Romney Draws Sports Team Owners as Players Pick Obama

New York Jets Owner Woody Johnson
New York Jets owner Woody Johnson contributed $2500 to Mitt Romney and is raising money for his campaign. Photographer: Rob Carr/Getty Images

It’s New York versus Boston, players against owners and older athletes facing younger ones, all taking sides in the presidential contest between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.

Yankees executives are backing Romney, and so are those of the New York Jets. Owners of the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots in Massachusetts are shunning their former governor and favoring the president.

“We’re just going to have to wait until October, November and February to see who the champions are,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University, pointing to the World Series, Election Day and Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, more of the players and coaches are lining up behind Obama, while front-office executives lean toward Romney.

New York Knicks owner James Dolan is supporting Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, while guard Baron Davis is in Obama’s camp. Dean Spanos, chairman of the San Diego Chargers, also is backing Romney. Not so Chargers linebacker Takeo Spikes, who wrote a check to Obama.

“The players tend to be younger,” said David Carter, executive director of the sports business institute at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and head of the Sports Business Group consulting firm in Los Angeles. “It’s not an athlete versus an owner thing. It’s generational.”

Athletes Like Starlets

Donations from professional athletes are similar to those from Hollywood stars, adding a bit of celebrity sparkle to a candidate. Still, the giving isn’t just fun and games.

“It’s about self-interest,” Carter said. “You want to have access at the highest levels. You just don’t own an NFL team. You have other business interests.”

For instance, the Knicks’ Dolan, who’s given Romney $2,500, is also president and chief executive officer of Bethpage, New York-based Cablevision Systems Corp., which spent $105,000 during the first three months of the year lobbying on such issues as copyright laws and rules governing companies that provide Internet service.

The sports leagues themselves have interests before the federal government. The National Football League spent $300,000 during the first three months of 2012 to lobby on online gambling, labor issues, broadcasting, drug testing and concussion legislation. Major League Baseball spent $70,000 to lobby on stadium security issues and Internet piracy.

Donor Motivations

The donors also could be motivated, as many less-coordinated givers are, by how their personal income would be affected by the tax policies promoted by the candidates or their partisan preference.

Romney’s roster of management support includes the owner of the San Diego Chargers, Alex Spanos, and son Paul, the chairman, who each gave $2,500 to Romney. The two men raised from $350,000 to $750,000 for 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Romney does not disclose his bundlers, supporters who raise large sums of money from other donors.

New York Jets owner Woody Johnson contributed $2,500 to Romney and is raising money for his campaign. Johnson raised at least $500,000 for McCain.

Three Jets executives, including general manager Mike Tannenbaum, also gave the maximum $2,500 to Romney’s primary campaign, according to Federal Election Commission data and the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks campaign contributions.

Yankees Donations

Randy Levine, president of the Yankees, is a $2,500 donor to Romney. Joan Steinbrenner, widow of the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, gave $500. Levine also contributed $5,000 to Romney’s leadership political action committee.

“That’s why I’m a Yankee fan,” said Romney fundraiser Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors in Washington.

While the Miami Heat and New York Knicks compete in the first round of the National Basketball Association playoffs, Heat president Pat Riley is aligned with Knicks’ owner Dolan after giving his own $2,500 check to Romney.

So are other executives of other teams. Boston Celtics President Rick Gotham gave $1,000 to Romney and Danny Ainge, president of basketball operations, contributed $2,500.

The Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, arch-rivals on the football field, are both in Romney’s camp. Dallas owner Jerry Jones and Washington owner Dan Snyder each gave $2,500.

Other football owners in Romney’s camp include Arizona Cardinals chairman Bill Bidwill and his son, club president Michael Bidwill, both of whom gave $2,500.

Making New Friends

Donations to presidential candidates offer sports owners and executives opportunities to expand their circle of friends.

“The owners of these franchises are close to their senators, close to their governors,” Carter said. “They’re captains of their industries. They would like to extend those ties to include Washington.”

Obama does have some fans in management.

Robert Kraft, the owner of the Patriots who donated to Obama, McCain and Romney in 2008, and Larry Lucchino, the president of the Red Sox, both donated $5,000 to Obama’s re-election.

“Anybody who knows anything about the Boston Red Sox knows they are more of a people’s team than the elitist Yankees, who are much more representative of the power elite of this country,” said Alan Chartock, professor emeritus of political communication at the State University of New York in Albany.

Cubs, Steelers

Jim Pohlad, chief executive officer of the Minnesota Twins, and brother Robert, a member of the board, each gave Obama $5,000. Laura Ricketts, part of a family group that owns the Chicago Cubs, donated $5,000 and raised more than $500,000 for the president’s re-election campaign.

Dan Rooney, chairman emeritus of the Pittsburgh Steelers, contributed $5,000 to Obama, who named him U.S. ambassador to Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day in 2009. The Steelers’ coach, Mike Tomlin, also donated $5,000 to Obama.

In the nation’s capital, Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals, gave $5,000 to Obama.

It’s not surprising that Obama claims his share of sports team owners, said Kenneth Shropshire, a professor of legal studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“You certainly saw prominent Wall Street people supporting Obama in a way that didn’t necessarily traditionally happen on the Democratic side,” Shropshire said.

Players Backing President

While Romney has an edge with owners, Obama, who regularly plays pick-up basketball games with aides at Fort McNair in Washington, is winning the bench.

In addition to the Knicks’ Davis, who chipped in $5,000, the president has received equal support from former coach Mike D’Antoni, who resigned his post in March, and Knicks vice president Allan Houston, a former guard for the team.

Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers is also a $5,000 donor, as is Super Bowl champion New York Giants’ defensive back Antrel Rolle.

Other professional athletes also have weighed in. Former Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa, whom former President George W. Bush agreed to trade away when he was managing partner of the Texas Rangers, gave $5,000 to Obama.

Romney did receive $2,500 from Jeremy Guthrie, a pitcher for the Colorado Rockies, and $400 from NFL quarterback John Beck.

ESPN Splits

The divide between employee and executive is also evident at Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN Inc., a network the White House has tapped to highlight the president’s interest in sports, including posting his National Collegiate Athletic Association “March Madness” brackets.

Obama supporters include broadcasters Desmond Howard, a former pro football player who donated $5,000, and John Saunders, a $1,210 contributor. Romney backers include George Bodenheimer, ESPN’s executive chairman, who gave $2,500, and Dan Robertson, a vice president and $2,500 donor.

Romney, who said in February that “some great friends” are “NASCAR team owners,” received $10,000 from executives of the Daytona Beach, Florida-based National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Obama got $1,250.

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