– The Minnesota National Guard has given the Minnesota Vikings and the Wild more than $2 million in taxpayer dollars since 2009, all aimed at recruiting new soldiers at sporting events.

The marketing money includes Jumbotron ads, billboards, and, at Wild games, flag bearer branding during the introduction of the designated soldier of the game.

The U.S. Defense Department has pledged millions of public dollars nationally to fund these activities at national sporting events, which has drawn sharp criticism on Capitol Hill.

Some congressional members, both Democrats and Republicans, decry the marketing efforts as deceiving and masked as patriotic gestures when really it is just a way for already-lucrative sports franchises to haul in more money.

“The goal of military recruitment should be to find the best and the brightest to serve our nation in uniform,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., co-chairman of the National Guard Caucus and a retired command sergeant major in the Guard. “I do not believe any professional sports teams should be forcing the Pentagon to pay for a team to honor service members at their games. They should honor these brave Americans simply because it’s the right thing to do.”

Since at least 2009, the Guard has had multiyear marketing contracts with the Vikings, the Wild, and to a lesser extent, a $27,000 contract with the Timberwolves, according to public records. Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor also owns the Star Tribune.

Minnesota Guard spokesman Col. Kevin Olson says the marketing cash strictly goes to paying for signage, pillar wraps and other outside advertising. Other honorary events, like “Soldier of the Game” and salute promotions are free because the teams are sincerely trying to honor servicemen and women, he said.

Olson could not furnish any proof that the multiyear marketing campaigns helped the Guard with recruitment or retention. The number of Guard soldiers in Minnesota has remained relatively stable: In 2009, there were 11,101 members and in 2013 there were 10,905.

“The return on the investment to the taxpayer is difficult to quantify,” Olson said. “Over the period of the paid partnership with the Vikings, the Minnesota Army National Guard has consistently exceeded the personnel strength goals set by the National Guard Bureau.”

Defense Department documents show “advertising packages” with the Vikings, Lynx and the Wild including “Soldier Salute Promotions” and “Soldier of the Game In-Game Promotion.”

Vikings spokesman Jeff Anderson said those promotional activities were all given to the Guard for free, but the Guard paid above and beyond for billboards and other signage. The Vikings have received $1.03 million since 2009 in marketing contracts.

“We did not accept payment for honorary captains or heroes of the game,” Anderson said. “We bring troops and families to our training facility to watch practices … that’s all our sincere support of servicemen and their families.”

Wild spokesman Aaron Sickman said the “hometown hero” promotion was unpaid, but that “Guard presenting nights” and flag bearer branding was all a part of the sponsorship of home games the Guard pays for. The Wild has received more than $1.4 million since 2009 from the Defense Department, including a recent $100,000 contract.

“Their goal is to get people to sign up for their program, and they want to be a partner with us, and we do our best to meet their goals and objectives,” Sickman said.

Steve Ellis, vice president of the D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, called the agreements between the Defense Department and professional sports teams “outrageous.”

“If the teams say we would be doing this anyway, then shame on the Minnesota National Guard for paying them in the first place,” Ellis said. “It reflects poorly on the National Guard for spending hard-earned tax dollars to actually get their men and women in uniform promoted, and shame on these hundreds of million-dollar sports franchises for even taking the money. It’s hardly the patriotic thing to do.”

The issue has gotten airing on Capitol Hill all week after Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., brought the Guard contracts to light through his regular “Pork Chops” column in which he looked at contracts between the New Jersey Guard and the New York Jets. Other teams receiving defense contracts since 2011 include the Baltimore Ravens, the Green Bay Packers and the Indianapolis Colts.

“Honoring these service members is a public service,” Flake said in a statement Friday. “So, to find out they’re doing it because they’re being compensated leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., has in recent years railed on the Armed Forces spending millions on recruitment through NASCAR sponsorships. In 2012, the Guard spent $26.5 million to sponsor Dale Earnhardt’s race car.

On Friday, McCollum said she felt both the taxpayers and the men and women in uniform have been deceived.

“Honoring the service and sacrifice of our Armed Forces is absolutely appropriate,” she said. “But what appears to be a sincere gesture is really a display of patriotism for profit by the NFL paid for by the Pentagon at taxpayer expense. Which I find lacking in sincerity.”