NFL executes lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; 1:43 AM

Forget Troy Polamalu and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Business-suited, briefcase-carrying Washington lobbyists have formed the NFL's most formidable defense in recent years.

Seeking to curry favor, cajole and educate to protect the nation's most popular pastime - and the $9 billion it generates annually - NFL-funded lobbyists have rushed the halls of Congress in an unprecedented blitz.

The NFL has dished out nearly $5.5 million to a cadre of D.C. firms since Roger Goodell became commissioner late in 2006, tripling its lobbying expenses over the previous four years. League officials and supporters also have directed an additional $680,000 to key political leaders and allies through a recently formed political action committee.

The NFL's spending on lobbying, which reached a record $1.45 million last year, dwarfs that of any other U.S. professional sports league over the same stretch.

"The NFL is not just a bunch of guys running around in uniforms and helmets," said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics and "It's a huge business that's increasingly intersecting with the game of politics . . . [and] was here in Washington defending its interests to a greater degree in 2010 than it ever had in any year previously."

In the last four years under Goodell, the son of former New York Sen. Charles Goodell, the NFL has opened a Washington lobbying office, lured a well-connected congressional aide with expertise in antitrust law to run it and created Gridiron-PAC for campaign contributions.

The moves came not in response to any particular political crisis, insiders say, but rather because league officials concluded that they faced increasingly complex business and regulatory matters that demanded a larger and more active presence in Washington.

"The range of issues you're dealing with has grown," said Jeff Pash, the league's executive vice president of labor and general counsel. "We had a Washington [presence] but I think the feeling was we need to have someone there . . . to be part of the discussion and help shape policy."

That someone became Jeff Miller, the former chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee and an aide to Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.). Miller was named the NFL's senior vice president for government affairs in 2008.

The NFL also increased the workload of some of its D.C. lobbying firms to address a host of issues from player concussions to Internet gambling to cable and satellite television matters and labor issues. Covington and Burling, Capitol Hill Strategies, Elmendorf Strategies and The Glover Park Group reported earnings last year.

Though the NFL is bracing for a clash with players when its collective bargaining agreement with players expires March 4, NFL officials say they have discouraged lawmakers from treading into the collective bargaining process.

"How we distribute our game to our fans is the most essential business issue we have in Washington," Miller said. "We will respond to the Players Association's strategy of engaging Congress on labor issues - but only respond. We have no intention of trying to draw Congress into our negotiations."

Joe Briggs, the National Football League Players Association's government relations manager, said NFL players are trying to make themselves and their issues known on Capitol Hill, handshake by handshake, aware that the NFL has spent four times more than the NFLPA on lobbying over the last two years.

"The great task, being on the players' side, is they haven't had the same consistent relationship over the last 60 years that the NFL has had," Briggs said.

Indeed, the league's efforts are merely enhanced, not new. The NFL has paid frequent visits to Washington since before the passage of the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, which allowed the league to negotiate one national television broadcast deal on behalf of all of its teams. And for some 25 years, the league hired out D.C. lobbyist Marty Gold - now a partner with Covington and Burling.

But those earlier efforts often seemed reactive, scattershot and even reluctant, officials said. The antitrust battles of the 1980s with Raiders owner Al Davis created the impression during Pete Rozelle's tenure as commissioner that "only bad things could happen to you on the Hill," according to a lobbying source who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak for the NFL.

During the 1990s, Major League Baseball became the dominant sports league in Washington out of necessity; it fended off myriad challenges to its antitrust exemption that arose after the 1994 strike that canceled the World Series.

The rise of the Internet around that time, however, quietly drew Gold, the NFL lobbyist, into what became a lengthy battle over Internet gambling regulations.

The league has long opposed all forms of legalized sports betting, Miller said. It achieved one its highest-profile lobbying victories when Gold was credited with getting an 11th-hour provision restricting Internet gambling attached to a port security bill in 2006. Gambling interests have fought it ever since. The NFL lobbied successfully for enhanced flight restrictions over stadiums during games in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In the meantime, the launch in 2003 of the NFL Network created new issues involving telecommunications that further awakened NFL executives to the need for stronger and more calculated lobbying.

The NFL also was dragged into the hearings that emerged out of baseball's steroids scandal, and revelations about head injuries and concussions brought about additional congressional queries. Even Janet Jackson's infamous wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Super Bowl led to congressional hearings. Miller, in short, walked into a busy job.

"We're an important cultural institution," Miller said. "People take a great deal of interest in what we do, and how we do it."

In 2007, the league surpassed $1 million in lobbying expenses for the first time, and has set records every year since, topping out at last year's $1.45 million. In comparison, Major League Baseball last year spent $690,000; the NBA spent $160,000; and the NHL, $50,000, according to Senate lobbying records.

Since its inception in 2008, Gridiron-PAC has reported more than 150 donations to Republican and Democratic lawmakers (or their campaign committees) who have some jurisdiction over issues concerning the NFL. There were more than 250 individual contributions to the PAC, almost all from team owners, executives and their relatives. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder chipped in two $5,000 donations; his sister Michele Snyder added another $5,000, and his wife, Tanya Snyder, contributed $10,000. Redskins minority owner Robert Rothman and part-owner Dwight Schar each contributed $5,000.

"There's no question, of all of the major sports leagues in the U.S., the NFL at the present time is the most active politically," Levinthal said. "They are the biggest league on the block."

And on the Hill.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company