The Washington National Guard paid almost $600,000 to the Seattle Seahawks and Sounders organizations over the past three years for marketing events that sometimes blurred the line between advertising and patriotism, according to an investigation into military-funded advertising at professional sporting venues released Wednesday by Arizona’s Republican senators.
In one example last year, a National Guard re-enlistment ceremony for a small group of citizen soldiers at CenturyLink Field before a Seahawks game was listed as an event arranged through the team’s contract with the Washington National Guard.
Those are the kind of events that Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain refer to as “taxpayer-funded patriotism.” They want to distinguish them from other kinds of advertising the military uses to attract recruits, such as commercials.
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“It is time to allow major sports teams’ legitimate tributes to our soldiers to shine with national pride rather than being cast under the pallor fof marketing gimmicks paid for by American taxpayers,” the senators wrote in their 150-page investigation.
The findings are part of a deep look at marketing contracts between the military and professional sports teams that Flake and McCain launched after learning that the National Guard had paid the New York Jets and New England Patriots for hosting so-called “Hometown Heroes” events. The Seahawks and Sounders were not mentioned in earlier reports from Flake that cited wasteful spending on military marketing.
The new investigation documents $10.4 million worth of sports marketing contracts between the military and professional teams from 2012-2015. Most of the money went to the NFL, which took in $6.8 million.
The Seattle Mariners did not receive money from the Defense Department, although 11 other professional baseball teams did.
The report is not a comprehensive accounting of every Pentagon contract with a sports team. The Defense Department told Flake’s office it spent $53 million on marketing contracts with sports teams in the years in question.
Flake’s spokesman said the military has not released all of the contracts. In particular, the military has not released contracts for active-duty Army events.
In response to scrutiny, the National Guard this summer issued new guidelines defining how its recruiters can advertise at sporting events. Under the guidelines, the Guard no longer pays professional athletes for making appearances with recruiters, nor pay teams to hold ceremonies recognizing troops for their military service.
The Defense Department plans to continue employing other kinds of advertising at sporting events because those audiences are known to include young people who could be interested in military service, according to a July assessment by an assistant secretary of defense. That could include ads on stadium video screens and announcements during games.
“They’re looking for innovative ways to get in front of large audiences that contain potential recruits, and sporting events have those audiences,” Washington National Guard spokeswoman Karina Shagren said.
The Sounders declined to comment for this story. The team received $128,000 for National Guard recognition and public service announcements between 2012 and 2015.
The Seahawks reportedly received $453,500 since 2012 from the National Guard. That contract included paid player appearances, a total of six on-field re-enlistment ceremonies and a program that recognizes youth sports coaches.
Shagren said the National Guard no longer will pay for those engagements. She said the National Guard will continue to hold events at sports venues, but not expressly promotional ones.
“Not everything you see (at a game) is something that has dollars involved,” she said. “We do flyovers, we do flag details” that are coordinated through the National Guard’s community relations office and not paid for with with advertising dollars.
Seahawks spokeswoman Suzanne Lavender disputed the report. She said the team did not charge the National Guard for the on-field ceremonies but listed the events in its contract with the National Guard at the request of the military.
She also listed several other services the team provides to military families at no cost, such as hosting military members at practices and games, making visits to local bases and organizing appreciation events.
The NFL in a written response to the investigation highlighted a litany of star players’ volunteer work with military families, such as USO trips and charity drives. Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham was one of the players praised for joining a USO tour in the Middle East.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell pledged to work with the Defense Department on marketing standards and to do its own audit of past contracts.
“If we find that inappropriate payments were made, they will be refunded in full,” Goodell wrote in a letter to the investigators.