Through the end of June, team owners in the four major sports and their families have given or raised more than $3.2 million to McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, compared to only $615,000 to his Democratic rival Obama, according to a Politico analysis of data from the Federal Election Commission, the campaigns and interviews.
Not only did McCain raise more than Obama from the owners in each of the four major professional sports leagues analyzed, but McCain even raised six times more from the owners of teams in Obama’s hometown of Chicago.
Sam Zell, the owner of baseball’s Chicago Cubs, gave more than $22,000 to McCain’s committees, though he also gave Obama $2,300, as did the owner of the Chicago White Sox and Bulls, Jerry Reinsdorf, who gave that much to both McCain and Obama.
The owners of the squads in McCain’s hometown of Phoenix, however, were more united in their financial support, giving nothing to Obama, while contributing or raising as much as $550,000 for McCain, whose wife’s family owns a small share of Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks.
Though the overall tallies from sports moguls represent just a fraction of each candidate’s total fundraising, the lopsided giving by sports owners runs counter to the 2008 campaign fundraising storyline.Obama, in collecting $356 million in his personal and joint campaign accounts, has nearly doubled McCain’s overall fundraising, and has raised more money from most business and industrial sectors.
Both candidates have professed their passion for team sports. Obama is a big fan of the Chicago Bears and pickup basketball games, and has frequently donned a Chicago White Sox ballcap during his most recent vacation. McCain is a long Arizona Cardinal season ticket holder. Their ability to talk sports could appeal to a slice of the contested blue collar male swing-vote bloc.
Sports team owners are often either loved or loathed in their communities. But most have unquestioned financial clout and fundraising ability, because it takes extreme wealth and connections to purchase a sports team.
Though sports moguls tend to skew conservative for the same reasons as other very wealthy folks – aversion to high taxes and regulation – their interests and backgrounds are eclectic, said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor at Smith College who has written extensively about the economics of sport.
“Today, a guy who owns a sport team is somebody who has generated a big pile of money in some other industry, and it’s very likely that their primordial financial interests and instincts are rooted in that other industry,” he said.
Those industries include oil, construction, real estate, entertainment, casinos, high technology, trial law, ice cream and, of course, family inheritance.
But even owners who are major Democratic donors have yet to loosen their purse strings for Obama.
The owners of football’s Philadelphia Eagles, baseball’s Baltimore Orioles, San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers, basketball’s New York Knicks and Sacramento Kings, and hockey’s Anaheim Ducks and their families, for instance, gave a combined $1.1 million in political contributions this presidential cycle, mostly to Democratic political committees and candidates.
That sum includes more than $60,000 to New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who Obama narrowly edged out for the Democratic presidential nomination. As of the end of June though—the most recent month for which there are data available – those owners had not given a dime to Obama.
Most of the owners who gave to Clinton but not Obama did not respond to requests for comment on why.
One major Clinton backer who has thrown his full support to Obama is Bob Johnso, owner of the National Basketball Association’s Charlotte Bobcats.
Johnson gave the maximum $2,300 contribution to Clinton’s presidential campaign, raised more than $100,000 for her in “bundled” contributions and was among her most active campaigners, though he occasionally had trouble staying on message.
But when Clinton dropped out of the race and urged her bundlers to get behind Obama, Johnson, who made his fortune as the founder of Black Entertainment Television, quickly obliged.
Less than one month after Clinton conceded, Johnson cut checks totaling nearly $32,000 to Obama’s campaign and a joint account established by Obama and the Democratic National Committee. Plus, he told Politico he has bundled about $200,000 for Obama’s campaign, though it has yet to include him on its list of bundlers.
“Once the primary season was over, the battle ax was buried and we became one team,” said Johnson, who rejected the idea that McCain has special appeal to sports owners.
“I don’t think there’s any correlation between being a sports owner and supporting John McCain. I think there’s a correlation between being a businessman and supporting John McCain,” said Johnson.
“Although I have business issues and I have differences with Sen. Obama on some tax issues, that’s overridden by my commitment to what I believe he will contribute to the overall good of the country,” Johnson said.
As for the owners of the Bobcats’ NBA opponents, Johnson said they seldom talk politics, except to joke about it. “Some NBA owners are Republicans. Some NBA owners are Democrats,” he said. “But one thing they have in common is they’re all businessmen.”
Still, he said he’s considering calling “a bunch of guys I know” in sports ownership circles to ask for contributions for – and possibly a “public endorsement” of – Obama.
But the Illinois senator shouldn’t expect the Bobcat’s minority co-owner, hoops icon Michael Jordan, to hit the trail anytime soon, Johnson said, though the notoriously apolitical retired Chicago Bull did make a rare contribution – $2,100 – to Obama’s primary campaign.
“He’s not as involved as I am,” Johnson said, though he added that if he does proceed with his sports-moguls-for-Obama idea, “I’ll call anybody and everybody. The worst they could say is ‘no.’”
When sports owners like Johnson do decide to get involved in the political money game, they can become forces.
Thomas Hicks, the Dallas investor who owns the Dallas Stars of the National Hockey League and bought baseball’s Texas Rangers from a group of investors including then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, raised more than $100,000 for each of Bush’s presidential campaigns.
He was a leading fundraiser for the failed Republican presidential campaign of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a devout Yankees fan who attracted wide financial support from sports moguls and awarded his bundlers by labeling them “sluggers,” “all-stars,” and “MVPs.” Since Giuliani dropped out, Hicks has raised or contributed as much as $309,000 for McCain.
New York Jets owner Robert Wood Johnson IV, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, seems to be an increasingly prominent money man for the GOP. He bundled more than $100,000 for Bush in 2000, then raised twice that much in 2004. He’s already bundled more than $500,000 for McCain, contributed more than $70,000 from his own pocket to McCain’s committees, and last month agreed to help the Republican National Convention host committee raise $10 million to make up a recently discovered shortfall.
Carl Pohlad, the banker and investor who owns baseball’s Minnesota Twins, and his family have contributed or bundled as much as $217000 for Obama, while Robert Epstein, managing partner of basketball’s Boston Celtics, and his wife contributed more than $61,000 to Obama’s committees.
Bill Bidwill and son Michael Bidwill, the owner and president, respectively, of the National Football League’s Arizona Cardinals, contributed and bundled as much as $350,000 for McCain’s campaign. Their family has given hundreds of thousands more over the years to politicians and committees of both parties, though primarily those with ties to Arizona.
Michael Bidwill hinted at a localized giving strategy when asked about his contributions to McCain by the Arizona Republic this summer.
“We have a policy that if any season-ticket holder runs for president of the United States, we are going to support him,” he told the paper, presumably with tongue planted in check.
Like other wealthy businesspeople, many sports owners spread their contributions across party lines.
Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner, who in the mid 1970s pled guilty to making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's re-election campaign, contributed $2,300 to Clinton’s primary campaign against Obama, then gave $15,000 to McCain’s joint committee.
Henry Samueli, owner of hockey’s Anaheim Ducks, contributed to Giuliani and Clinton during the primaries, then to McCain after he locked up the GOP nomination.
Since 2005, he and his wife Susan have poured tens of thousands of dollars into congressional campaigns ranging from Reps. Howard Berman and Jim Moran to Sens. Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman.
But these days, politicians might be wise to steer clear of Henry Samueli, since he pleaded guilty in June to lying to federal regulators about his role in an alleged stock option backdating scheme and will pay a $12 million fine as part of deal set to be finalized next week.
Then there is Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, an AOL executive whose contributions mostly skew Democratic, who nonetheless maxed out to both Obama and McCain in the primary.
He explained on his blog this summer that he and his wife contribute to “many friends” in both parties. As far as the Obama – McCain matchup, he wrote “who we vote for is our own personal decision. Whoever wins, we hope they will enjoy coming to Caps games next year.”