Personal Finance

Senate tax bill strips NFL, other sports leagues from tax-exempt status

Key Points
  • An item in the Senate tax bill eliminates the tax-exempt status of professional sports organizations like the National Football League.
  • President Trump publicly criticized the NFL and its tax status last month.
  • The NFL relinquished its position as a tax-exempt non-profit in 2015.
Members of the Houston Texans kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on October 29, 2017 in Seattle, Washington.
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Professional sports leagues like the National Football League will not have tax-exempt status if the current version of the Senate tax bill goes through.

Professional football leagues have been exempt from tax since 1966 under section 501(c)(6) of the tax code. The Internal Revenue Service has applied the exemption to all professional sports leagues.

A proposal in the Senate bill would eliminate the tax-exempt status for professional sports leagues.

That change comes amid strong criticism of the NFL and its tax status by President Donald Trump last month.

Trump called for an end to "massive tax breaks" that the NFL received.

While the president called out the NFL as a tax-exempt non-profit, the league actually gave up that position in 2015.

At the time, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the decision was made after the organization had been "mischaracterized repeatedly" and the move would "eliminate this distraction."

The bill cannot strip the NFL of a status that they do not have or do not claim to have, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.

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The ability of professional sports leagues to hold non-profit status did not necessarily cost the government big tax revenues. The tax benefits were in the millions of dollars compared to the billions in revenue generated by the teams, according to Victor Matheson, professor of economics at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

"No sports economists are up in arms about this tax exemption that allows the NFL to form a non-profit," Matheson said.

A bigger issue for the sports industry could be a proposal in the just-passed House version of the tax bill that would eliminate the use of tax-exempt municipal bonds to fund building or renovating sports stadiums.

It is unclear how the provision would affect existing plans, such as a new stadium in Las Vegas.

(Update: This story has been updated to include comment from the NFL.)

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