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September 11, 2015

NFL Owners Pass Nearly $3 Million to 2016 Presidential Candidates

By John Morgan

When the National Football League (NFL) season kicks off this week, fans will be spending big money to support their teams. But the teams’ owners, some of the richest people in America, are already spending big somewhere else: the 2016 presidential election.  

So far in 2015, NFL team owners have donated $2,827,804 in support of presidential candidates. The vast majority of the money came from two GOP mega donors and went to a handful of Republican super PACs. In all, nine team owners have invested in the 2016 election. CREW analyzed contributions to the campaign committees, political action committees and super PACs of the twenty-three presidential candidates and looked for donations from the principal owners of 31 NFL franchises (the Green Bay Packers are a publicly-owned team). 

Robert McNair, the billionaire owner of the Houston Texans, is responsible for the lions’ share of the campaign money. He has donated more than $2 million to the presidential hopefuls, hedging his bets by writing $500,000 checks to super PACs supporting four Republicans: former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).  He also gave $2,700 to Lindsey Graham’s campaign committee, the maximum allowed in the primary.  Mr. McNair’s support for the GOP field is not surprising. He is a well-known GOP donor and over the years has donated millions to Republican candidates and causes. 

The second largest contributor, New York Jets owner Robert “Woody” Johnson, made Jeb Bush his pick. Mr. Johnson has donated more than half a million dollars combined to Jeb 2016 and his Right to Rise super PAC. He also serves as the national finance chairman for the Bush campaign and has held fundraisers for Gov. Bush at his homes in the Hamptons and New York City.

Though the Jets play in MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, Mr. Johnson has not made any donations to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s political operation. In fact, Gov. Christie’s campaign and super PAC have not received any support from NFL team owners. Not even Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has cut a check, despite the fact that Gov. Christie’s office called Mr. Jones a personal friend of the governor after the mogul flew the Christie family to an NFL playoff game last year.*

A handful of other owners have also used contributions to boost their favorite candidates. Tom Benson, the richest man in Louisiana and the owner of the New Orleans Saints, donated $25,000 to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Believe Again super PAC and $100,000 to Gov. Bush’s Right to Rise USA; real estate magnate and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross contributed $50,000 to former New York Gov. George Pataki’s We The People, Not Washington super PAC; Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam kicked in $100,000 and $32,700 respectively, to Gov. Bush’s super PAC and committees. Steve Tisch, co-owner of the New York Giants, and Jeffrey Lurie, owner of the rival Philadelphia Eagles, both gave $2,700 to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Hillary for America campaign committee. San Diego Chargers co-owner and chairman Dean Spanos gave $2,700 to Rick Perry’s campaign committee and $5,000 to RickPAC. 

As CREW noted in a 2013 report, the NFL is a major player in Washington, DC, using campaign contributions and lobbying to exert influence on issues like concussions, drug policies, and labor disputes. In recent years, the league has faced pressure from Congress to improve its handling of domestic violence committed by players and to change the name of Mr. Snyder’s Redskins. While the team owners undoubtedly have a stake in how a future president handles issues affecting the NFL, they may also be involved in 2016 presidential politics with an eye towards their outside business interests. Some of the owners also have stakes in companies that lobby the government or are affected by government regulation and legislation.

Even though the real presidential season doesn’t officially kick off until the Iowa caucuses on February 1, 2016, a few days before Super Bowl 50, the NFL and its owners are already making their presence felt. As the campaign continues, fans can be sure to see more owners getting involved in the political game.

*Updated 9/25--It looks like Christie's "personal friendship" has paid off, as Jerry Jones recently held a fundraiser for him at his Texas mansion, with tickets ranging from $1,000-$27,000.

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