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Election 2020 – How does political perception differ from reality in American sports?


There’s a complex contrast between a league’s image and the politics of the people in charge.
Editor’s note: This is one 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. THE LOS ANGELES DODGERS faced a decision. They had just paid one of baseball’s highest-profile stars, Mookie Betts, $365 million. And now their star, after expressing hesitancy in 2016 to kneel during the national anthem because of his father’s military service in Vietnam, had changed his position. “I wasn’t educated,” Betts said in July about why his stance changed. “That’s my fault. I need to be educated on the situation. I know my dad served, and I’ll never disrespect the flag, but there’s also gotta be change in the world, and kneeling has nothing to do with those who served our country.” How would the team respond? The organization backed him publicly — a purposeful move into politics that historically hasn’t been a choice that sports franchises have been all that comfortable making. Image, the saying goes, is everything, and businesses have long been concerned about alienating customers. Yet the Dodgers’ move, like so many similar efforts seen in 2020 from throughout the sports industry, would seem to indicate a significant philosophical change that emanates right from the top of these organizations. Not so much, at least by one measure: Campaign donations by owners to politicians and parties can be at odds with the public statements and actions of the teams they own. According to an ESPN study of publicly accessible Federal Election Commission donation records, owners of American pro sports teams have tended to support Republican politicians over their Democratic counterparts since 2015. Looking closer over the past two years, owners in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and NASCAR all donated significantly more money to the Republican Party than they did to Democrats. Among these leagues, owners in the NBA — the league most often at the center of discussion regarding its overt messaging — actually contributed the second-most cash to the GOP ($8.4 million), trailing MLB ($15.1 million). The WNBA, a league that has been on the forefront of social activism in American professional sports, provides a clear example of perception vs. reality. The league is the only one of the six in ESPN’s research with a liberal tilt, though it’s small, with owners sending $1,634,153 (51.7%) to purely Democratic causes vs. $1,338,459 (42.3%) to Republicans. The conservative donations from the league as a whole come largely from a single source, Atlanta Dream co-owner and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Georgia). She accounts for more than 65% of the WNBA ownership’s GOP donations. (WNBA players have worn shirts reading “Vote Warnock” to support Raphael Warnock, one of Loeffler’s opponents in her 2020 Senate race.) “It appears there’s no link between a league’s image and the politics of its owners, or at least their political spending patterns,” said University of California, Davis political science professor Ethan Scheiner, who studies the intersection of sports and politics. “This pattern of no connection between image and politics is common in business.” WHILE THE NBA might have embraced the Black Lives Matter movement more strongly than any of the other four major men’s sports leagues, the audience of the league also differs from the NFL, MLB or the NHL. At the height of social unrest in the nation, public support was strong. A Nielsen study in July found growing support for Black Lives Matter among American sports fans, with 83% of NBA fans,81% of NFL fans,80% of MLB fans and 78% of NHL fans supporting the role of athletes in raising awareness for racial injustice. Additionally,76% of NBA fans,72% of NFL fans,69% of MLB fans and 66% of NHL fans supported the Black Lives Matter movement at the time. Tracking owners’ political donations This is how professional sports owners contribute to political campaigns, why they spend millions and what that financial power means.

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