When filing taxes for her arena work the previous year and her second job as a driver at Uber, Avila, 50, reported that she made $ 44,810. The federal government made a cut of 14.1%.
The players were also busy on the pitch that night. No more than LeBron James. The Lakers star suffered from a painful groin strain, but he still scored more points and played more minutes than any other player.
On his tax return, James said he made $ 124 million in 2018. He paid a federal income tax rate of 35.9%. Unsurprisingly, it was more than double the price Avila paid.
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The wealthiest person in the building that night was, in all likelihood, Steve Ballmer, the owner of the Clippers. The evening was decidedly less strenuous for the billionaire, ex-Microsoft boss. He was sitting in the yard, in a pink shirt and pants, surrounded by friends. His legs were stretched out, his shoes almost touching the sidelines.
Ballmer had reason to smile: his clippers won. But even if he didn't, his ownership of the team earned him massive tax breaks.
For the past year, Ballmer said he made $ 656 million. The dollar he paid in taxes was high, $ 78 million; but as a percentage of what he earned, it was tiny. Records verified by ProPublica show that its federal income tax rate was only 12%.
That's a third of the price James paid, even though Ballmer made five times as much as the superstar. Ballmer's rate was also lower than Avila's – although Ballmer's income was nearly 15,000 times that of the concession worker.
Ballmer pays such a low rate in part because of a provision in U.S. tax law. When someone buys a business, they can often deduct almost the entire sale price from their income in the years that follow. This allows them to pay less taxes. The underlying logic is that the purchase price was made up of assets – buildings, equipment, patents, and more – that degrade over time and should be counted as expenses.
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But in a few sectors this tax treatment is more disconnected from economic reality than in professional sport. Teams' most valuable assets, like TV deals and player contracts, are virtually guaranteed to be regenerated as sports franchises are essentially monopolies. There is little risk that players will stop playing for Ballmer’s Clippers or that TV stations will stop broadcasting their games. But Ballmer can deduct the value of those assets over time, nearly $ 2 billion in total, from his taxable income.
With it Ballmer can perform a kind of financial magic trick. If he benefits from the Clippers, he can – legally – notify the IRS that he is losing money, saving enormous sums of money on his taxes. If the Clippers are unprofitable in a given year, he can tell the IRS that he is losing a lot more.
Insight into the clippers' real-world financial results shows that the business has often been profitable. This includes audited financial data released in a Bank of America report just before Ballmer bought the team, as well as NBA records leaked after it became the owner.
But the IRS records obtained from ProPublica show that the Clippers have reported losses of $ 700 million for tax purposes in recent years. Not only does Ballmer not have to tax any real Clippers profits, he can use the tax write-off to offset his other income.
Ballmer is not alone. ProPublica reviewed tax information for dozens of team owners in America's four largest professional sports leagues. Owners often report incomes for their teams that are millions below their real-world income according to tax records, previously leaked financial records, and interviews with experts.
This includes Shahid Khan, an automotive tycoon who took at least $ 79 million in losses from a stake in the Jacksonville Jaguars, despite the fact that his soccer team has been repeatedly forecast to be in the millions. And Leonard Wilf, a New Jersey real estate developer who owns the Minnesota Vikings and family members, took on $ 66 million in losses from his minority stake in the team.
In a statement, Khan replied, “We are a nation of law. The US Congress passes them. When it comes to tax laws, the IRS applies and enforces the absolute rules. We simply and completely adhere to exactly these IRS regulations. ”Wilf did not respond to questions.
Ballmer's spokesman declined to answer certain questions but said, "Steve has always paid the taxes he owes and has publicly stated that he personally would be okay with paying more."
These revelations are part of what ProPublica unearthed in a plethora of tax information for the richest Americans. ProPublica has already shown that billionaires are paying shockingly little to the government by avoiding taxable income.
The records also show how some of the richest people in the world are using their membership in the exclusive club of professional sports team owners to further reduce their taxes.
The records turn traditional beliefs about how taxation works in America on its head. Billionaire owners consistently pay lower tax rates than their millionaire players – and often even lower than the rates paid by the workers who occupy their stadiums. The massive cuts in personal tax bills owners receive from their teams come on top of the much-criticized subsidies teams receive from local governments for new stadiums and further deplete federal coffers, which cover everything from the military to medical research to grocery stamps and other fund safety net programs.
The history of team responsibility as a means of tax avoidance goes back almost a century. Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians in the 1940s and later the Chicago White Sox, put it clearly in his memoir: “Look, we play the Star-Spangled Banner before every game. Do you want us to pay income tax too? "
Veeck is credited with convincing the IRS to accept a steering maneuver, even if he called it a "gimmick". Player salaries have already been treated as deductible operating expenses for a team. That wasn't the least bit controversial.
But Veeck came up with an innovation, a way to get a second tax deduction for the same players: depreciation. He achieved this by buying the contracts separately before the liquidation of the old company instead of transferring them to the new company as before. That meant the contracts were treated as a separate asset. The value that a new owner assigned to this asset when purchasing the team could be used to offset taxes on team profits as well as any other income they might have. (Practice defenders claim this is not double dipping as the deductions are taken from two separate pools of money: the money used to purchase the team and the daily operating budget.)
Team owners, Veeck wrote in his memoir, “won a tax write-off that a Texan oilman could have calculated. It wasn't found out by a Texas oil man. It was found out by a Chicago hustler. Me."
After the IRS accepted this premise, the natural next step – the owners, who allocate as much of the team's total purchase price as possible to the player's contracts – became a sport of their own. Decades ago, Paul Beeston, who was president of the Toronto Blue Jays and president of Major League Baseball at various times, famously described the result: “According to generally accepted accounting principles, I could turn a $ 4 million gain into a loss of $ 2 million. Convert dollars and I could get any national accounting firm to agree with me. "
The depreciation of property, plant and equipment and its deterioration over time is often intuitive. A machine in a factory and a fleet of vehicles have more obvious market values and lifetimes before business owners have to pay for replacement. For example, consider a newspaper company with a press that cost $ 10 million and will last for 20 years, for example. The idea of the write-off is that the newspaper owner could deduct a portion of that $ 10 million each year for the 20 year life of the press.
However, amortization, the term used to describe the amortization of intangible assets, was less straightforward. Sports teams are often made up primarily of these assets. Assessing and assigning a lifetime for a player's contract or TV deal was more subjective and therefore prone to aggressive tax maneuvers by the team owners.
Several NBA teams claimed that more than 90% – in one case, 100% – of their value consisted of player contracts that could be written off from owner's taxes, according to league financial data, which emerged in a Congressional investigation in the early 1970s.
By this point, the IRS had started a series of team owner valuation methodology challenges that were part of a larger cross-industry battle over how business owners should be allowed to write off what are known as intangible assets. The tax office insisted that companies should only write off assets with limited useful lives.
In order to stop the endless legal disputes, in 1993 Congress ushered in the modern era of amortization with a simplification of the rules: Under the new regime, the buyer of a company was allowed to buy more types of intangible assets within 15 years. This may have been welcome news for the sports business. But Congress explicitly excluded the industry from the law.
Following major league baseball lobbying, sports teams were granted the right to use this deduction in 2004 as part of a tax bill signed by President George W. Bush who was itself a former associate of the Texas Rangers. Now team owners have been able to write off the price they paid for not just player contracts, but a host of other items such as TV and radio contracts and even goodwill, an amorphous accounting concept that represents the value of a company's reputation. Overall, these assets typically add up to 90% or more of the price paid for a team.
That is, when billionaires buy teams, the law allows them to treat almost anything they've bought, including assets that don't depreciate in value, as deteriorating over time. A team's franchise rights, which never expire, are automatically treated like a pharmaceutical company's patent on a blockbuster drug that has a finite lifespan. In reality, the right to run a franchise in any of the major leagues has been a license to print money for the past few decades: over the past two decades, the average value of basketball, soccer, baseball, and hockey teams has increased by more than 500 %.
ProPublica uncovered the tax breaks used by team owners by analyzing reports sent to the IRS that track a company's profit or loss. Still, it can be difficult to unravel the exact benefits. For example, some owners hold their team shares in companies that also had unrelated assets – a corporate dummy that makes it impossible to determine a team's losses. The examples mentioned in this article are cases where it appears that the owners did not mix the assets and the ownership structure of the team is clear based on ProPublica's analysis of tax records, court documents, company registration data and news reports.
When Steve Ballmer offered to buy the Clippers for a record sum in 2014, longtime owner of the team, Donald Sterling, was stunned.
"I'm curious about one thing," Sterling said at a meeting later told by his lawyer.
"Of course what is the question?" Ballmer answered.
Sterling continued, "You really have $ 2 billion?"
The size of the offer was impressive given the context. In 1981, Sterling paid $ 12.5 million for the club. For the next three decades, Sterling was notorious for neglecting and mistreating the team. He did not provide a training facility for years and forced the team to train in the gym of a local junior college. He harassed his own players during games. After the games, Sterling is asked to show friends around the locker room so they can stare at the players' bodies.
But even Sterling's mismanagement could not stop the Clippers' rise in value. Players kept signing with the Clippers – drafted rookies because they usually have no other option when they want to play in the NBA, and veterans because there are a limited number of teams to choose from.
TV deals also gained in value. The Clippers had little fan support, and they vacillated between league bottoms and a mediocre franchise. But before Sterling sold the team, the Clippers were expected to sign a new local media deal worth two to three times their previous deal.
The beginning of the end of Sterling's tenure came when he was picked up by his lover when he told her not to bring blacks to Clippers games. The NBA tried to oust Sterling. Ballmer rushed in, outbidding Oprah Winfrey and others. (ProPublica could not reach Sterling for comment. His wife Shelly, who co-owned the Clippers with him, defended her tenure in emails to ProPublica, saying they were not the only owners whose team did not have a training facility and you Suggesting husband didn't bother the players. "I VALUE IF THERE IS NOTHING TO WRITE, WHY DON'T TRY TO WRITE SOMETHING," she wrote.)
Ballmer, one of the richest people in the world, wasn't just motivated by his love of basketball. He expects the team to be profitable. "It's not a cheap price, but if you're used to looking at tech companies at high risk, no profits, and huge multiples, it doesn't look like the craziest thing I've ever bought," he said at the time. “The risk is much lower. There are real profits in this business. "
Two years later, when the league negotiated a new contract with the players' union, Ballmer presented the team's finances in a completely different light. “I'm a new owner and I've heard that this is the golden age of the basketball economy. This is what you should tell our financiers, ”he told a reporter in 2016. “We sit and look at red ink, and it's real red ink. I know it shows up on my tax return. "
Losses on a tax return, however, don't necessarily mean losses that are that big or any loss in the real world.
Ballmer acquired a team that had skyrocketed in value over the past decade. And there was the benefit for his taxes: He could treat the Clippers – including those player contracts and TV deals – as if they were losing value.
Records show that Ballmer reported losses totaling $ 700 million from his property to the Clippers from 2014 to 2018, which almost certainly consisted mostly of paper losses from amortization.
The evidence examined by ProPublica showed that the Clippers were often profitable, although much of the team’s finances came from prior to Ballmer’s acquisition. Leaked NBA records during Ballmer's tenure showed the Clippers were still in the black in 2017. Audited financial data released in Bank of America's report shortly before the sale showed the team grossed $ 14 million and $ 18 million in the two years prior to Ballmer's acquisition, with growth projected in the future. The tax records ProPublica examined for the pre-Ballmer era showed that the team consistently generated millions in profits. Forbes has also estimated the team makes millions in profits annually.
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Even so, Ballmer reported appalling losses from the Clippers to the IRS. Those losses enabled him to lower the taxes he owed on the billions he made from Microsoft stock sales and dividends. Owning the Clippers has cut its tax bill by about $ 140 million in just five years, according to a ProPublica analysis.
Unlike billionaire team owners, millionaire players are virtually guaranteed to pay a large portion of their income in taxes.
The law favors people who are rich because they have something over people who are rich because their jobs make a high income. Wages – the main source of income for most people, including athletes – are taxed at the highest rate, with an additional tax rate of 37% plus 3.8% for Medicare. The government takes a smaller portion of the money that is made, for example, from selling a share. Not to mention the perks available to entrepreneurs, such as the paper losses incurred in purchasing a sports team.
So while Ballmer's tax rate for 2018 was 12% on his $ 656 million income, Lakers star Anthony Davis paid 40% on $ 35 million in income this year. Golfer Tiger Woods earned $ 22 million and paid 34%. Boxer Floyd Mayweather paid more than 37% of his $ 53 million income. Star Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander made $ 30 million and paid a 39% cut.
(In any case where ProPublica speaks of "income" in this article, we're referring to adjusted gross income, which the IRS defines as income minus certain items like alimony or interest payments on student loans. We've got tax rates that way calculates how government agencies and many economists do this by including not only Medicare and Social Security taxes that are automatically deducted from workers 'salaries, but also the employers' contributions that these programs have to pay on behalf of their workers Employers pay less wages because of these costs. These taxes make up most of the tax burden for the typical employee, a small but still significant percentage for millionaire gamblers, but a negligible percentage or nothing for billionaires like Ballmer, who normally have no salaries and other incomes to which these taxes apply.)
In some cases, star players have bought parts from professional sports teams. But that doesn't automatically bring them the low interest rates that the typical billionaire owner enjoys. Basketball great Michael Jordan, for example, owns the NBA's Charlotte Hornets and a tiny stake in the Miami Marlins baseball team. His stake in the Hornets resulted in tax losses of $ 3.6 million in 2015, even though the team was estimated to be in the black that year. However, he still makes a large part of his money from Nike, which is highly taxed. For example, this year he paid 38% of federal taxes on $ 114 million in income. Jordan's spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions.
Ballmer's tax advantages reduce the revenue that goes to the federal government. At the same time, he publicly laments the dangers of a government that spends more than it earns. He founded USA Facts, a nonprofit that provides data on government spending. "Nobody wants to sacrifice something in the short term so that we don't leave these huge debts and deficits on our children," he told Fox Business three years ago. "This drives me crazy."
Perhaps the smartest tax game for billionaires interested in professional sports is buying a soccer team. Financial analysts believe that losing money is extremely difficult when running an NFL franchise. "I think the NFL is the only sport where every team is profitable and viable," said mining tycoon Alan Kestenbaum, now a partner in the Atlanta Falcons, in an interview with Bloomberg.
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The dominance of the NFL TV ratings, slightly surpassing the NBA and other major leagues, is at the heart of the sport's money machine. Each of the 32 teams – from the little Buffalo Bills to the giants Dallas Cowboys – receives an equal share of national revenue, which comes primarily from broadcasting contracts. In 2019 alone, these deals generated $ 9.5 billion, broken down into $ 296 million for each team. The league recently topped up its contracts with the networks, adding Amazon's Prime Video streaming service over $ 105 billion in an 11-year deal. On the cost side of the general ledger, the largest item, player salaries, is limited as the league enforces a so-called hard salary cap.
These two sources of profitability drove the record $ 2.3 billion price of the last NFL team to change hands, the Carolina Panthers. But the sale sparked a dramatic shift in the way the team's finances were reported to the IRS, records show. The Panthers suddenly went from big wins to big losses.
The Panthers were built into a thriving business by Jerry Richardson, a former NFL gamer turned fast food restaurant magnate, who won the expansion franchise in the early 1990s. In addition to its stake in the league's national TV deals, the team quickly built another major source of income, selling virtually every game to an avid local Charlotte fan base. Success followed in the field. By 2016, the Panthers, led by MVP quarterback Cam Newton, won the NFC championship and made it to the Super Bowl.
With the payback advantage from the team's early years wiped out, the Panthers made millions in profits each year, with margins growing annually for the five years through 2017, according to tax records from Richardson and several previous minority owners. ProPublica estimated the team's annual income based on tax information from a complex network of team units as well as leaked financial statements released by Deadspin.
That year, after being at the center of a lurid racism and sexual harassment scandal, Richardson announced that he would put the team on the auction block. Several billionaires have made offers.
The winning bidder was David Tepper, founder of the Appaloosa Management hedge fund. Tepper, who made his fortune trading bad debt and once hired Ashlee Simpson to play his daughter's bat mitzvah, is now the league's richest owner.
The $ 2.3 billion Tepper paid would result in depreciation charges of approximately $ 140 million per year, per general IRS guidelines. These annual expenses would wipe out any Panthers profits for tax purposes.
The team went from a high pre-sale taxable profit to a tax loss of approximately $ 115 million after purchasing Tepper in 2018, according to a ProPublica analysis of the IRS records. There is no significant evidence that the Panthers' real income and expenditure changed between 2017 and 2018. The only big difference is that the team has changed hands and Tepper is now receiving a tax break through its new company, Tepper Sports Holdings.
Tepper's hedge fund is a massive producer of capital gains – he has often reported annual income of more than $ 1 billion for the past decade – so the Panthers' tax losses are extremely valuable to him. A spokesman for Tepper did not respond to questions.
That same year, Tepper bought the Panthers, the NHL's newest hockey team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights, and achieved what only an expansion team had previously achieved by reaching the league finals in its inaugural season. Since then, the Golden Knights have continued to win. Off the ice, they're among the best in the NHL when it comes to motivating fans to spend money on team clothing, and the Golden Knights have been constantly selling out their home games.
The team's owner, William Foley, chairman of insurance giant Fidelity National Financial, made it clear he wasn't about losing money. "We developed a conservative business plan," Foley told a reporter in 2017, the first year the team played. "I didn't want to write $ 20 million checks every year." He probably didn't have to. Forbes estimated the team would profit in the millions from 2017 to 2019.
But for tax reasons, the team has made more than $ 57 million in losses over those years, records show. This was thanks in part to the team's ability to write off the $ 500 million expansion fee that Foley paid to the NHL in 2016.
In a statement to ProPublica, Golden Knights chief legal officer Peter Sadowski did not respond to questions about amortization. Responding to a question about one of the team's sources of income, he noted that the money from the season ticket deposit "was used to pay rent, keep hundreds of people busy, provide great entertainment, and a source of pride for our community to accomplish".
The Golden Knights' tax losses helped offset the money Foley made from his other ventures and saved him more than $ 12 million in taxes over two years, according to a ProPublica analysis.
As mentioned, the value of sports franchises is increasing inexorably – but teams sometimes lose money in the process. ESPN's internal NBA records from 2017 showed that the league's clubs averaged nearly $ 18 million in net revenue that season. But nine of the 30 clubs were in the red.
Even if a team is spending more than it is taking in, an owner can still be at the top. The amortization benefit can turn a loss into an even larger loss, which can then be used to offset other income and save taxes.
For example, Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans, cut his taxable income by approximately $ 443 million from 2005 to 2018 due to his stake in the Cleveland Cavaliers, tax records show. During the same period, the team peaked, winning their very first NBA championship in 2016.
In emails to ProPublica, Gilbert's attorney wrote that the team is constantly losing money. “Throughout the entire time following Mr. Gilbert's purchase of the team, the Cavaliers have been working with an actual loss (negative cash flow / income) independent of any depreciation or amortization and there has been no funds to be distributed to Mr. Gilbert or anyone else Owner, ”he wrote.
Tax depreciation for amortization, argued Gilbert's lawyer, is essential for all businesses, from restaurants to factories to sports franchises. Without them, he wrote, “there would be no capital investment by owners, and corporations would be taxed on income without adequately accounting for all of the costs necessary to generate that income. That would be contrary to capitalism and fatal for the US economy. "
Gilbert's attorney added that the Cavaliers owner had paid “enormous” taxes for many years. He also wrote: “Your email refers to other wage earners such as the players and their salaries. Die Fakten sind folgende: Herr Gilbert ist die einzige Partei, auf die in Ihrer E-Mail Bezug genommen wird, die ein Risiko eingegangen ist. Herr Gilbert hat den für die Cavaliers gezahlten Kaufpreis, seine späteren Kapitaleinlagen, die von ihm persönlich garantierten Schulden und die garantierten Gehälter der Spieler riskiert. … Die garantierten Gehälter der Spieler der Cavaliers als anwendbares Maß für den Steuersatz von Herrn Gilbert zu vergleichen, ist absurd.“
Befürworter von Teambesitzern weisen darauf hin, dass Besitzer, die ihre Teams verkaufen, die durch Amortisation vermiedenen Steuern zurückzahlen müssen. Aber selbst wenn die Eigentümer die entgangenen Steuern letztendlich zurückzahlen, kommt der Aufschub der Zahlung dieser Steuern um Jahre, manchmal Jahrzehnte, im Wesentlichen einem zinslosen Darlehen des Steuerzahlers gleich. Ein Eigentümer könnte enorme Gewinne erzielen, indem er dieses Geld investiert.
Wenn Eigentümer sterben, während sie ihren Anteil halten, wie es viele tun, werden die Steuerersparnisse möglicherweise nie zurückgezahlt. Und ihre Erben können den Amortisationszyklus in der Regel neu starten.
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Bob Piccinini war ein Minderheitsmitglied der Gruppe, die 2010 die Golden State Warriors kaufte. Er machte sein Vermögen damit, die Save Mart Supermarkets mit Sitz in Modesto zur größten Lebensmittelkette in Familienbesitz in Kalifornien zu machen. Er war bereits Teilhaber mehrerer Baseballteams und betrat die Basketballwelt nicht, weil er ein besonderes Interesse an dem Sport hatte, sondern um Geld zu verdienen. „Sport-Franchises gewinnen weiter an Wert“, sagte Piccinini damals.
Seine Steuerinformationen zeigen, dass er mehr als 7% der Warriors gekauft hat. Von 2011 bis 2014 meldete er Gesamtverluste von 16 Millionen US-Dollar. Die Steuerdaten anderer Warriors-Besitzer aus fast einem Jahrzehnt, die ebenfalls von ProPublica überprüft wurden, zeigten Verluste in Millionenhöhe – und das alles in einer Zeit, in der das Team historisch dominant wurde. In der Zwischenzeit zeigen durchgesickerte Finanzdaten von ESPN aus dem Jahr 2017, dass die Warriors ein äußerst profitables Geschäft sind, das allein in einer Saison 92 Millionen US-Dollar einbrachte. Forbes-Schätzungen haben das Team in dieser Zeit auch in die schwarzen Zahlen geschrieben. Ein Sprecher von Warriors lehnte es ab, eine Reihe spezifischer Fragen zu beantworten, und gab stattdessen eine Aussage in einem Satz ab: „Im Laufe des letzten Jahrzehnts haben wir Hunderte Millionen Dollar in unser Team auf dem Platz, unseren Gesamtbetrieb und natürlich den Bau und die Eröffnung einer neuen, zu 100 Prozent privat finanzierten Arena in San Francisco.“
Piccinini starb 2015. Die Gerichtsakten über das Erbe, das er seinen Kindern hinterlassen hat, erwähnen nicht ausdrücklich seine Beteiligung am Team oder ob sein Nachlass nach seinem Tod Steuern bezahlt hat. Aber das Steuergesetz hätte es seinen Kindern wahrscheinlich erlaubt, der Regierung die Papierverluste ihres Vaters nie zurückzuzahlen. Es hätte auch Piccinnis Erben ermöglicht, eigene Papierverluste geltend zu machen.
In den Jahren danach war Piccininis Sohn Dominic regelmäßig bei den Warriors-Spielen. Dominic ist ein gelegentlicher Schauspieler in seinen Zwanzigern und hat ein Instagram-Profil, das ihn zeigt, wie er Stephen Curry und andere Spieler mitten im Spiel High-Five und für Fotos mit Rappern wie Drake und E-40 posiert. Im Jahr 2019 wurden er und ein Freund viral, als ESPN zu ihnen schwenkte, die aus goldenen Kelchen tranken.
In einem Interview sagte Dominic gegenüber ProPublica, dass er den Anwälten seiner Familie erlaubt habe, die Steuerdetails seines Erbes zu behandeln, was ihm und seinen Geschwistern gleiche Anteile am Anteil ihres Vaters an den Warriors gewährte.
"Es ist einfach das Verflixteste", sagte er in einem Telefonat aus einem Urlaub in Mexiko. "Ich bin ein glücklicher Hurensohn, daran führt kein Weg vorbei."
ProPublica ist ein mit dem Pulitzer-Preis ausgezeichneter investigativer Newsroom.
Serie: Die geheimen IRS-Dateien
In den Steuerunterlagen der 0,001%