Senator criticizes National Guard sponsorship deals with NFL teams

A U.S. senator has raised questions over NFL teams honoring U.S. servicemen and servicewomen, while not always disclosing they were paid to do so by the Department of Defense.

"You go to a game and you see a team honoring 'Hometown Heroes,' and you think it's some sort of public service announcement, that the team is doing it out of the goodness of their heart," Senator Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said to ESPN on Monday. "Then you find out it's paid for? That seems a little unseemly."

Federal contracts reveal that the U.S. Department of Defense from 2011 to 2014 paid $5.4 million for sponsorship deals with 14 NFL teams, many of which included in-game mentions. The size of the deals over the four-year period ranged from $20,000 paid to the Miami Dolphins to more than $1 million paid to the Atlanta Falcons.

"The government obviously doesn't have money to burn," said Flake, who also said he's sending a letter to the Pentagon this week to ask for specifics on the return on investment of these sponsorships. "I don't see how paying to give you a shoutout at NFL games is a wise use of money."

In a letter sent Monday to U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and General Frank Grass, who is chief of the National Guard, Flake asked for the total amount the Department of Defense has spent on sponsorship deals with teams since 2009. He also wanted to see return on investment from such deals.

The National Guard said Monday that the spending helped the group recruit in the crucial age groups.

"This isn't, as some might think, payment for unfurling a flag or to welcome a soldier home on the field," National Guard spokesman Rick Breitenfeldt said. "This is more about spending for marketing and advertising, for signage, for website takeovers."

Breitenfeldt said the National Guard spent $3.1 million on NFL team sponsorships in fiscal 2013, $2.4 million in fiscal 2014 and $1.2 million on the 10 teams it is sponsoring in fiscal 2015, a deal which ends at the end of September.

"We have hundreds of [sponsorship agreements] with teams, including minor league baseball and at high schools," Breitenfeldt said. "We have found that spending in sports to help us recruit in our 18-24 demographic works out for us."

The New York Jets have had Military Appreciation Day at games since 2000. But in 2011, the National Guard approached the team to do something more comprehensive to help with recruiting. From 2011 to 2014, the National Guard spent $377,500 with the team.

"The current deal expired, and it's unclear as to whether our relationship will continue," Jets spokesman Bruce Speight said. "But we will continue to honor members of the military as we did before and during this relationship."

At least one of the contracts with the Jets specified the team would honor one to two soldiers a game on the video board, would participate in a charity event sponsored by the National Guard and would allow 40 soldiers on the field in pregame activities. In 2012, the National Guard's deal included 24 season passes to the Jets' Coaches Club area, which had a retail value of nearly $100,000.

The concern centers around whether the teams participating are revealing they have actual business arrangements with the armed services.

Speight said if a new deal was struck, the Jets would "make it abundantly clear that a sponsorship relationship exists."

The Baltimore Ravens were paid almost $800,000 over a four-year period by the Maryland National Guard. Team spokesman Kevin Byrne said the team does not comment on sponsorship contracts, but he did say that in the team's contract "there is no mention of honoring soldiers."

The Ravens made National Guard member Joey Odoms their regular national anthem singer last season, but they did not disclose the sponsorship.

"The Armed Forces have long worked with sports teams and leagues on year-round advertising and marketing programs to reach important audiences," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement. "The Armed Forces also have advertising arrangements with television networks, online and print outlets. The on-field salutes, which have played a role in NFL games for decades and will continue in the future, are a visible way to thank the men and women who have served and continue to serve our country here and around the world."

Spending by the National Guard on sports sponsorship has been highly criticized in recent years. After spending more than $120 million on a NASCAR sponsorship, primarily with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Guard acknowledged it was ending the sponsorship, along with the sponsorship of IRL race car driver Graham Rahal, due to "significantly constrained resources and the likelihood of further reductions."

Part of the criticism arose from the fact that the National Guard couldn't prove any return on its investment in recruiting.

According to a recent report put together by Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., the National Guard spent $49.1 million on sports sponsorships in 2014, including deals with not only the NFL, but with MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS and a PGA Tour event.

An Army National Guard spokesman told the Washington Post in September that it was more than $100 million short in funding and would cut back on training to save money.

Other NFL teams that received compensation from the National Guard include the Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, St. Louis Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns.

Although the Colts have had a deal with their local National Guard, team COO Pete Ward says the team does a lot more than what they are contractually required to do, including honoring 100 family members of fallen soldiers and donating more than 1,000 tickets to veterans for full field flag presentations throughout the season.

"Virtually all of the deliverables to the National Guard in our advertising agreement are just that, advertising, and would be recognized as such," Ward said. "The vast majority of our honoring our service people is proudly done by us completely separate and distinct of any advertising agreement."

Falcons spokesman Brian Cearns said that the number being associated with the Falcons was actually less than reported and that there are plenty of activities with veterans that the team does that no one within the organization gets compensated for in any fashion.