Inside the political donation history of wealthy sports owners

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of six pieces that shows how professional sports owners in America contribute to political campaigns, why they spend millions in the space and what that financial power means as athletes across sports continue to embrace activism of their own.

American professional sports owners have contributed nearly $47 million in federal elections since 2015, according to research by ESPN in partnership with FiveThirtyEight, including $10 million to Republican causes and $1.9 million to Democratic causes so far in the 2020 election cycle.

That strong Republican lean is consistent with owners’ spending in the 2018 and 2016 federal elections as well. A deep search in the Federal Election Commission database of campaign finances for principal owners, controlling owners, co-owners and commissioners from the NBA, NFL, NHL, WNBA, MLB and NASCAR reveals that this deep-pocketed group has sent $34.2 million (72.9%) to Republican campaigns or super PACs purely supporting Republican causes, compared to $10.1 million (21.5%) to Democrats over the past three elections. Less than 6% of contributions went to bipartisan or unaffiliated recipients.

The research includes more than 160 owners and commissioners spanning 125 teams, though no list of this kind can be completely comprehensive. Only current owners in each league and only their contributions while they have been involved with their franchises were included. Spouses and relatives were not considered unless they also play a controlling role in the ownership group. If a contribution appeared to be from an owner but could not be confirmed, it was not included. And, as is the case with many millionaires and billionaires, owners have a number of ways to hide their political spending.

Some of the biggest takeaways from the data are below. And in the coming days, the series will delve into:

  • The three different reasons owners donate to politicians

  • Dark money and why owners hide their political spending

  • Why the NFL has its own super PAC

  • How political perception differs from reality in each league

  • How athletes are working to create their own political change

Overall contributions

Contemporary sports ownership has become an exclusive club with entry fees that reach into eight- and nine-figure territory. The rarefied Americans who can afford those fees tend to skew older, whiter and more male. As political donors, these owners skew toward the GOP.

Of the 160 owners and commissioners in ESPN’s database, 74 contributed a majority of their publicly searchable funds to Republican campaigns, with 48 donating a majority to Democrats and the rest sending most of their money to causes that aren’t fully aligned with either party.

But while that overall summary is interesting, a more pronounced signal begins to emerge when we look more closely at this group’s larger political donations. There are 40 owners who have donated at least $100,000 to Republican causes over the six-year period, compared to 23 owners topping $100,000 to Democrats, helping lead to these splits:

In total, here is the election-cycle contribution breakdown for owners and commissioners for these leagues:

  • 2016: $12,940,514 Republican | $4,065,093 Democrat

  • 2018: $11,282,570 Republican | $4,174,212 Democrat

  • 2020: $10,022,931 Republican | $1,874,333 Democrat

It’s important to note that not all data for the 2020 election cycle is publicly available at our time of publishing. Some of the biggest super PACs had filed only individual contributor data to the FEC as of June 30, meaning their most recent contributions aren’t included in our totals.

Drilling down deeper into the data, we can see that federal contributions in each league lean red, except for in the WNBA:

Overall, 51.7% of all contributions by WNBA owners went to Democrats, with 42.3% going to Republicans. And of the $1.3 million contributed by WNBA owners to Republicans, 65.5% came from Atlanta Dream co-owner and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.).

Expanding to all the leagues in our research, here are their totals to each party over the six-year period:

  • MLB: $15,181,761 Republican | $5,184,604 Democrat

  • NBA: $8,372,300 Republican | $2,641,487 Democrat

  • NHL: $7,087,116 Republican | $1,726,733 Democrat

  • NFL: $5,032,470 Republican | $873,500 Democrat

  • WNBA: $1,338,459 Republican | $1,634,153 Democrat

  • NASCAR: $576,110 Republican | $93,983 Democrat

Owners’ conservative lean extends into the current presidential cycle as well. Americans have donated similar amounts to both Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, but owners are giving more to Trump, according to the database.

Thirteen owners have contributed directly to Trump’s campaign or Trump super PACs in the 2020 election cycle, with contributions adding up to $1,746,423. That list of owners includes:

  • Bill Foley (Vegas Golden Knights), Bill Hornbuckle (Las Vegas Aces), Charles Johnson (San Francisco Giants), Dan Devos (Orlando Magic), Jack Roush (NASCAR), James Dolan (New York Knicks and New York Rangers), Kelly Loeffler (Atlanta Dream), Mike Brown (Cincinnati Bengals), Peter Karmanos (Carolina Hurricanes), Robert Plummer (Los Angeles Dodgers), Roger Penske (Team Penske) Tilman Fertitta (Houston Rockets) and Todd Ricketts (Chicago Cubs)

By contrast, 20 owners have contributed directly to Biden or Biden’s super PACs, though at smaller totals, with overall contributions equaling $405,745. The Biden contributors include:

  • Arthur Blank (Atlanta Falcons), Arthur J. Rooney II (Pittsburgh Steelers), Billie Jean King (Dodgers), David Blitzer (Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils), David Bonderman (Seattle Kraken), Herbert Fritch (Nashville Predators), Herbert Simon (Indiana Pacers and Fever), Ilana Kloss (Dodgers), James Dinan (Milwaukee Bucks), Jeff Dickerson (Spire Motorsports), Jim Pohlad (Minnesota Twins), John Rogers (Chicago Sky), Laura Ricketts (Cubs), Marc Lasry (Bucks), Mary Kelly (Denver Broncos), Michael Alter (Sky), Peter Guber (Golden State Warriors and Dodgers), Tom Werner (Boston Red Sox), Zygi Wilf (Minnesota Vikings) and Hornbuckle

— Kirk Goldsberry

The big-money donors

A relatively small group of donors makes up a huge chunk of the overall donation data. Forty owners account for more than $40 million — more than 85% of all contributions. And looking specifically at these big spenders, it’s clear where their allegiances lie: 77.7% of that $40 million went to Republican causes or candidates, with 18.8% going to Democrats.

This is where the political spending power among American professional sports ownership is concentrated. Here’s that full list:

  • Bill Foley (Knights), Charles Johnson (Giants), Dan DeVos (Magic), Dan Gilbert (Cavaliers), Dan Snyder (Washington), David Tepper (Panthers), David Bonderman (Kraken), E. Stanley and Ann Kroenke (Nuggets/Rams/Avalanche), Edward Glazer (Buccaneers), Fred Wilpon (Mets), Herbert Simon (Pacers/Fever), James Dinan (Bucks), James Dolan (Knicks/Rangers), Janice McNair (Texans), Jeremy and Jerry Jacobs (Bruins), Jerry Jones (Cowboys), Jerry Reinsdorf (Bulls/White Sox), Jim Pohlad (Twins), Jimmy and Susan Haslam (Browns), Jody and Paul Allen (Blazers/Seahawks), Josh Harris (76ers/Devils), Kelly Loeffler (Dream), Ken Kendrick (Diamondbacks), Laura Ricketts (Cubs), Magic Johnson (Dodgers/Sparks), Micky Arison (Heat), Peter Angelos (Orioles), Peter Karmanos (Hurricanes), Philip Anschutz (Kings), Ray Davis (Rangers), Robert Castellini (Reds), Roger Penske (Team Penske), Ron Burkle (Penguins), Stephen Ross (Dolphins), Steve Tisch (Giants), Ted Leonsis (Wizards) and Tilman Fertitta (Rockets)

And when we isolate just the big-ticket donations topping $100,000 from this group, a familiar picture emerges. More than 63% of the $47 million in the database of nearly 3,000 contributions comes from over 100 donations split among these 40 owners — and 79% of that money went to Republican causes.

No matter how you slice it, the big takeaway is clear: The biggest political spenders in pro sports prefer red to blue. — Goldsberry

Owner-level data

This table reflects the total contributions for each owner and commissioner in our database over the past three election cycles, grouped by political party. Note that some family members appear together and that only contributions while owners have been involved with the team are included. You can find more of the data here.

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