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Vote With Your Head, Not Your Football Team

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Tomorrow, millions of Americans will take to the polls, but few will likely be aware that their professional sports teams have a hand in the elections.

According to a report by Fusion, political action committees formed by the National Football League and Major League Baseball have contributed generously to various campaigns heading into midterms. The donations don't run along party lines, rather skewing toward those currently in power -- Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate. Instead of trying to influence the races themselves, it seems the leagues are simply using their largesse to maintain their influence among incumbents for when it comes time to vote on key issues affecting sports. (Though many prognosticators, including the Bloomberg View editors, have predicted the GOP will regain control of the Senate, so the leagues might want to revisit their strategy.)

When it comes to politics, we should be used to business as usual, so let's take a closer look at what that business has been to this point. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of Oct. 25, the NFL's Gridiron PAC has received $837,888 in contributions, mostly from team owners, executives and spouses. The league has donated $309,500 to federal candidates: $121,500 to House Republicans, $110,000 to House Democrats, $47,000 to Senate Democrats and $31,000 to Senate Republicans. The three highest individual beneficiaries, who have each received $10,000, are all Republicans: Representative Kevin McCarthy of California; Representative Lee Terry of Nebraska, and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

McCarthy assumed the role of House majority leader in August after Eric Cantor's election defeat, making him the second-most powerful Republican in the chamber behind Speaker John Boehner. Since 2012, Terry has chaired the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, which oversees most league activities. In March, he held a hearing on improving sports safety that basically provided a forum for the NFL to tout how minor rule changes on the field were sufficiently fixing the concussion problem.

Meanwhile, McConnell has served as Senate minority leader since 2007. The nature of the league's relationship to its political beneficiaries was pretty clearly laid out in a letter McConnell sent the league last June, in which Republican leaders urged the NFL and five other major sports leagues to refuse to promote the Affordable Care Act. The letter explicitly suggested that the only reason the leagues would work with the White House was because of the supposed threat of "policy retaliation" by the Barack Obama administration. In turn, the letter's Republican authors issued a sort of threat themselves, promising to "conduct proper oversight" should the leagues receive any such pressure.

It's hard to read this any other way than: Help us kill this health care bill, and we'll help you keep your nonprofit status and/or monopoly on broadcast rights.

Meanwhile, the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball PAC is similarly funded by a mix of owners, executives and spouses, to the tune of $511,846. As of Oct. 25, the PAC has donated $352,375 to federal candidates. The biggest winners were: McCarthy, $11,500; Democratic Representative Steve Israel of New York, $10,000; Republican Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, $10,000; Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, $17,000; and Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, $10,000.

As minority whip, Cornyn co-authored that Obamacare letter sent to the various sports leagues.

The common thread among the rest of this bipartisan group of incumbents? Media rights. For years, Markey served on the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, which oversees broadcast television deals. Walden chairs the House version of the communications subcommittee. And back in 2010, Israel was a vocal proponent for the Federal Communications Commission to intervene in the dispute between Cablevision and Fox that threatened to blackout playoff games, though he's been pretty silent on the topic since.

In addition to campaign donations, the NFL and MLB have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying this year amid political pressure to look into the federal government's relationship to professional sports. Outrage over the NFL's domestic violence issues led to the league hiring Cynthia Logan, longtime counsel to Vice President Joe Biden, who helped get the Violence Against Women Act passed nearly 20 years ago. Logan is leading the NFL's lobbying efforts in a number of other areas as well, including maintaining its tax benefits and blackout policies, both of which have come under fire lately.

MLB, meanwhile, has managed largely to avoid scandal since the PED era, but still has a significant stake in policy governing broadcasting rights and, of course, its obsolete antitrust exemption.

Neither the NBA nor the NHL has a PAC, though the NHL has spent $10,000 this year on lobbying on issues of concussions and cable and satellite royalty payments. And as I wrote back in August, the NCAA has spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying during its current existential crisis, threatened by the debate surrounding amateurism and athlete compensation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net