In railing against pro athletes who kneeled in protest during the national anthem last summer, Donald Trump rued that the NBA, specifically, had turned into a “political organization.”
But within the quartet of major American professional sports leagues, the NBA’s aversion to K Street lobbying has made it the prohibitive Washington outsider.
This was confirmed anew in the most recent lobbying disclosures that are filed quarterly with the House Clerk and Secretary of the Senate. For the period ending March 31, Major League Baseball and the NFL each revealed lobbying expenditures of $310,000—putting both of those leagues on track to commit seven figures to spin Congress by the end of the year. That burn rate remains on par with their spending last year. While lavishing far less, the NHL still put $30,000 to work in the first quarter.
But it was basically bupkis from pro sports’ hardcourt faction, in keeping with its pattern over the last six years. Since 2016, the NBA has only committed a de minimis sum to sports lobbyist Phil Hochberg, who has represented several pro leagues on shared concerns involving copyrights and cable and satellite TV royalty payments. On Hochberg’s NBA-related disclosure filings during this time, he checked the box showing that the league paid him $5,000 or less for each of those quarters. When asked why he hadn’t filed in 2021, he called it an “oversight” and thanked a Sportico reporter for reminding him to do so.
Why doesn’t the NBA do as its brethren and hire K Street help to do its bidding with lawmakers? In a statement, the league contended that it simply didn’t have to pay to sway, at least not in D.C.
“As necessary and appropriate, the NBA engages with government officials and speaks publicly regarding matters that affect our sport,” league spokesman Mike Bass said in an email. “In Washington, we have found that members of both parties are open to hearing our point of view directly.”
The last time the NBA spent any discernible dollars to lobby Congress was in 2015, which marked the end of what had previously been an era of federal full-court press. From 2010 to 2015, the NBA spent more than $1.8 million in federal lobbying disbursements, with almost all of its business going to McGuireWoods, where top lobbyist Frank Donatelli handled the account. McGuireWoods’ NBA disclosure forms over that period showed the firm lobbying for the league on everything from municipal bonds to terrorism risk insurance, gambling legislation, athlete issues and collective bargaining.
The reversal of its Washington influence strategy coincided with a regime change at the NBA, as former commissioner David Stern retired in 2014, paving the way for his then-deputy Adam Silver to succeed him. The NBA did not respond to questions as to what effect Silver’s rise to the top post had on its governmental decisions.
Asked over email about why he thought the league had ceased its Congressional lobbying, Donatelli, who left McGuireWoods in 2018, pleaded ignorance.
“I have not done lobbying for the league for a number of years now, so I can only confirm what you already know but not sure I can share any light on the why,” wrote Donatelli, a former Republican official who also once represented the Washington NFL team. McGuireWoods formally reported the termination of its relationship with the NBA at the end of 2019, although the firm had not shown any client activity for several years by then.
Where the NBA has flexed its lobbying muscle of late is with state legislatures, which have been passing a steady stream of new sports gambling bills following the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling to end the federal prohibition on states’ participation in the industry. To that end, from 2019 to 2020, the NBA spent $138,581 lobbying officials in Connecticut, and it threw down another $142,875 to lobby those in Massachusetts. Both the NBA and Major League Baseball have been trying to secure guaranteed cuts from states’ sports betting revenues. The Gober Group, a law firm and Republican political consultancy with offices in Washington and Austin, Texas, has handled the NBA’s state lobbying filings.
Meanwhile, a few NBA franchise owners have put their own money toward lobbying Congress. Last year, Pacers Sports and Entertainment signed up Ice Miller to help with COVID relief matters. And from 2017 to 2018, the Atlanta Hawks used Holland & Knight to lobby Congress on tax issues, including the deductibility of interest on stadium bonds.