbied Congress on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act and criminal justice reform and on the Republican tax reform bill.  

The NFL also operates a PAC which has alternated between majority Democratic or Republican each cycle since its creation in 2010. In 2018, Gridiron PAC handed off $988,345 in political contributions, slightly more of which went to Democrats than Republicans.

The top four House recipients of the PAC’s money in 2018 were bipartisan leaders — House Majority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (R-Calif.), House Majority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) all caught $10,000 donations — the max allowed by a PAC in a single cycle.

The Gridiron PAC also gave generously to other PACs, favoring Republicans with $156,500 compared to $125,500 for Democratic PACs. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee received $34,000 and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee got $30,000. The National Republican Congressional Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee received $30,000 each and Paul Ryan’s joint fundraising committee, Team Ryan got $15,000.   

The NFL Players Association (NFLPA), the union representing the players, also maintains a PAC and lobbying presence. The NFLPA has a much-diminished lobbying presence compared to the NFL, the union spent only $240,000 in 2018 which it has spent for the past four years. They paid two firms to lobby on various issues including the Republican tax reform bill, collective bargaining agreements and player safety, sports gambling and the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill.

This year marked the debut of the NFLPA’s new PAC, One Team PAC. In its first election cycle, the PAC raised $723,537 and only spent $102,562. Contributions from the PAC favored Republican candidates getting 54 percent to Democrat’s 46 percent. One of the top recipients was newly-elected Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) who played four seasons in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans and received $5,000.  

The five top donors to the union’s PAC are mostly current players who gave $5,000 each —  Dwayne Allen, tight end for the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots, Jermey Parnell, offensive tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Eric Reid, full safety for the Carolina Panthers, Demaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFLPA and Tom Brady. Lamarcus Joyner, cornerback for the Rams, was the largest Rams donor to the PAC in 2018 with a $1,000 donation.         

With the Super Bowl coming down to a battle between the Rams and Patriots, the owners of both teams have duked it out in the arena of political spending. According to Center for Responsive Politics data, Stan Kroenke, of the Rams, and Robert and Jonathan Kraft, of the Patriots, have spent considerably over the past 26 years.

Since 1992, Robert Kraft, chairman and CEO of the Kraft Group which owns the Patriots, and his wife Myra contributed $428,496, the vast majority of which, $301,046, has gone to Democratic candidates or groups. Jonathan Kraft, son of Robert and president of the Kraft Group, and his wife Patricia donated $336,200, mostly to Republicans ($236,300), since 1992. Stan Kroenke, owner of the Rams, and his wife Ann, have given a combined $459,235, primarily to Republican candidates and groups ($342,472), since 1992.   

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