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The Molina Report

"I'm not a biter, I'm a writer for myself and others."

MLS Looking at Sacramento, Detroit, St. Louis, Las Vegas Expansion

David Beckham greets fans after testifying in front of the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee in April. The former LA Galaxy and Manchester United star endorsed Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis' plans to build a $1.3 billion, 65,000-seat domed stadium that would be home to the National Football League (NFL) team and, potentially, a Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion club.
David Beckham greets fans after testifying in front of the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee in April. The former LA Galaxy and Manchester United star endorsed Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis' plans to build a $1.3 billion, 65,000-seat domed stadium that would be home to the National Football League (NFL) team and, potentially, a Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion club.

With the league’s 21st season well underway, Major League Soccer (MLS) continues to plot further growth, looking to expand into new markets around the country.

Launched in 1996 with ten founding teams, MLS has grown to 20 teams, having welcomed two new teams last season: Orlando City Soccer Club and New York City Football Club (NYCFC). Both did well with fans; Orlando City SC having finished second in MLS attendance -- averaging 32,847 (in comparison, the Orlando Magic averaged 16,785 fans in 2015), and NYCFC coming in third in the league, averaging 29,016 fans in their inaugural season.

The league will add Atlanta United FC and Minnesota FC in 2017, with Los Angeles FC set to go in 2018. David Beckham; who teamed up with Sprint Communications CEO Marcelo Claure and American Idol creator Simon Fuller; is focusing on finalizing the land deal required to build their new stadium and targeting for his Miami United franchise to play their inaugural season in 2018.

"Although it has been nearly two years since David Beckham and his partners announced that their Major League League franchise would be located in Miami, there have been well-documented challenges to securing a viable location for a stadium," said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez. "The signing of this non-binding Letter of Intent may be the most significant step in our collective efforts to make Major League Soccer a reality in Miami-Dade County. It is also further confirmation that Miami Beckham United wants its franchise to be in our community."

With 24 teams in the fold, MLS is looking at another round of expansion to add four more teams in the near future.

"We will be at 24 teams by 2018. And we will go to 28 teams with a timetable that has not yet been laid out," said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. "What I would say is the next round of expansion is likely happening in 2020."

Various cities around the country have shown interested in joining MLS, leaving them scrambling for those last four seats at the table. Here is a list of cities eager in helping MLS and the sport of soccer continue its growth in America:

Sacramento Republic FC, of the United Soccer League (USL), is a front-runner to receive an MLS bid down the line, according to Commissioner Garber, possibly right after things settle down in Miami.

“Sacramento is far more advanced than any other market we are talking to,” said MLS Commissioner Garber.

The Republic play in the 20th largest media market and have averaged over 10,000 fans per game during their USL title runs in 2014 and in 2015. Team owner Warren Smith has also started a formal application process to build a 25,000-seat stadium for his club.

“We told Sacramento that they needed to have the right ownership group, and they have that,” said Commissioner Garber to the Sacramento Bee. “We told them they need to have a stadium plan, and we believe they do. And we told them they needed to prove the market through attendance. There is no doubt that all the elements are in place.”

Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans and owner of the National Basketball Association's (NBA) champion Cleveland Cavaliers, tweeted in April about his excitement regarding partnering up with NBA Central division rival, Platinum Equity founder and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, to bid for an MLS expansion team that would play in downtown Detroit.

While the Cavaliers swept the Pistons in the first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs, both owners are looking forward to working together, with Gilbert helping secure the land needed to build a soccer-specific venue and Goren running operations for the club.

Despite the city's financial woes, Detroit mayor Mike Duggan is completely behind the idea of the two NBA owners bringing soccer to the Motor City, firmly believing that soccer can succeed in his city.

"I've been pushing for a Major League Soccer team to come to Detroit for some time," said Mayor Duggan in a released statement. "The fact that our citywide elementary school soccer league has grown from 600 players last year to more than 900 players this year is an indication of how successful a franchise would be in our city. I look forward to working with anyone who is committed to making the idea of an MLS franchise in Detroit a reality."

The departure of the National Football League’s (NFL) Rams franchise to Los Angeles created a void that MLS may look to fill. Former Anheuser-Busch executive Dave Peacock is working overtime to bring an MLS team to the 21st largest media market, after failing to convince the Rams to stay in St. Louis.

Peacock has teamed up with the MLS2STL Task Force -- comprised of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) St. Louis Cardinals president Bill DeWitt III, National Hockey League’s (NHL) St. Louis Blues President and CEO Chris Zimmerman, World Wide Technology CEO and USL’s St. Louis FC owner Jim Kavanaugh, and sports marketer Jim Woodcock -- to make his vision a reality. MLS2STL is proposing a $1 billion soccer-specific riverfront stadium in hopes of bringing soccer to St. Louis.

While Garber has said publicly that St. Louis is a favorite to win an expansion, the city, still reeling from losing the Rams, has some logistics they need to resolve in order join the league.

"There is a [stadium] site that is ready,” said Garber. “There is public support that we believe we could tap into. The governor and the mayor and other city leaders are engaged. I believe St. Louis is a very, very high-potential market."

Despite being one of the smallest media markets (32nd largest market in the country) in all of North American sports, San Antonio officials point to the love, support, and success of their beloved five-time NBA Champion Spurs as a prime example that a sports franchise can flourish in their town.

The city is banking that; between the Hispanic community (which makes up two-thirds of the city's population) and the Spurs highly-touted management team -- Spurs Sports and Entertainment (SSE) -- involved in the project; they can convince the soccer league to bring an expansion team to San Antonio.

But the fact MLS already has two teams based in Texas (the Houston Dynamo and Dallas FC) as well as the state’s proximity to Mexico and their highly popular Liga MX soccer league, MLS may get skittish about putting a third team in the state.

“A majority of the population is Hispanic but most of those folks have a primary club that they already love, whether it’s a Mexican league club or a club around the world,” said Tim Holt, managing director for SSE’s San Antonio FC, who plays in the USL. “We want to make San Antonio FC their favorite club or their co-favorite club.”

Former San Diego Padres owner, John Moores, is hot to get into the business of soccer, especially after having lost out on his bid to buy Barclay's Premier League club Everton.

But the allure of the 28th largest market’s gorgeous weather and large Hispanic community may not be enough to bring an MLS team to San Diego, especially with any club having to compete with Liga MX’s Club Tijuana for the hearts-and-minds of Mexican soccer fans.

For now, San Diego soccer fans may have to settle for an expansion team in the USL, with a new franchise looking to launch in April of 2017.

"San Diego is a thriving market with a millennial population and considerable interest in soccer," said John Griffin, Vice President of Communications for the USL. "The USL’s recent success is built on three core tenets: strong local ownership, an attractive market and plans for a soccer-specific stadium. Those three tenets will position our teams and the league for long-term success."

Las Vegas was recently thought of as a long-shot to land an MLS expansion despite being the largest market without a professional sports franchise.

In the past, legal gambling on sports has scared away professional sports leagues from expanding into Las Vegas, fearful that close proximity to the desert city would increase the chances of game-fixing scandal that would alter the integrity of the game.

Mayor Carolyn Goodman mounted a full press, last year, falling short of bringing an MLS team to Sin City after failing to convince city officials to subsidize a $200 million, 24,000-seat stadium for Symphony Park.

But a couple of new factors are giving Vegas soccer fans a sense of optimism that MLS will take another look at the town.

With the announcement that the NHL will expand into the market, MLS will certainly keep an eye on the NHL’s progress to see if a professional sports team can flourish in Las Vegas.

“I never believed there was a taboo about Las Vegas,” said Mayor Carolyn G. Goodman to the New York Times. “Gambling is everywhere. Some people are provincial and don’t want to change the status quo. But you have to get with the times. Pro sports are a natural here.”

Helping Las Vegas with their cause is the league’s number one ambassador: David Beckham.

The former LA Galaxy star and Miami United owner recently teamed up with Oakland Raiders owner, Mark Davis, who has eyes on relocating his NFL franchise to Las Vegas after failing to move the team to Los Angeles.

Beckham was part of Davis’ team that made a pitch to the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee to build a $1.4 billion, 65,000-seat stadium that can be used for both football and futbol.

“To bring a great organization like the Raiders is incredible, but it’s bigger than that,” said Beckham. “It’s about the MLS coming here, it’s about bringing in the biggest European teams like Manchester United.”

Regardless of how things pan out, the fact that so many cities are vying to become the next site for MLS expansions is a healthy sign that the North American professional soccer league will continue be around for a long time.

You can follow at Ed Molina on Twitter at @GlobalEd718

Missouri Lawmakers Attempt to Quiet Student-Athletes' Freedom of Speech Shows Need for Union

University of Missouri football players celebrate a touchdown, in the team's 20-16 victory over the Brigham Young University Cougars. Missouri Tiger players had threatened to sit out the game against BYU in protest of school officials failing to address a series of racial incidents that had plagued the campus. Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
University of Missouri football players celebrate a touchdown, in the team's 20-16 victory over the Brigham Young University Cougars. Missouri Tiger players had threatened to sit out the game against BYU in protest of school officials failing to address a series of racial incidents that had plagued the campus.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Missouri state legislature recently proposed a controversial bill that would strip student-athletes of their scholarships if they call for, incite, support or participate in any strike or refuse to participate in a scheduled game.

It is absolutely fair to say that the proposal is a knee-jerk reaction to the University of Missouri Tigers football team having threatened to go on strike over the school administration's handling of a series of racial incidents that occurred on campus throughout the scholastic year, including a feces-drawn Nazi swastika that was found in a dormitory bathroom.

The team’s preemptive refusal to take the field against the Brigham Young University Cougars on November 14th, along with pressure from fellow students and faculty, forced the resignation of university president, Tim Wolfe, and school chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin.

Considering the actions taken by the student-athletes on the Tigers football team, it is hard to deny that the attempt to change the rules on scholarships was triggered as a result of the football squad having flexed their economic muscle. Simply put, the players are the cogs that help run the football machine that brings in millions of dollars in revenue from corporate sponsors such as Nike, Coca-Cola and Papa John's.

Cancellation of the game against BYU would have not only cost the school over a million dollars but it would have also hurt the pockets of the Southeastern Conference (SEC), their broadcasts partners -- such as the SEC Network, Fox Sports, and ESPN; their sponsors; and apparel companies -- all who grow richer and richer every single year at the expense of the student-athletes' work on the field.

It was an unprecedented move by the Missouri football players, leveraging the fact that, without them, there is no football on Saturday.

Much to the chagrin of the Missouri legislature and school administration, students participating in collegiate athletics are becoming savvier and wiser about their worth in the pecking order of the business of college sports, despite legal obstacles. The "student-athlete" legal status set a precedence that has prevented them from having any voice in such matters as legal use of their likeness, workers’ rights issues, health care issues and market-value compensation greater than a scholarship, three hot meals, and shelter.

The ambiguous term “student-athlete” was coined by Walter Byers', the National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) first executive director, who openly admitted the term was created to avoid paying workers compensation for student-athletes.

The legality of “student-athlete” status came into play in the case of Kent Waldrep, who sued Texas Christian University (TCU) after he severely injured his neck playing running back for the Horned Frogs in 1974, resulting in not only paralysis but the school rescinding his scholarship, preventing him from finishing his education.

Waldrep sued TCU in 1991, seeking to be labeled an employee of the university, as opposed to a "student-athlete," in order to receive workers compensation, claiming he was recruited to play football and that his scholarship contract was a contract for work, with coaches controlling his schedule and pay.

Byers, on behalf of TCU and the NCAA countered that, "the student-athlete was a term used to try to offset these tendencies for state agencies or other governmental departments to consider a grant-in-aid holder to be an employee," in his court testimony.

The Texas Court of Appeals ended up rejecting Waldrep's claim, in 2000, stating that Waldrep was not an employee because he had not paid taxes on the financial aid that TCU provided for him.

Missouri’s legislative strong-arm tactics to neuter the student-athlete’s economic leverage over the university shows the necessity for an organization that will protect their rights and give them greater voice in addressing their needs within the business of college athletics.

If anything, moves such as the ones taken by the state of Missouri reinvigorate the need for a collegiate players union, much like the one Northwestern University Wildcats football players attempted to form last season.

Students from the Northwestern football team filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), in 2014, to be declared employees for the purpose of unionizing student-athletes. The NLRB ruled against the Wildcat football players, declining to exercise jurisdiction on the matter on the basis that labor laws only allow them to rule on private sector issues. Currently, only 17 schools out of the 125 colleges and universities that make up the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) are private schools.

“The Board held that asserting jurisdiction over a single team would not promote stability in labor relations across the league,” said the NLRB in a statement.

While the NLRB struck down Northwestern University's attempt to unionize, they have kept the door open should another athletic program is bold enough to try it again.

Considering the great power athletic departments and head coaches already wield over their student-athletes, the Missouri legislature was flat out piling on the Tigers football team. The proposal seemed so vague, making it extremely easy for a student-athlete to lose his scholarship, that it only helped highlight why such a union for student-athletes may be needed.

If universities and state legislatures continue to go down the path of stripping away what little economic advantage the student-athletes have, on top of stomping all over their Constitutional rights, it is just a matter of time before student-athletes show administrators and lawmakers that without them, there is no football on Saturday or revenue to be made off of collegiate sports.

Follow Ed Molina at @GlobalEd718

FIFA Scandal Clouds Future of Copa America Centenario & World Cup

Current FIFA President Sepp Blatter continues to add to the confusion of finding a new president for the international soccer governing body as the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Swiss government continue to dig deeper in their corruption case against the organization. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
Current FIFA President Sepp Blatter continues to add to the confusion of finding a new president for the international soccer governing body as the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Swiss government continue to dig deeper in their corruption case against the organization.

While most long-time soccer fans loudly say that Sepp Blatter's fall from grace was inevitable, it still came as a huge surprise for most.

Blatter recently announced he would step down from his position as president of FIFA, as the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) slowly ties a legal noose around his neck, patiently building a federal case after the arrest of seven executive members of the international soccer governing body's hierarchy prior to the start of the 65th FIFA Congress in late May.

The U.S. Department of Justice is alleging that 14 people, including nine current or former FIFA figures and five people in the sports marketing business, handled more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks over two decades, establishing "a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world."

The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) -- which oversees soccer matters in North America, Central America and the Caribbean -- is heavily involved considering the arrests of Jeffrey Webb (President of the Cayman Islands Football Association, President of CONCACAF and FIFA Vice President), and Jack Warner (former President of CONCACAF and Former Vice President of FIFA).

Former CONCACAF General Secretary, Chuck Blazer, helped the U.S. Department of Justice build their case against the 18 men involved in the investigation, after pleading guilty in 2013 to racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, income tax evasion and failure to file a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts.

Blazer, who facilitated bribes in the bidding process for the1998 and 2010 World Cup hosts bids as well as took and bribes and kickbacks to help sell the broadcast and sponsorship rights to the CONCACAF Gold Cup from 1996-2003, agreed to plead guilty to 10 counts and wear a wire at high-level FIFA meetings in exchange for the U.S. government to not recommend a specific sentence for his crimes and also accepted a reduction on some of the charges. Blazer's intel is believed to have helped the FBI build their case that led to May's arrest in Zurich.

Blatter managed to win his re-election bid for a fifth time, beating out Asia's president of FIFA Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, to retain control of the organization, telling voters that, "I am being held accountable for the current storm, so be it, I will shoulder the responsibility. I will take it upon myself and I want to fix FIFA together with you."

Blatter would end up calling for new elections four days later as more information revolving the FBI's investigation continued to trickle out into the public, including allegations FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke helped facilitate a $10 million bank transaction that is a focal point in the FBI's case.

"Although the members of FIFA have given me the new mandate, this mandate does not seem to be supported by everybody in the world of football," said Blatter during his press conference.

Blatter's departure leaves behind several messes that the next FIFA president must clean up rather quickly. Among the issues that need addressing are:

1) Copa America Centenario
The Copa America Centenario, which was set to commemorate the tournament’s 100th anniversary faces the possibility of cancellation. Preparations for the Copa America Centenario may be used as evidence in the FBI's investigation considering that former CONMEBOL (the South American soccer governing body) presidents Eugenio Figueredo and Nicholas Leoz were among the 11 arrested.

The 160-page indictment revealed that a $110 million bribery scheme was set up to help secure media and sponsorship rights to that event. With recent arrests, the tournament remains in limbo as CONMEBOL and CONCACAF officials scramble to decide what are the next steps.

"Right now, the president of one of the confederations has been arrested; right now the companies that hold the rights have their bank accounts frozen," said Secretary-General of CONMEBOL Luis Meiszner to the Wall Street Journal.

2) 2018 World Cup
Russia's bid to host the 2018 World Cup is also under the FBI's microscope, further straining tense political relationships between the two former Cold War enemies, especially in light of the Russian government giving American fugitive Edward Snowden refuge and their military involvement in Ukraine that has led to economic sanctions. Russian president Vladimir Putin has defended how his country went about winning the host bid, saying that the American investigation is, "another blatant attempt by the United States to extend its jurisdiction to other states."

U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) have requested that FIFA strip Russia of their hosting duties in light of the investigation and the economic sanctions. While Domenico Scala, the independent chairman of FIFA’s audit and compliance committee, has promised to relocate the tournament if it is proven the hosting rights were attained through dubious means, Putin remains confident his country will retain the 2018 World Cup hosting rights.

"If anyone has evidence, let them present it. We won in a fair fight and are going to host the World Cup," said Putin. "We fought in an honest manner and we won. We do not think the decision should be questioned."

3) 2022 World Cup
Between the tournament being moved to the winter season due to the desert heat and the slave labor being used to build the facilities needed to host the tournament, Qatar was already under scrutiny prior to the FBI's investigation. Despite international pressure mounting to move the tournament out of the Middle Eastern country, FIFA has insisted Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup.

"[Blatter] has promised that no matter what, that Qatar [award] will not be withdrawn," said James Dorsey, senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, to CNBC. "Any revisiting of the bid would have to be driven by the legal implications with what's going on in the U.S."

Stripping Qatar of hosting the World Cup may not come without some potential political collateral damage for the U.S considering America's position on various Middle Eastern affairs. Qatar's former ambassador to Washington, Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, believes that moving the 2022 World Cup out of Qatar, "will be seen by hundreds of millions of Arabs and more than a billion Muslims and other west Asians as proof of the west's bad faith."

4) 2026 World Cup Bid
FIFA was originally scheduled to take bids for 2026 World Cup hosting rights in 2016 with an announcement scheduled for May 2017.

But the FBI's investigation has caused a postponement of the bidding process, forcing the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Colombia, Australia / New Zealand, Morocco, Kazakhstan, and China to hold off on bids as the soccer organization deals with the fallout of the FBI investigation. With all all the controversy surrounding the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments, there will likely be huge changes in the bidding process.

"We have been working on a level of requests for the 2026 FIFA World Cup and there was a decision to allocate this World Cup in 2017 and to start the bidding process sooner," said Valcke at a press conference promoting Russia's 2018 World Cup. "Due to the situation I think it is a nonsense to start any bidding process for the time being and we will postpone this bidding process for the time being."

These unresolved issues will continue to fester until Blatter is replaced. FIFA rules dictate that members must be given at least four months notice to meet up and elect a new president. Scala stated that elections will likely be held sometime between December 2015 and March 2016, giving Blatter an opportunity to tie up loose ends. Adding to the drama is the ambiguity of Blatter's resignation, dropping hints he may run again, saying that , "I did not resign, I put myself and my office in the hands of the FIFA congress."

The delay buys Blatter time to prepare for the U.S. federal case against him, including hiring the services of Richard Cullen -- the chairman of the law firm McGuireWoods and a former U.S. federal prosecutor. Cullen's previous experience includes defending former majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives Tom DeLay against corruption charges during the investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Whoever steps into Blatter's shoes -- whether it is Prince Ali, UEFA President Michel Platini of France or former FIFA World Player of the Year Luis Figo -- has their work cut out for them, including cleaning house and sorting out the business interests of the world's most popular sport.

The scrutiny on the organization will only get worse, especially with Swiss attorney general Michael Lauber opening up a money laundering case against FIFA as they look into the bids to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments on top of the FBI's case. Restoring the faith in the world soccer organization, considering how fans and sponsors readily accepted the shady ways FIFA operated for the longest time, will not be an easy task for whomever replaces the disgraced FIFA president. Scala is urging Blatter to clear up his resignation so that FIFA can get back to business.

"The times of flirting with the power are definitely gone," said Scala. "I call on all concerned, including Mr. Blatter, to endorse in the interest of the reforms unequivocally the announced changing of the guard at the top of FIFA."

Follow Ed Molina at @GlobalEd718