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Athletes, teams donate big to political campaigns

Sports teams, owners, and athletes routinely spend your money on political campaigns.
A database compiled by 10 News shows political donations by professional athlete and sports team.

TAMPA BAY, Florida -- Almost anytime you spend money at a stadium, arena, or ballpark, a small portion of the profits are going to politics.

Sports teams – as well as their owners, executives, and athletes – are some of the nation's most loyal political contributors. And since most teams receive some sort of public subsidy, certain donations also raise questions about how the contributors are influencing lawmakers.

10 Investigates analyzed thousands of financial records from federal, state, and local elections offices to follow how millions of sports dollars are pouring into political campaigns.

DONATION LOOKUP: Political donations from local teams, athletes, owners

"What these owners are asking for...is hundreds of millions of dollars, so anyone would take that return on investment," said 10 News political analyst and former legislator Dr. Lars Hafner, D-St. Petersburg.

Individual donors include former local stars like Derrick Brooks, Dave Andreychuk, Wade Boggs, and Shelton Quarles; current executives like Rays President Matt Silverman and Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke, as well as all of the owners of Tampa Bay's major pro franchises.

Rays owner Stu Sternberg has favored Democratic candidates in the past, but the Rays recently started donating more money to state-level Republicans. Hafner suggests Sternberg isn't shifting political leanings, but is seeking access to state's dominant party.

"The party that has the majority gets to pass legislation … and reaps the benefit of those dollars," Hafner said.

Yet the Rays' $15,000 contributions to Republican lawmakers and their committees this year pale in comparison to the donations of their fellow stadium subsidy-seeking counterparts. In recent years, the Florida Panthers and their subsidiaries have contributed $124,000 to state-level GOP campaigns; Miami Dolphins-led organizations contributed $83,000; the Orlando Magic gave $37,000; and the Jacksonville Jaguars forked out $28,800.

Some of those franchises spent even more lobbying the legislature and executive branch. Each is eligible for tens of millions of dollars in state subsidies for stadium construction.

Tampa Bay's franchises have also been active supporting local transit campaigns, with the Rays, Bucs, and Lightning all contributing at least $25,000 each to the Friends of Greenlight committee. All three also donated at least $50,000 to the Moving Hillsborough Forward committee, which was unsuccessful in supporting Hillsborough County's 2010 transit referendum.

10 Investigates compiled the following interactive showing where local athletes, coaches, executives, owners, and teams are putting their campaign dollars. While there are many under-the-radar ways for teams and individuals to donate as well, this database represents more than 700 contributions from more than 100 sources over the last two decades.

INTERACTIVE DATABASE: How Florida's athletes, teams, owners contribute

Tampa Bay Rays & Stu Sternberg

The Rays have never been terribly political active, but after making $101,120 in contributions to transit campaigns in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, the team made its first contribution to a partisan committee this year, a $15,000 check to the Florida Leadership Committee, a PAC run by powerful state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Team owner Sternberg has donated to Republicans ($500 to Charlie Crist in 2005), but has given more to Democrats ($5,000 to President Barack Obama's re-election campaign in 2012). Several Rays minority owners, including Thomas Sansone and Vince Naimoli, have tended to give more to Republicans.
Late addition: minority owner Timothy Mullen has been a loyal contributor to Democratic campaigns, including Barack Obama's and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's.

Other donors included in 10 Investigates' interactive include team president Brian Auld, President of Baseball Operations Silverman, broadcaster Dewayne Staats, former manager Lou Pinella, and Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs.

Tampa Bay Lightning & Jeff Vinik

The Lightning contributed $25,000 to support this fall's Greenlight Pinellas referendum, but it is no stranger to the political process. While most of the team's state-level contributions included in the database have been "in-kind" donations, several local Republican lawmakers have also received campaign checks over the years.

The team's owner since 2010, Jeffrey Vinik, has been a loyal Republican donor for longer. He has personally donated more than $50,000 to national Republican committees as well as $73,300 to the Romney Victory Fund in 2012.

Top Lightning executives have also been politically active, including CEO Leiweke, who has contributed to the campaign accounts of almost every sitting Hillsborough County commissioner. He also contributed $10,000 to the NFL's political action committee while working for the Seahawks in 2008-2009.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers & the Glazers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers players have been more active politically than any of their counterparts from other sports, with nearly a dozen players contributing tens of thousands of dollars to mostly-Democratic campaigns. Kellen Winslow Jr., Michael Clayton, and Cato June all donated to Obama.

The Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, also leaned to the left, contributing $46,000 to National Democratic committees and another $4,800 to Charlie Crist's Independent Senatorial run in 2009.

However, the team itself has been largely bipartisan with its campaign contributions, donating tens of thousands of dollars to both the state Democratic and Republican parties in the late 1990s when it was working to build a stadium with public dollars. The Bucs also donated $57,800 to Moving Hillsborough Forward in 2010 and $25,000 to Friends of Greenlight in 2014.

Other donors in the database include former coach Raheem Morris and former players Chidi Ahanotu, Jamael "Ronde" Barber, Brooks, and Brad Culpepper.

Tampa Bay Rowdies & Bill Edwards

St. Pete business tycoon Bill Edwards bought the Rowdies in 2013, but it did little to slow his longstanding commitment to Republican campaigns. Between personal contributions and those from his companies, Edwards has given more than $1.3 million to political campaigns since 2003, 99% of which went to Republican candidates and committees.

Recipients of Edwards' donations include the Republican Party of Florida, National Republican Committee, Sarasota Congressman Vern Buchanan, Latvala's Florida Leadership Committee, Ohio Congressman John Boehner, and Crist prior to his party-switches.

The few Democrats he has supported include former New York congressman Gary Ackerman and former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd.

10 Investigates found no political contributions from the team itself, but at least one executive donated to David Jolly's congressional campaign in 2014.

New York Yankees & the Steinbrenners

The Yankees don't just call Tampa home six weeks a year; long-time owner George Steinbrenner was an active Tampa resident prior to his death, too. He donated more than $100,000 to local political campaigns, with 60% going to Republicans and 35% going to Democrats.

The team has also reached across the aisle, supporting both state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and state Rep. Mark Danish, D-Tampa.

However, surviving family members of "The Boss" - including Hal, Harold, Jessica, Joan, and Jennifer Steinbrenner - have contributed almost exclusively to Republican campaigns.

Other findings

Hafner, a former Florida House representative for 12 years, says there is more money flowing from sports to politics than we'll ever know, thanks to donation "bundling" from lobbyists. When teams hire lobbyists, as they frequently do, the lobbyists help "bundle" numerous donations on behalf of a specific cause.

While the contributions show up in financial reports, its hard to tie them to their original sources or motivations. But the politicians who benefit from the cash often reward the special interests with access.

Additionally, both Major League Baseball and the National Football League large warchests in their own political action committees. Not surprisingly, both the MLB and NFL both spend large amounts of money lobbying Washington to protect their business models.

"That is what the contributions are for," Hafner said, "to buy access."

According to OpenSecrets.org, the NFL has spent more than a million dollars each of the past seven years lobbying national leaders on topics such as television blackouts, concussions, and its tax-exempt status. In total, professional sport leagues have spent more than $4 million in each of the last seven years on lobbying alone.

But a few million dollars is a drop in the bucket for businesses that receive tens of millions of tax dollars at a time from bonding tax exemptions, non-profit exemptions, stadium subsidies, and other concessions.

10 Investigates reached out to the Rays, Rowdies, Bucs, and Lightning for comment prior to releasing its report, but none of the teams chose to comment.

Find 10 Investigates reporter Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Read his Sports Business Blog at Shadow of the Stadium.

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