WRAL Investigates

Big-time sports tax breaks: 'How much does it bother you?'

Posted February 4, 2013 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated February 4, 2013 7:00 p.m. EST

— The National Football League is a $9 billion-a-year industry, but it's a nonprofit in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service. The league pays no corporate income taxes. The Atlantic Coast Conference gets the same treatment as a charity, even though it pulled in $293 million in revenue last year, according to Forbes.

The WRAL Investigates team looked at the nonprofit exemptions, which were built into the tax code long before big TV money deals.

A check of the NFL’s latest tax return shows the league office reported nearly $1 billion in assets, $183 million in annual revenue and spent even more, actually losing money.

“It's not a profit center in itself. It's simply a facilitator, a kind of distributing unit,” said Duke University tax law professor Rich Schmalbeck, who points out that the real profit flows to NFL teams, which eventually pay some tax on the big TV, gate and merchandizing money.

The league office revenue comes mainly from team assessments. The $183 million averages out to about $6 million per team. Those dues that teams such as the Carolina Panthers pay can then be written off because the NFL is technically a nonprofit. The league paid Commissioner Roger Goodell $11,554,000, according to 2011 tax forms.

Counter that tax break with a proposal in Charlotte to increase the meals tax to pay for $125 million in Bank Of America Stadium renovations.

“How much does it bother you that the rich – in this case the NFL, the extremely rich – are getting benefits that I, as a small business owner, don't get?” said David Glenn, a sports radio host and attorney.

Glenn says he believes that’s a fair question, especially since the NFL won its exempt status in the 1960s, long before the mammoth TV deals.

“It is an example where the powerful get advantages, but it's one of a million examples where that is the case,” Glenn added.

The Pro Golfers Association reports $14 million in profit, tax-free thanks to its nonprofit status. The NCAA also didn’t have to pay taxes on its $40.7 million in net revenue.

“College sports, I think, are very problematic when it comes to charitable organizations,” Schmalbeck said.

Just like the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the SPCA, the NCAA and college athletic conferences enjoy what is called 501(c)(3) tax status, no corporate income or property taxes and contributions are deductible.

The Atlantic Coast Conference's mission statement defends its nonprofit status: The league "exists to promote and regulate inter-collegiate athletic programs" and to "maximize the educational and athletic opportunities of its student-athletes."

“If you think that that is not part of the core educational enterprise, then the tax treatment is probably one of many complaints you have about the system.” Schmalbeck said.

The ACC’s $3.6 billion television deal is all tax free. The reason is the conference and all the member schools, such as Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, are nonprofits. The ACC's latest tax returns show the conference brought in $167 million and didn't pay tax on its $1 million in net revenue.

After salaries and operating expenses at the ACC, the vast majority of revenue flows directly to the member schools tax free, and there's another benefit. The ACC pays no property tax to local government for its $2.6 million headquarters in Greensboro. ACC Commissioner John Swofford was paid $1,460,768 in base compensation last year.

“If they ever lose the educational exception, if they ever also lose the amateur athletics exception, they can always apply for a religious exception, because we all know in the state of North Carolina college basketball is frequently treated like a religion,” Glenn joked.

Nonprofit or not, changing the tax game for big-time sports won't come easy.

“Every time college sports and the IRS go to war, the IRS ends up licking its wounds,” Schmalbeck said.

The tax breaks for big sports are on the radar. The NFL was singled out for its nonprofit status in the 2012 Wastebook from Oklahoma Congressman Tom Coburn. As for the fans, they aren't walking away. Some say they just wish for a fairer playing field.

“If you're bringing in so much money from so many people, I think you should be taxed at some point,” said sports fan Mike Litton.

It would take serious political will for lawmakers to take on the tax status of the NFL and college sports, and there's no sign anything will change anytime soon.

The ACC and NFL referred WRAL Investigates to IRS tax codes and mission statements but declined requests to comment.

Tuesday on WRAL News at 6 p.m., WRAL Investigates looks at another nonprofit – private country clubs.