NFL Punting Exempt Status To Hide Compensation

The National Football League’s (NFL) plan to file returns as a taxable entity for fiscal year 2015, voluntarily dropping its 501(c)(6) tax-exempt status, isn’t likely to generate much tax revenue or hit the league’s bottom line.

The league office is just a pass-through that pays employee salaries — including Commissioner Roger Goodell’s $44 million in total compensation in 2013 — and expenses of running the league, such as travel, rent and legal expenses. Any surplus that the NFL has can be distributed to the 32 teams, which are the private companies that pay the tax, said Andrew Zimbalist, the Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

“Really in the end, it’s not much of a story on the impact, at least adverse impact for the NFL or frankly for the taxpayers,” said Jeffrey S. Tenenbaum, chair of the nonprofit organizations practice at the Washington, D.C. law firm Venable LLP.

“The NFL can afford whatever the tax hit is. It’s taken so much heat on other issues…they don’t need one more. That’s not to say this isn’t the right decision, but it’s never been about the money or the tax revenue,” he said.

In a letter to team owners and members of Congress, Goodell said the league had been studying its tax-exempt status for more than a year before owners approved the move in March. The change in filing status will make no material difference to the NFL’s business, he said, adding that the move will eliminate a distraction.

The league typically has been showing a loss on its IRS Form 990. How does a sport that generates annual revenues of close to $10 billion report a loss? The NFL is actually made up of a number of entities. In addition to the league office that is the 501(c)(6) organization — the same nonprofit status as a chamber of commerce — there’s NFL Ventures, a for-profit entity that handles the billion-dollar television contracts and merchandising, as well as NFL Charities, a 501(c)(3), and the 32 franchises. The teams pay membership dues and fees to the league office which is the NFL’s primary revenue source.

For the year ending March 2013, the most recent tax year available, NFL reported revenue of $326 million, mainly in the form of membership dues and assessments from its 32 franchises, with expenses of $318 million, including $49 million in interest and $73 million under other expenses, reported as “club related financing.”

“It’s hard to imagine it’s too much of a tax hit,” Tenenbaum said, since the tax forms have reflected losses for most years.

The only tax implications for the switch could be related to tax-exempt bonds that the NFL used in helping teams erect new stadiums. Zimbalist said if bonds were issued under the tax-exempt status and the league changes to taxable status, the NFL might have to make some deal with the IRS, likely in the millions, to settle the issue.

The primary benefit for the NFL and the top issue is related to disclosure of executive compensation, Tenenbaum said. He was surprised that the NFL didn’t follow Major League Baseball’s example sooner. MLB changed from a 501(c)(6) to a limited liability corporation in 2008, ahead of the revised IRS Form 990 for nonprofits, which expanded executive compensation reporting. “They even stated at the time that’s why they were doing it,” he said. It’s unclear what tax impact there was on MLB when it dropped tax-exempt status.

“Frankly, it’s probably the right decision” by the NFL, to avoid yet another issue that has brought increased scrutiny over the years, from media, consumer groups and Capitol Hill.

U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) again introduced legislation in January that would eliminate the 501(c)(6) tax exemptions for professional sports organizations with annual revenues of more than $10 million. The bill would have affected the NFL, National Hockey League (NHL), and Professional Golf Association (PGA).

Chaffetz is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which had requested information from a variety of sports leagues and had planned a hearing on their exempt status.

In a joint statement with Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Chaffetz said it was one of the committee’s “signature efforts this year,” and hoped that other leagues in similar situations would follow the NFL’s example. “We look forward to rightfully returning millions of dollars to the federal treasury as a result.”

The Joint Committee on Taxation estimated $109 million in tax revenue generated over 10 years from the bill — if all of the affected leagues were no longer tax-exempt, not just the NFL.

Chaffetz and Cummings sent letters to various professional sports leagues requesting information related to each organization’s tax-exempt status.

Tenenbaum said the committee’s interest in the NFL and a pending hearing on sports leagues could have been the pressure that finally made the NFL move on it. “My sense is, the timing of that pending hearing had something to do with it,” he said.