Super Bowl, meet super tax

Tatiana Pile
Should Pro Sports Leagues Lose Tax-Exempt Statuses?
Should Pro Sports Leagues Lose Tax-Exempt Statuses?



California, here they come.

This week, Super Bowl 50 and all its accompanying fanfare has descended into the city of Santa Clara, as the AFC champion Denver Broncos get set to do battle with the NFC champion Carolina Panthers. Blood will be bled and tears will be shed, as these two teams clash for the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. But it all might pale in comparison to the pain some of the athletes feel when they receive their game checks for the world's biggest sporting spectacle, thanks to the "jock tax."

The jock tax stipulates that anyone who earns income outside of the state in which they file their taxes is potentially subject to additional state and local taxes for the amount of time spent working in a particular jurisdiction. For athletes, this includes games, practices, and team meetings.

It's not new by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the roots of the tax can be traced back to the 1991 NBA Finals, when California taxed the Chicago Bulls players after they took on the Los Angeles Lakers in L.A. In a move dubbed "Michael Jordan's Revenge," Illinois imposed a similar tax that affected visiting players from states who levied a tax on Illinois athletes. Many states soon followed suit.

So this week, as Peyton Manning's Broncos and Cam Newton's Panthers practice, watch film, and even trudge through media day, they're earning their keep in the state of California, and will have to pay tax on their income for those days worked in the state.

I recently spoke to Robert Raiola, the Sports & Entertainment Senior Group Manager at CPA and consulting firm O'Connor Davies, LLP. A certified public accountant, Raiola is a nationally recognized expert on sports tax and sports business matters. He represents a number of professional athletes in tax and related matters, and he told me that, in theory, a businessman that attends a meeting in a different state for a day could be subject to a similar tax. But athletes are far easier to target than normal everyday people, and create far better revenue for the states.

"Athletes are targeted for a jock tax for a couple reasons. They're high profile, high salary, and easy to track. It's big business," he explained. "In 2013, California collected more than $229 million in income tax from athletes. It's an opportunity for states to replenish their coffers. A number of states and cities have an occasional entry rule, where if you spend less than 10 or 12 days in a city, you don't have to pay tax, but athletes are almost always excluded in these instances."

Related: Cam Newton throughout his career.

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That means that, in addition to the surge the local economy will receive, the state will also take in some major revenue from the nearly 200 active players, coaches, and other team personnel. Just how much? Assuming Manning files in Colorado, where he bought a swanky new $4.575 million home in 2012, he is subject to the state's flat income tax of 4.63 percent. North Carolina also has a single bracket income tax--theirs is 5.75 percent--so assuming Cam Newton files his taxes where he owns a $1.6 million condo, he pays at that level for his home games, and the majority of his practices and prep days. For the days the team works in California on Super Bowl week, many will be subject to the state's 13.3 percent tax threshold on individuals who earn over one million dollars: the highest rate in the nation. Athletes do get relief from their home state for days they trigger the jock tax, but when the threshold is as high as California's, they still come out on the losing end.

Is it fair? It's tough to say. But what is for certain is that it's a gigantic revenue generator for states, and considering there's just no action that athletes can take against local politicians for recourse, Raiola think it's bound to continue.

"I think the jock tax is going to continue to be enforced, because--when you think about it--a lot of the revenue comes from non-resident athletes, and with contracts getting bigger and bigger, states will continue to want their piece of the pie," he said.

Both teams need to bring their A game on Sunday. Because for one of them, it's going to just be a very expensive business trip.

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