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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Nonprofit status: A maybe for news orgs, a yes for the NFL

While countless news organizations wait to get 501(c)(3) approval from the IRS, the NFL is doing well as a not-for-profit.

I like football, so I was interested in this piece over at Pro Football Talk that details the salary of National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell. (That’s $11,554,000 — not bad.) But then I was surprised to see that this information came from the NFL’s just-filed Form 990.

Wait — 990? As in, the form nonprofits are required to file once a year?

Yep. At a time when civic-minded news organizations are battling for recognition from the IRS — in some cases waiting more then two years to hear whether they’ll be allowed to be nonprofits — the NFL is a not-for-profit. Filing 990s and everything. (Here’s a link to the NFL on Guidestar. The league describes itself as a “trade association promoting interests of its 32 member clubs.”)

Technically, the NFL isn’t a 501(c)(3) — that allows orgs that “Foster National or International Amateur Sports Competition.” It’s a 501(c)(6), “Business Leagues, Chambers of Commerce, Real Estate Boards, etc.” And NFL teams themselves aren’t tax-exempt. But the NFL proper still managed to rake in $207 million in 2009, a number that’s no doubt grown since then.

I’m sure there are good legal reasons why the NFL is a nonprofit. But this isn’t the Nieman Football Lab. (Interesting take from Brian Frederick here. And this paper by lawyer Andrew Delaney argues the NFL is a “glorified tax shelter.”)

The future-of-journalism point here is that the NFL has found a spot in the vagaries of the tax code — a defined niche in which they can fit. Journalism doesn’t have that kind of a spot, as we’ve explored. I just wish the IRS could find a way to give dozens of small, community-oriented news organizations the same sort of status as one of America’s most successful companies.

Image by Jonathan Moreau used under a Creative Commons license.

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Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
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  • matthewhughes

    That is interesting – I really had no idea about the NFL. I need to dig deeper on this one…

    That said, I don’t see why “civic-minded news organizations” feel compelled to be non-profits?

    You are as virtuous as you act – not as the IRS alleges by giving (or not giving) non-profit status to your organization.

    A for-profit civic-minded news organization will have more resources, more reach and more influence to serve its community than a non-profit.

    On another note, the NFL (and related NFL charities) gives hundreds of millions of dollars to charities every year.

  • larry longmore

     “hundreds of millions”?  No, probably not hundreds. The NFL way over plays their giving but even at that hundreds is not close to accurate.

    As for why news orgs might want that same treatment I’d guess there are some advantages to it or else the NFL wouldn’t have it. It has nothing to do with virtue it has to do with book keeping and regulations. That small, meagerly funded groups trying to do good have to fight for it while money making juggernauts do not is the point.

  • matthewhughes

    What evidence do you have that the NFL “over plays their giving”?

    I have personally been privy to two NFL related events in recent weeks that have generated over $600k for terrific charitable causes. That’s two one day events alone.

    The league is one of the Boys & Girls Club of America’s largest supporters. The Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity are also beneficiaries of NFL giving.

    Players regularly donate time and resources to their alma maters as well, be it high school or college.

    During the season, Tuesday is the league-wide community outreach day. You’ll find NFL players volunteering at schools, food banks and shelters. The NFL off-season is packed with fundraising events.

    Based on my research, I estimate the NFL gives at least $300 – 500mil a year to charitable causes. So perhaps my saying “hundreds of millions” seems like a stretch but it’s not.

    Note: this is including all NFL related charities (teams, players, alumni association).

    Frankly, I wish the NFL didn’t have non-profit status. That’s disappointing to me. It only speaks to how pointless the mantra is in many cases.

    Being a “money making juggernaut” is a good thing – just ask any charitable cause.

  • Damon Moore

    Clearly, the newspaper industry has terrible lobbyists.