Parachute Drops, Cheerleaders, and Giant Flags: How the Pentagon Paid Pro Sports for PR

Two senators slam millions in taxpayer-sponsored “paid patriotism”

A "Salute to Service" at an Atlanta Falcons game in 2013.Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/ZUMA


If you’ve been to a pro sports game recently, you’ve almost certainly seen tributes to the military, from unraveling giant American flags showing to photos and videos of servicemen and women on the Jumbotron. A new senate report by Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, released yesterday, finds that many of these seemingly voluntary displays were in fact paid for by the Department of Defense. Between 2012 and 2015, the Pentagon paid sports teams $53 million for marketing and advertising, including at least $6.8 million for what the report dubs “paid patriotism.” 

The senators obtained 122 Pentagon contracts with sports leagues and teams for what they described as “marketing gimmicks.” Among the top recipients of military money were NASCAR ($1.6 million over four years), the Atlanta Falcons ($879,000), the New England Patriots ($700,000), and the Buffallo Bills ($650,000).

Last year, the Pentagon spent millions on advertising with sports teams as it was simultaneously requesting funding from Congress to cover a $100 million budget shortfall to pay its troops, according to the report.

Here are a few team-specific promotional deals that stuck out in the 150-page report:

  • Charlotte Hornets: “One parachute drop-in” by an Air Force member at each of three home games
  • Dallas Mavericks: Letting the Texas Army National Guard “bring out their mechanical bull and/or rock wall for fans to enjoy”
  • Minnesota Wild: A color guard ceremony and letting a National Guard soldier “rappel from the catwalk to deliver the game puck”
  • Indianapolis Colts: “For use of a luxury suite, autographed items, pregame field visits and cheerleader appearances.”
  • Milwaukee Brewers: $49,000 to recognize the Wisconsin Army National Guard during performances of “God Bless America” at each Sunday home game
  • Atlanta Falcons: Recognition of the Army National Guard “birthday,” the opportunity for a National Guard soldier to perform the national anthem, and the opportunity for soldiers to “hold a large American flag on the field during a military appreciation game.”
  • Green Bay Packers: A “party deck” for 200 National Guard soldiers and their families
  • Minnesota Lynx: A military night featuring a “soldier rappelling from the arena catwalk while another soldier performed the national anthem”
  • NASCAR: A ride-along with Richard Petty and appearances with Petty and Aric Almirola.
  • Iron Dog: VIP passes to the Alaskan snowmobile race
  • Alamo City Comic Con: Admission for 20 soldiers and their family members. (We know, comic book conventions aren’t sporting events, but this is too weird not to include.)

The issue of paid patriotism first emerged this spring, when Sen. Flake questioned the military tributes at New York Jets games. Since then, the Pentagon has banned paying for these salutes to the troops, and the NFL has called on its teams to stop accepting payments for them. 

According to a Pentagon memo included in the report, the department maintains that the advertising helped with recruiting, especially since youth “have grown less positive about the associations they make with military service.” Senators Flake and McCain counter that “If the most compelling message about military service we can deliver to prospective recruits and influencers is the promise of game tickets, gifts, and player appearances, we need to rethink our approach to how we are inspiring qualified men and women to military service.”