ACC, SEC Powered Congressional Lobbying Arms Race in 2023

The Atlantic Coast Conference spent just over $1 million lobbying Congress in 2023, almost triple what it paid out the previous year and significantly more than any other college athletic conference.

At $790,000, the Southeastern Conference more than doubled its 2022 lobbying expenditures, according to a Sportico analysis of disclosure forms filed with the House Clerk and Secretary of the Senate. The rest of the Power 5 leagues realized smaller spending increases or mostly held steady: The Big 12 paid $170,000, up from $100,000 in 2022, while the Big Ten’s $220,000 was slightly less than the year before.

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The Pac-12, meanwhile, was on pace to match its 2022 spending before terminating its relationship with lobbying firm Cassidy & Associates in the fall, following an exodus of conference members to the Big Ten and Big 12. The Pac-12—and its subsidiary, Pac-12 Enterprises—finished last year having expended $210,000 on lobbying.

Cumulatively the P5 spent more than $2.39 million to peddle influence on Capitol Hill. By comparison, the NCAA reported spending $540,000—$360,000 on its outside lobbyist, Brownstein Hyatt, and the rest attributed to its in-house government relations director, Dawn Booth. This tally was $20,000 more than what the association spent in 2022.

Once a de minimis line item on college conference budgets, Congressional lobbying dramatically ramped up in 2021, following the adoption of state-based NIL laws and the Supreme Court’s ruling for the athlete plaintiffs in NCAA v. Alston. Since then, Congress has seen over 25 pieces of legislation proposed, none of which have even been voted out of committee.

This lack of action did not appear to quell the conferences’ K Street commitments. All of the Power 5 conferences have continued to use the same lobby shops over the last several years.

International law firm DLA Piper, which represents the ACC, reported being paid $1,010,000 on a four-person lobbyist team that included former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss. (An ACC spokesperson declined to comment.)

The other conference’s firms were Akin Gump (SEC), FGS Global, formerly the Glover Park Group (Big Ten); and Kit Bond Strategies (Big 12), the shop founded by the former Missouri senator.

On their key issues of concern, especially those relating to NIL and athlete employee status, the conferences have often worked in lockstep. In late 2022, according to On3, the ACC drafted a memo outlining a strategic partnership among the Power 5 conferences to address athlete compensation, including areas they were “prepared to negotiate and possible compromise” on. Since then, ACC commissioner Jim Phillips has taken a leading role in organizing this P5 effort, which has included near-weekly phone calls with his counterparts. In December, Phillips and his fellow commissioners from the Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC went to Capitol Hill to lobby Congressional leaders on both sides.

In a subsequent interview on CNN’s “Inside Politics Sunday, Phillips said: “The risk is permanent damage to an enterprise that has meant an awful lot to our country, and to those that have benefited from the experiences,”

Though its spending paled by comparison, two smaller conferences also reported lobbying expenditures: the Mid-American Conference paid $14,427 to Active Policy Solutions and the Missouri Valley Conference spent $10,000 with Washington Navigators.

Disclosure filings for the MAC said that, among other initiatives, the conference endeavored to “convince Congress to protect the rights and use of the sports-related data created by college associations.” In 2022, the MAC became the first college conference to sign a statistical partnership with a data company company when it inked a deal with Genius Sports to distribute its stats to sportsbooks.

MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, in an interview, downplayed how much his lobbying focused on data.

“A big part of what I talk about is: let’s not just focus on 20 or 30 or 40 schools, Steinbrecher said. “Let’s make sure we are thinking about the breadth and depth of, in my case, the Football Bowl Subdivision.”

In addition to the leagues, a larger number of Division-I schools reported that their hired lobbyists engaged Congress about intercollegiate athletics in general, and NIL specifically, as part of their overall portfolio of concerns.

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