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Sports fans play the Washington game

If you've ever gone to a football, baseball, basketball or hockey game — or even watched one on TV — you have Ralph Nader and several special interest groups pushing your agenda in Washington. Msnbc.com's Alex Johnson reports.
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A fan holds up a sign alluding to the NBA lockout during the South Florida All-Star Classic NBA basketball game Oct. 8 in Miami.J Pat Carter / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com

If you're among the many Americans who believe lobbyists are part of what's wrong with this country, you should know this: If you've ever gone to a football, baseball, basketball or hockey game — or even watched one on TV — you have your own special interest groups pushing your agenda in Washington.

Even Ralph Nader is working for you.

"Ralph saw that there were more and more issues where the fans and participants were having little voice," which is why he recently revived his 1970s-era , said Ken Reed, the organization's sports policy director.

"At the time, the NBA and NFL lockouts were on the horizon, and it was clear that there was going to be a power play and the fans were going to be left on the sidelines," Reed said.

The League of Fans is one of a handful of lobbying and special interest groups that seek to "address the abuses of voiceless fans and participants," as Reed put it.

Another is the , which is "trying to shine a light on what the true costs of being a fan are," said Brian Frederick, the organization's executive director.

"We serve as a political voice here in the halls of power in D.C. on behalf of fans," Frederick said. "We try to raise awareness of the sorts of deals that are made and what happens as a result of them and what doesn't happen."

There's even a fully registered political action committee, , which researches what it sees as the abuses of the college bowl system. It has brought to light numerous questionable financial practices by the committee that organizes the Fiesta Bowl; most recently, it has filed complaints with the IRS seeking to strip the bowls of their tax-exempt status, alleging financial improprieties that siphon off money that should go to participating schools.

"In general, we've provided a lot of publicity about how bad of a situation the bowls put a lot of schools in," said Bryson Morgan, a co-founder of the group. "College football as an organization can be unresponsive only so long."

Bringing political clout to the playing field
Nader is the most famous of the activists pushing a sports-fans agenda, but other groups have their own heavy hitters.

Sports Fans Coalition was founded in 2009 by David Goodfriend, deputy staff secretary in the administration of President Bill Clinton, and Bradley A. Blakeman, former president of the influential conservative group Freedom's Watch and a senior member of President George W. Bush's staff. Its board includes Dave Zirin, whose popular column analyzes American sports from a liberal perspective, and Gigi Sohn, president of the digital rights advocacy group .

Playoff PAC's volunteers, meanwhile, include more than a dozen former government officials and prominent Washington lawyers, notably Marcus Owens, former director of the IRS' Exempt Organizations Division (who submitted the group's tax complaints to his former agency), and Scott Thomas, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

Leaders of the groups push a number of different agendas — fighting soaring ticket prices, league lockouts and television-rights deals that black out some fans, among others — but they come together on one issue: what they see as the National Collegiate Athletic Association's exploitation of athletes and fans for profit.

Many believe the answer is to scrap the Bowl Championship Series, which purports to pit the two best college football teams in the country for the national championship, even though its postseason matchups are determined by pollsters and computers, not by on-the-field competition.

The NCAA didn't respond to a request for comment. In May, it told the U.S. Justice Department — which was looking into whether the BCS violates antitrust law by favoring bigger universities from wealthier sports conferences — that it "has no role to play in the BCS or the BCS system."

Morgan, the Playoff PAC co-founder, argued that playoffs "would generate a lot of revenue" — not only from television networks, but also from recovery of money lost to what the group alleges is widespread corruption in the bowl system.

Playoff PAC was founded in 2009 as a standard political action committee, raising money with the idea of donating it to congressional candidates who agreed to push for playoffs if elected. But it found little traction there, raising less than $20,000 and making just one donation. So the group shifted direction to use its members' expertise in the ways of Washington to investigate the BCS.

Along the way, it began filing complaints with Arizona officials and the IRS after a indicated that the Fiesta Bowl, which is held in Glendale, Ariz., was laundering illegal campaign contributions. The bowl committee ended up firing its chief executive, citing information uncovered by the Playoff PAC 11 times in its (.pdf).

More recently, Playoff PAC has filed complaints alleging that the Fiesta Bowl requires colleges playing in its game to buy a minimum number of hotel rooms through the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. The PAC alleges that the convention bureau will "kick back" more than $8 million to the bowl committee over the 20-year life of the contract.

In a separate case, the PAC has asked the IRS to investigate whether the Fiesta Bowl and two other games in the BCS — the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans and the Orange Bowl in Miami — should be stripped of their tax-exempt status. Four members of Congress — including Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who has introduced legislation to require a football playoff — endorsing the inquiry.

"The BCS leaves so much money on the table for these universities," said Morgan, citing an that tabulated that the University of Connecticut lost as much as $1.8 million on its trip to the Fiesta Bowl in January.

Money and its impact on collegesThe Sports Fans Coalition makes a similar argument.

"The NCAA cannot control its own biggest sport — college football — and so the decisions that are being made right now ... are in pursuit of television revenue, and that's having a drastic effect on the entire higher education system," Frederick, the group's executive director, said in an interview.

The coalition's agenda extends well beyond college football's postseason, however. It frequently takes on the National Football League, accusing it of bullying taxpayers into financing palatial new stadiums and then charging them exorbitant ticket prices.

It sided with the NFL players union in a contract showdown this year that nearly led to a league lockout, going to court unsuccessfully to try to be in the room, representing fans, during negotiations over the collective bargaining agreement.

A spokesman for the NFL told msnbc.com simply that "we respect the views of all fans and appreciate their interest." But in June, the NFL told the Federal Communications Commission, which was considering a coalition challenge to the league's television policies, that the group was widely considered to be " ." (.pdf)

The Sports Fans Coalition has been accused of being a front for cable and satellite TV interests ever since it set up shop.

Critics note that Goodfriend, a co-founder, is the former vice president for legal affairs for DISH Network, whose NFL package is one of its leading selling points, and they say it's no coincidence that the group has been especially aggressive in contesting the system under which the NFL and other leagues negotiate television rights.

(That system can lead to TV "blackouts" in some markets when a league and a network, or a network and the satellite and cable providers that carry it, can't agree on terms. That's what happened a year ago when subscribers of New York Cablevision couldn't watch the first two games of baseball's World Series.)

Frederick dismissed charges that the coalition lobbies for cable and satellite TV interests instead of fans, pointing to its activism on ticket prices, stadium deals and labor issues. But the doubts have continued to linger.

While the Sports Fans Coalition isn't, strictly speaking, a lobbying group itself, federal records show that it has paid more than $120,000 in the last two years to Emmer Consulting, a Bethesda, Md.-based lobbying group where Goodfriend went to work after he left DISH Network. DISH Network, as it happens, is one of Emmer's biggest clients.

And the coalition has accepted large contributions from Verizon, which operates the FiOS cable system, and from Time Warner.

Frederick said the coalition needed corporate donations to get up and running, saying, "Lord knows I would love every contribution we could get to keep this going." But despite his solicitations, no other cable or satellite companies have kicked in, he said — not even DISH.

Filings with the Federal Election Commission confirm that.

"The folks that are skeptical are the ones that aren't in Washington and don't have experience in how Washington works," Frederick said. "I wouldn't be working for an organization that strictly existed to put forward a corporate interest."

Frederick's background would suggest that's true. An adjunct professor in sports management at Georgetown University in Washington, he was previously a research director for the liberal advocacy group Media Matters for America.

Most other members of the board of directors — like Zirin, Sohn and Habiba Alcindor, communications director for The Nation — are also associated with left-leaning institutions not usually considered friendly to corporations.

Going hard-coreThen there's Ralph Nader's group, which operates very much like a Ralph Nader group, with its own, occasionally idiosyncratic agenda.

Football playoffs are a part of the League of Fans' agenda. But in many respects, what it considers the best interest of the fan isn't necessarily what fans themselves might favor.

For one thing, the League of Fans wants to dismantle college sports as we know it, eliminating athletic scholarships because they turn students into "professional athletes," a proposal "off-base on so many fronts it is hard to know where to start."

It also argues there should be no public funding for sports teams — a position voters in numerous cities have chosen to disregard in approving public financing for stadiums.

The League does hold other positions that fans would likely applaud. It advocates for lower ticket prices, better safety standards for athletes and elimination of all doping. But its places much of its emphasis on de-corporatization campaigns long associated with Nader.

"In a way, 'League of Fans' is kind of a misnomer," acknowledged Reed, its sports policy director. "We're actively working on the whole sports reform thing."

Reed, who holds a Ph.D. in sports administration and has taught at the U.S. Sports Academy in Daphne, Ala., stressed that, like Nader, he is a devoted sports fan. For them, it's not a political agenda — it's about "what's best for the games, the fans, the participants," he said.

"People ask, 'Why do you guys hate sports?'" Reed said. "It makes me mad and laugh at the same time. Probably no one person loves sports as much as I do.

"My father was a coach. I played two sports in college. I used to be on the sports marketing side and the sports professor side. ... I love sports. My response is, 'Why aren't you angry?'"