The Cable

Budgets May Be Tight, but Pentagon Spending Tens of Millions on Pro Sports

The NFL, MLB, NFL, NBA, and Nascar have all cashed the Pentagon's checks to stage patriotic events.


Remember the last time you saw the face of a local sailor sitting in the stands flashed on the big screen at a football game? Or a group of soldiers stand and wave to the cheering crowd from a corporate box during a break in the action? Those weren’t just goodwill gestures from the home team. A new report from a couple of concerned U.S. senators says that the Pentagon probably paid big bucks for the feel-good moment to go down.

Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake unveiled the findings of a months-long investigation into what they call “paid patriotism” on Wednesday, documenting the $53 million the Defense Department has spent between 2012 and 2015 on marketing and advertising contracts with sports teams.

More than $10 million of that total went straight into the pockets of pro football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer teams, the report found, in the form of “military appreciation nights,” having soldiers rappel into areas from the rafters and renting corporate suites at stadiums for service members to enjoy.

But in a classic Pentagon moment, the senators also report that in the course of their research, “we discovered the startling fact that DOD cannot accurately account for how many contracts it has awarded or how much has been spent.”

The military could only account for 62 percent of the 122 contracts with pro teams that have been signed in recent years, and their records could only locate about 70 percent of the more than $10 million it spent on those contracts, according to the report.

The senators wrote that “unsuspecting audience members became the subjects of paid marketing campaigns rather than simply bearing witness to teams’ authentic, voluntary shows of support for the brave men and women who wear our nation’s uniform.”

The list of which teams received the most money is surprisingly Atlanta-heavy, the stats show. The Atlanta Falcons brought in the most of any NFL team, taking in $879,000 from the Pentagon, while the $450,000 the Braves took home in payouts led Major League Baseball. The other highest-paid NFL teams were the New England Patriots, at $700,000, and the Buffalo Bills, who took in $650,000.

And when it comes to the great American game of ice hockey, the Minnesota Wild took top spot, bringing in $570,000. The report pointed to the Wild’s tradition of having a soldier from the Minnesota Army National Guard rappel from the catwalk to deliver the game puck to center ice. That kind of show doesn’t come cheap, folks.

Nascar trumps all, however, being paid more than $1.5 million in 2015 alone by the U.S. Air Force for a series of personal appearances by Richard Petty and other drivers.

While the services have been dropping millions on these events, they have also been pleading poverty on Capitol Hill. And the report doesn’t let them off the hook there, either. In one key “gotcha” moment, the lawmakers noted that in 2014, while the National Guard “was spending millions on professional sports advertising, it was simultaneously requesting additional funds from Congress to cover a more than $100 million shortfall to pay its troops and conduct critical training.”


McCain and Flake got an amendment into the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to end these kinds of taxpayer-funded salutes to the troops, and the Pentagon has banned what they call “paid patriotism” events. The NFL, perhaps eager for a good-news story, issued a letter to its teams in July asking them to review all contracts with the military services.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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