Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lobbyists: MLS and Orlando City

I read an interesting story in the Wall Street Journal last week on the dollar amounts the top private organizations spent on lobbyists in the state of New York in 2012. While most of the names on the list are well known, such as Walmart and ExxonMobil, the biggest surprise was the third biggest spender on the list, Major League Soccer (MLS). 

It has been one of the worst kept secrets in all of professional sports in America that MLS has been doing everything in their power to persuade state and local government officials to approve a land deal in Queens to allow for the construction of a $300M soccer stadium for an expansion franchise. The league spent more than $2.1M on lobbyists to walk the halls of the state house and the congressional districts of Queens to steer opinions in favor of the project. That's a pretty big number, but some would argue it is the cost of doing business when you have a land deal that needs city, county and state approval.

So the obvious question for Orlando City fans is, if Major League Soccer is spending at least $2M for a single project in New York, how much did the league spend on trying to encourage new stadium development here in Florida? The answer is simple and concise: zero. A search of the list of all lobbyists registered with the state and the clients they represent reveals not a single mention of MLS. While the league has mentioned and even promoted possible expansion to Orlando, Tampa and Miami, they have offered no financial muscle in Tallahassee to back that up. But all is not lost, for there is one client on the list that should bring some comfort—Orlando City Soccer Club.

According to public records, Orlando City is represented by the Gray-Robinson law firm which has offices in Orlando, Tallahassee and several other Florida cities. Each lobbying firm is required to submit quarterly reports to the state on the fees collected from their respective clients. In the case of Orlando City, records reveal the club spent between $40K and $80K on expenses with the law firm, though the actual number spent on direct lobbying for the team's various efforts is not clear. The primary reason for the team's hiring of a lobbyist firm is simple, Senate Bill 358, which would provide a sales tax rebate of up to $1M per year for the next 30 years to support a Major League Soccer stadium in Florida. The sales tax rebate already existed for the other four major professional sports in Florida. This bill would allow for the rebate to be expanded to include one MLS stadium. The original plan called for two stadiums, but with no other franchise than Orlando immediately on the horizon and probably with a bit of lobbyist convincing, the second franchise was dropped from the bill. 

In the end, what might total upward of $100K in lobbyist fees for Orlando City is money well spent if the return is $30M spread out over 30 years, and a key component in getting the downtown stadium built in Orlando.

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