By Fredreka Schouten
(CNN) — In an unusual move for a professional sports team, the Orlando Magic donated $50,000 to a super PAC that supports the presidential bid of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a new filing this week with federal regulators shows.
It’s rare for a sports franchise to donate directly to a federal super PAC associated with a single candidate, experts say. And the contribution from the NBA team to Never Back Down, the group supporting DeSantis’ campaign for the Republican nomination, has drawn attention and criticism in Florida from Democrats and LGBTQ activists.
“I cannot recall another example of a professional sports team donating as a corporation to a super PAC closely tied to a candidate,” said Michael Malbin, a campaign finance expert and professor emeritus of political science at the University at Albany-SUNY. “It would not be surprising if individual owners gave contributions, but it’s a surprise to see the corporation doing so.”
Orlando Magic is owned by members of the DeVos family, a wealthy Michigan clan prominent in Republican politics. Members of the family – whose fortune is tied to Amway, the multi-level marketing company co-founded by the family’s late patriarch Richard DeVos – have donated individually to DeSantis and other Republicans over the years. Richard DeVos’ daughter-in-law Betsy DeVos served as education secretary in the Trump administration.
But the team’s recent donation does not mean the family is endorsing DeSantis’ presidential bid, a family spokesperson said.
“No member of the DeVos family has endorsed or offered financial support to any 2024 Presidential candidate at this point,” Nick Wasmiller, a DeVos family spokesperson, said in an email to CNN. “They are undecided.”
And Orlando Magic’s spokesman Joel Glass described the check as supporting DeSantis in his role as governor because it was written on May 19, days before he formally launched his presidential candidacy on May 24.
“This gift was given before Governor DeSantis entered the presidential race,” Glass said in a statement. “It was given as a Florida business in support of a Florida governor for the continued prosperity of Central Florida.”
DeSantis’ plans to run for the presidency in 2024, however, had been telegraphed months before he officially entered the race. The donation has stirred controversy among some groups in Florida, who say the team’s public support for the LGBTQ community conflicts with DeSantis’ record as governor.
This year, DeSantis has signed into law restrictions on gender-affirming treatments for minors, drag shows, bathroom usage and which pronouns can be used in school.
And his administration has waged war on another Orlando-area business, Walt Disney World, for criticizing a controversial law – called “Don’t Say Gay” by its opponents – that restricts certain classroom instruction regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Orlando Magic hosts a Pride Night, sells Pride-themed t-shirts and, along with members of the DeVos family, donated to a fund that supported victims of the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub located in the city where the Magic are based.
“It’s incredibly disappointing that the Orlando Magic has chosen to publicly align themselves with his brand of right-wing extremism,” Brandon Wolf, press secretary for the LGBTQ civil rights group Equality Florida, said of the donation to the DeSantis super PAC. “This is really a moment for those businesses who declare their values of inclusion so loudly to make those values actually mean something.”
Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who represents Orlando in the state legislature and grew up in the city, said she and others in the city are baffled by the team’s move.
“Gov. DeSantis has based his entire political career on targeting, demonizing and taking away health care from LGBTQ+ people, including youth,” she said. “It’s incredibly disheartening that a team that markets itself as being welcoming to all people, behind the scenes, gives $50,000 to a DeSantis PAC.”
Glass, the team spokesman, declined further comment, when asked about criticism that the donation conflicted with the values the team has espoused. Officials with Never Back Down and with the DeSantis campaign did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
A review of contributions by sports organizations going back to the early 1990s by OpenSecrets – a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics – underscores how unusual it is for a sports team to deliver a direct donation to a candidate’s super PAC. The biggest share of donations from these corporations has gone to national party committees and convention host committees, which seek local business support to help underwrite the splashy, quadrennial events where each party formally picks its presidential nominee.
Eric Herman, a managing director with the communications and advocacy firm Subject Matter + Kivvit, said the donation could prove risky to Orlando Magic’s brand “given the highly politicized, highly charged world that we live in.”
But with a fan base concentrated in Florida, he added, the team “probably has the luxury of being less concerned” about any blowback from a national audience.
The team – and members of the DeVos family – made separate donations last year to a state political committee then controlled by DeSantis, according to the committee’s website. At the time, Orlando Magic contributed $25,000 to the state group.
But the super PAC donation has drawn more attention as DeSantis seeks to become his party’s pick for presidency.
It’s legal for a corporation to donate to a federal super PAC, which can accept contributions of any size from a wide array of sources. But, under federal rules, super PACs must make their spending decisions independently of the candidates they support.
Never Back Down, in a test of those limits, is using its large, unregulated checks to help underwrite functions normally undertaken by the candidate’s committee – including organizing events for the DeSantis campaign.
The super PAC is flush with money and ended June with nearly $97 million in available cash to help DeSantis wage a battle for the nomination. DeSantis entered July with far less money – roughly $9 million in his war chest for the primary battle – and has trimmed staff in recent weeks.
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CNN’s Steve Contorno contributed to this report.