Capitol Alert

Bid to link sports and charity raffles divides California nonprofits

The Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins takes part in a charity exhibition game in October 2013. A bill before the state Legislature would let nonprofits associated with professional sports teams give half the proceeds to the winner when they conduct raffles at games.
The Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins takes part in a charity exhibition game in October 2013. A bill before the state Legislature would let nonprofits associated with professional sports teams give half the proceeds to the winner when they conduct raffles at games. Sacramento Bee file

A ticket to a basketball or baseball game could soon let fans enjoy two contests: the game on the field and a charity lottery with a substantial prize at stake.

In a rematch of a previous legislative fight, California is considering a bill allowing nonprofits associated with professional sports teams to conduct raffles at games and handsomely compensate the winner. The measure has divided charities and prompted questions about collapsing the line between giving and gambling.

Charity raffles were long forbidden under California law, and the version legalized via a ballot proposition in 2000 still operates under tight rules: 90 percent of the proceeds must go to the cause, with the remainder able to reward whoever bought the winning ticket.

Now a coalition of professional sports teams, allied with supportive nonprofits, is pushing to broaden the field. Senate Bill 549 would allow raffle winners to claim half the proceeds as long as the event takes place during a game and on behalf of a team-affiliated charity.

Drawn by the allure of a large reward, the reasoning goes, many more people will buy tickets – and while a smaller percentage of ticket proceeds will go to charity, the cause will still benefit from a larger overall raffle sale. Packed stadiums offer a large captive audience of potential philanthropists.

Such 50/50 raffles are legal in dozens of other states, but an effort to have California join them stalled last year. This year’s bill has been a blowout so far, sailing out of the Senate without a single dissenting vote. Supporters call it a way to channel more money to needy Californians using teams’ already existing infrastructure.

“As we are losing nonprofits across the state because of lack of contributions made to them, I thought this would be a nice vehicle to give them an uptick,” said Sen. Isadore Hall, D-Compton. He said he was approached by a group that included the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Sacramento Kings. “You can raise significant resources for nonprofits when you have a sporting event where you have a lot of folks present.”

Lining up in support is a long list of professional sports teams and leagues, some of whom in the past have deployed well-connected lobbyists to advance bills like one tightening rules around athlete disability insurance. They argue it would let them expand on the types of charitable partnerships they already pursue.

“This would give us a chance to help more and give more and galvanize the giving spirit of our fans when they’re at a game,” said Scott Moak, executive director of the Sacramento Kings Foundation. He estimated the team supports about 1,100 charities, either directly through the foundation or with separate community outreach.

But some nonprofits argue the bill would unfairly advantage certain organizations and tilt the purpose of fundraisers from altruism to compensation. The California Association of Nonprofits opposes the measure.

“It creates charity haves and have-nots at the whims of owners of professional sports teams and their foundations,” said Jennifer Fearing, a lobbyist for the California Association of Nonprofits, and “the public could be confused about whether the benefit of the raffles is to benefit charity at all.”

A member of the organization’s board who voted to oppose SB 549, Shamus Roller of the organization Housing California, called the bill an unnecessary “carveout.”

“Why should sports teams and their foundations have different rules about how they can raise money?” Roller said.

Rejecting those arguments at a recent hearing, Hall angrily denounced opponents who “fly in on their million dollar kites.” He called opposing the bill tantamount to depriving low-income Californians.

“Poor people always get the brunt of everything,” Hall said in a follow-up interview. “I didn’t come (to Sacramento) to talk about folks who have never stepped foot in minority communities where people struggle to make ends meet.”

Yet some of the charities questioning the bill serve areas that are among California’s most impoverished. Della Hodson, president of the United Way of Kern County, worried that the 50/50 split “takes the attention away from the work you’re trying to support.”

“The professional sports teams obviously bring a lot of publicity and excitement to these things and they get a lot of good will from conducting these activities,” Hodson said, but “this is about what’s fair and equitable and fairness would dictate that you apply the law equitably across the nonprofit sector.”

Some lawmakers sympathized with that argument during a hearing last week. Assemblyman Eric Linder, R-Corona, noted that “it isn’t very fair that it only can happen if you attach a name to a major sports team,” though he ultimately voted for the bill because, he said, “the winner is the people that need money.”

Other critics equate the measure to a new form of gambling. The California Bureau of Gambling Control is examining the bill, and the agency has said it would need more employees to oversee the raffles.

American Indian tribes have also come out against the measure, saying the bill authorizes a new type of wagering without adequate controls.

“We’re going to have large-scale gambling at sports stadiums and arenas,” said David Quintana, a lobbyist for tribes. “Professional sports teams, who get zillion dollar handouts from taxpayers to fund their stadiums already, now they’re going to be arbiters of what’s fair in the nonprofit world?”

For groups in favor of the bill, such concerns are subordinate to the larger cause. Nonprofits that already work with professional sports organizations say the teams’ reach and visibility offer an unparalleled venue for generating donations.

“Getting our name out there and our mission is vital, and the Kings or any sports team that offers a platform for us to do that is an invaluable asset,” said Erin Johansen of TLCS, an organization focused on housing and mental health that has partnered with the Kings. “Fans who have never heard of us and maybe have never donated to anybody, it gives them an opportunity to experience philanthropy.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert