There’s no denying that amateur sports, especially college football, are big business. Together, the 15 top-grossing teams score over $1 billion in revenue, with the University of Texas Longhorns alone generating $71.2 million in profit.

Numbers like that would normally make the “receivers” at the IRS smile. But college football is different. The big Division I schools that sponsor the most competitive teams are all tax-exempt. And the IRS loses again on a juicy revenue stream that’s unique to college sports – required donations, sometimes totaling twice the cost of a season ticket, that fans make to the school to secure those seats.

Back in 1986, boosters couldn’t deduct the contributions they made specifically to secure sports tickets. But Louisiana Senator Russell Long, who sat on the Finance Committee, met with lobbyists who argued that his home state Louisiana State University needed tax-deductible contributions to add seats to Tiger Stadium. Long agreed, but didn’t want to be seen showing favoritism to his own constituent. So he approached Texas Representative Jake Pickle, whose Austin district included the Longhorns’ campus. Together, the two lawmakers cobbled together the sort of backroom deal that makes the rest of us proud to be Americans. They added a provision to the 1986 Tax Reform Act which preserved a 100% deduction – for just those two schools! Here’s how the legislation describes one of them to limit its reach:

“Such institution was mandated by a State constitution in 1876; such institution was established by a State legislature in March 1881; is located in a State capital pursuant to a statewide election in Sept. 1881; the campus of such institution formally opened on Sept. 15, 1883; such institution is operated under the authority of a 9-member board of regents appointed by the governor.”

Naturally, every other school in the country complained. So – did the lawmakers turn red in embarrassment at getting caught with their hands in the cookie jar and shut down the offending provision? Noooooooo . . . two years later, they voted to trim the deduction to 80% of the donation, but extend it to everyone.

How much does this all cost the IRS? Well, nobody really knows. But Ohio State University is the leader in seat-related donations, with $38.7 million. LSU is next with $38 million, and Texas is third with $33.9 million. (In fact, LSU is about to spend $80 million to add 70 more luxury boxes and 6,900 more seats, which should bring in another $15 million in donations.) If the average donor pays 25% in federal tax, that means $22 million in lost tax dollars. And that’s just three schools out of 1,000 eligible to collect such donations. Of course, defenders of the deduction argue that it’s worth the hit to the Treasury. They note that donations go to support scholarships, facilities, and other university expenses.

This Saturday, it will be hard to turn on a television without hearing about the upcoming election or “Frankenstorm” Sandy. College football will provide a welcome respite to millions of fans across the country. So next time you sit down to watch your favorite team, hoist a cold one to the tax code that helps make their success possible! 

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