TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Who's throwing a fiesta at taxpayer expense? FOI tips for covering the college bowl game.



It's college football season again, and the start of competition should also be the kickoff for sports journalists to start asking questions about the business side of major college sports.

In Arizona, the Fiesta Bowl -- one of four major bowls that alternate hosting college football's Division I national championship -- is facing tough questions about its finances thanks to some aggressive public-records crunching by the Arizona Republic newspaper.

Bowl organizers already were under scrutiny by Arizona's attorney general, who is looking at whether the bowl's organizing committee broke any laws by spending money on expensive gifts and entertainment for VIP's and on campaign contributions. Now, new questions are being raised about a financial arrangement between the bowl and the local convention bureau.

As reported by the Republic, the arrangement rewards the bowl committee to the tune of nearly half a million dollars for requiring the bowl's two teams to stay in certain high-end hotels. It's a good deal for everyone -- except perhaps for the schools, which can find their bowl payouts eaten up by the overhead of travel to pricey destinations. (Officials at the Fiesta Bowl, however, say that no school has ever complained about the accommodations, and in fact the hotels have received raves.)

Any community that hosts a bowl game should be transparent about its finances, and should be asked about whether the participating schools -- and the taxpayers in the community -- are coming away with unpaid bills in addition to trophies. Contracts between bowl organizers and city, county or state governments -- and even some quasi-public organizations such as convention bureaus -- should be readily obtainable by way of a state public-records request.

If there is a "host committee" made up of city and county government officials, then it's possible that the meetings and records of that committee are public under your state's law. In a somewhat comparable situation, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled in 2006 that journalists had a right to the records of a committee pitching to lure the NASCAR Hall of Fame to Atlanta, because of the role of city government officials in partially funding the enterprise and sitting on its governing board.

Also remember that bowls typically are set up as private, nonprofit corporations -- meaning that they are obligated to file annual Form 990 report with the IRS and to make those reports available on demand to anyone who asks. (Reports also are searchable online after creating a free account with Guidestar.)

These reports will shed light on how much the bowl is taking in and spending, where its money comes from, how much it pays top executives, what service providers it is contracting with, and other matters of public interest. For instance, an eagle-eyed reporter looking over the Orange Bowl's Form 990 from last year will see that, of the bowl's $16.1 million in reported revenue, some $620,000 came directly from government grants -- even though the bowl has $3.8 million in cash sitting in the bank. The form also shows the bowl paid its CEO $202,000 in "bonuses and incentives" in 2009.

Tagged: public records, Transparency Tuesday