Return of Earmarks May Boost Sports as Pandemic Recovery Takes Stage

Daniel Libit
·6 min read

For three decades, Citizens Against Government Waste, the Washington-based fiscal conservative advocacy group, has published its annual “Congressional Pig Book,” highlighting what it views to be the lowlights of federal discretionary spending.

In the 2009 edition of CAGW’s self-styled “Book Washington Doesn’t Want You to Read,” the anti-pork barrel organization found a particularly juicy hock in the funding of a sports-related project: a $3.8 million earmark for the preservation and redevelopment of the old Detroit Tiger Stadium. While the earmark was included as part of a $410 billion appropriations bill President Barack Obama signed, it never met its intended purpose: The stadium was demolished; its outfield grass was turned into Astroturf; and $50,000 of the earmarked money ended up going to the Detroit Institute of Bagels.

Republicans seized on the allocation, which had been requested by Michigan’s Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, as a prime example of why the Washington earmarking process needed to end—which it did, two years later, at the behest of GOP leaders.

Now, with Congressional Democrats having announced that the decade-long ban on earmarks will be lifted, albeit with new restrictions in place, Tiger Stadium still lingers as a cautionary tale for members. But that doesn’t mean this new potential source of federal funds will be entirely foreclosed to the sports world.

John Hudak, an expert on Congressional earmarks at the Brookings Institution, said conventional wisdom would typically deem sports a low direct-spending priority for Congress—especially coming out of an economic recession—but that the sociology of the pandemic may have changed that.

“I think we are in a unique moment where people are recognizing, more than ever, how important sports is to their leisure time and identity, and they are aware of sports teams as job producers,” said Hudak, who serves as deputy director of Brookings’ Center for Effective Public Management. “The focus on the service industry in general is a real benefit for the sports world, generally, but (specifically) for earmarking purposes moving forward.”

Sports had never been much more than a drop in the earmarking bucket. Including the Tiger Stadium preservation money, a Sportico search-term review of Congressional earmarks between 2008 and 2010—comprising the final three fiscal years before the moratorium—found less than $30 million directed to sports, athletic or recreational projects. In terms of dollar value, the biggest sports-related earmark during that span was a $7.4 million appropriation to the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games, which was hosted in Boise, Idaho. (Another $4.5 million was appropriated for U.S. border security infrastructure related to the 2010 Olympics and Paralympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.)

Meanwhile, most of the latter-day, sports-related earmarks were for less than $500,000 and primarily went directly to municipalities to fund projects like after-school programs and community recreation facilities.

Between 2003 and 2008, $7.5 million in earmarks went to fund First Tee, the PGA-aligned youth golf charity. From 2001 to 2005, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., received three Congressional earmarks totaling $1,569,000. And from 2003 to 2010, the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, based in Baltimore, received seven earmarks totaling $13.1 million.

Millions of dollars in earmarks went to operational funding of Salt Lake City’s Winter Olympics in 2002, including a $14.8 million allocation for communications infrastructure. When the U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup, Congress allocated $15 million in defense appropriations to the effort. Subsequently, the Women’s World Cup received a $475,000 appropriation in 1999.

At first pass, the return of Congressional earmarking—or, as it is now being called, “Community Project Funding”—will be a more prohibitive and harrowing process than in times before.

According to the parameters outlined in February by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the House Appropriations Committee Chair, new earmarks will be capped at 1% of total discretionary spending and can only go to support local governments or nonprofits. Members will be limited to 10 earmarks apiece, and all funding requests will be posted online. Given the public’s (and media’s) ability to now scrutinize individual requests, Congress watchers expect members will be especially sensitive to supporting projects seen as inessential.

Does sports clear the bar?

“I would argue that the level of understanding of the importance of sport in life is much higher than it has in the past, and that is a good thing,” said Ed Foster-Simeon, president and CEO of the U.S. Soccer Foundation, which has received several Congressional earmarks in the past.

“There is no question that there is a greater sense across the country [generally that] I need to make sure my kids get out, and I personally need to get out,” said Tom Cove, CEO of the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. “Don’t sleep on that—it’s a big thing.”

Cove said that the country’s shared experience through a year of COVID-19 has made the body politic and political leaders “more aware of how health and fitness is an important part of people’s lives.”

Throughout the 1990s, Congress regularly earmarked eight-figure sums to national youth sports initiatives.

“When earmarks went away, a funding source for youth sports went away as well,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program. Farrey said sports participation among low-income groups experienced a severe decline, commencing around the 2008 financial crisis, as parks and recreation center budgets were slashed, even though the youth “travel-team environment chugged along just fine.”

The earmark ban made for a “double-whammy,” according to Farrey. “Big Philanthropy has not adopted youth sports in any way. It is a highly disjointed space with a hundred thousand organizations at the youth level—and they don’t have grant writers.”

Foster-Simeon said that when it comes to applying for earmarks, his organization is currently in “wait-and-see” mode.”

“It is very early days with this, and I could imagine that members will be overrun with requests,” he said. “Our whole view is to be very thoughtful—you don’t want to just rush trying to get a dollar.”

If past is prologue, the North America-hosted 2026 World Cup could be one obvious destination for future earmarks, although those requests likely wouldn’t come for years. “This isn’t a topic that has come up in any conversation [about] 2026,” a spokesman for U.S. Soccer told Sportico.

“It is going to take time,” said Cove, referring to sports’ place in the Congressional pecking order. “I don’t have much hope for the first year. It will be such a crapshoot, and frankly people are focusing on COVID, and there is the infrastructure bill, and that will be a huge opportunity [for sports].”

However, not everyone is so sure sports will find much succor in forthcoming appropriations bill—or even should.

“Nobody loves sports more than I,” said Philip Schwalb, the founder and former CEO of the now-defunct Sports Museum of America, a $100 million public-private entity that was based in New York. “But this is the one time in my life it is not appropriate.”

Notwithstanding Tiger Stadium-like projects, Hudak believes the strike zone has opened for sports, perhaps more than ever.

“In normal times, I think spending government [money] on sports would be frivolous,” he said, “but I think that will change, at least in the interim.”

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