Last year, National Football League (NFL) owners kicked off the 2015 season by donating nearly $3 million to presidential super PACs. By the end of the season, the team owners contributed an additional $1.6 million to outside groups supporting members of the presidential field. Now, as the 2016 season begins and the presidential election heads into the 4th quarter, team owners are still giving big to their favorite candidates.
A CREW analysis found that owners of 16 of the NFL’s 32 teams have made political contributions in 2016, totaling more than $2.1 million through July. Little of that money, however, went to super PACs supporting presidential candidates. Instead, NFL owners have been looking down ballot, supporting candidates for the House and Senate.
While super PACs were the recipients of big contributions by NFL owners in 2015, joint fundraising committees (JFC) – committees that take in large contributions from big donors and then split them among candidates, PACs and party committees – were also big targets in 2016. For example, Stephen M. Ross, real estate mogul and owner of the Miami Dolphins, gave $125,200 to JFCs, including $100,000 to Team Ryan, which then distributed the funds to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s PAC and campaign committee and to the National Republican Campaign Committee. Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam also gave Team Ryan $50,000. After serving as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s national finance chairman, Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson of the New York Jets eventually got on the Trump bandwagon and gave $100,000 to the Trump Victory JFC. He also held a Trump fundraiser in the Hamptons last month.
Robert McNair, the Houston Texans owner and a Republican super donor, also doled out big donations to JFCs, giving a total of $249,200 to two JFCs that sent the proceeds to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s PAC and campaign committee as well as two other GOP committees. As in previous CREW analyses, Mr. McNair ultimately made up the majority of the donations by NFL owners as he continued to donate at a high level in 2016. In the calendar year so far, he has given a total of $1.3 million in political contributions. While he did not donate to any presidential super PACs in 2016 after putting money behind seven of the 17 Republican presidential candidates last year, he did cut a $1 million check to the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC dedicated to protecting the Republican hold on the U.S. Senate, as well as $100,000 to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aiming to help Republicans maintain control of the House. Mr. McNair also gave to the campaign committees of various members of Congress, including Reps. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Peter Olson (R-TX) and Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH).
Mr. McNair wasn’t the only owner focusing down ballot. For example, Mr. Ross of the Dolphins has backed a wide variety of candidates around the country, including both Democrats and Republicans. So far, he has given a total of $19,506 to various fundraising committees including $5,000 to Rep. Joe Crowley’s (D-NY) PAC, Jobs, Opportunities and Education (JOE-PAC) while also donating $2,700 to Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) re-election effort, and $10,000 to Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) PAC. Mr. Ross was also bipartisan when supporting JFCs – giving to committees associated with Speaker Ryan and Republican House candidate Brian Mast (R-FL) while also giving to one backing Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL).
Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder and the owner of the Seattle Seahawks, also donated across party lines. In 2016, he has contributed to senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), as well as Roy Blunt (R-MO), John Thune (R-SD) and Richard Burr (R-NC). Overall, in 2016, Mr. Allen has given a total of $31,100 to members on both sides of the aisle: $15,600 to eleven Democrats and $15,500 to nine Republicans.
One NFL owner is even playing both sides of the field in the presidential election. Tampa Bay Buccaneers co-chairman and part-owner Edward Glazer donated the maximum allowable contribution of $5,400 to Hillary for America and $50,000 to the Trump Victory joint fundraising committee on the same day. His wife Shari also gave $50,000 to Trump Victory that same day. While super PAC contributions were down among NFL owners, CREW did find one from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. FEC records reveal that at the end of January, Mr. Jones gave $200,000 to America Leads, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) super PAC. The donation came in the final weeks of Gov. Christie’s presidential candidacy when the New Jersey governor was lagging in the polls. Gov. Christie previously came under fire when TV cameras caught him celebrating a touchdown with Mr. Jones in the owner’s luxury box at the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium. Media outlets later reported that Mr. Jones paid for Gov. Christie’s trip to the game, including the use of his personal jet. Gov. Christie defended the trip and said the gifts were permissible because Mr. Jones is a “personal friend.”
The 2016 campaign season is not over yet though. With a little over a month left until Election Day, NFL owners may still put more money behind their favorite candidates for office.