Posts by Frank Maduri

I am passionate about producing quality writing as a freelance writer and business development consultant. I am also a professionally trained grant writer with experience in fire, school, and emergency services grants. I also write short fiction, poetry, and prose. I enjoy sports and I am a fan of the NJ Devils, NY Giants, and NY Knicks. I enjoy sharing my views about these teams. I was raised and currently reside in New Jersey and I enjoy writing about my state and The Shore where I live, it is a beautiful place that has inspired my writing.

MLS Expansion Update: Soccer In North America Continues Growth Trend

The expansion process for Major League Soccer (MLS) is a topic that has been featured consistently over the years here at Frank’s Forum as the league progresses towards the stated goal number of 28 franchises. The league has no shortage of interested cities, which has prompted MLS Commissioner Don Garber to publicly admit that the expansion process could go beyond 28 teams in the future.
The 2019 MLS season schedule was released on Monday, and Cincinnati will join the circuit as the newest expansion franchise with their first match set for March 2nd against the Seattle Sounders. Cincinnati will be the 24th team in MLS with Nashville and Miami both expected to join the league in 2020 ; which would bring the number of franchises to 26.

The developments in Austin have been detailed in previous pieces on this forum regarding the situation with the Columbus Crew owner trying to relocate the team to Austin. The courts in Ohio got involved and the Crew are staying in Columbus with a new ownership group, and as part of the settlement, Anthony Precourt will get an expansion team in Austin which will begin play in 2021 as the 27th franchise in MLS.

This leaves one spot remaining for the “race to 28” and several competitive bids for that spot. This has caused speculation that the league office will look at going to 30 teams, but that is still an unsubstantiated rumor. It should also be mentioned that a group of residents in Austin has started a petition against the soccer stadium construction, but the local news sources there do not think the maneuver will deter the project from meeting the 2021 timetable to join the league.

The bid by Sacramento, which seems like it has hung around forever, would be the most likely to gain approval in the immediate future. The group has a stadium plan in place with government support, they have a minor league team with an established base of loyal fans, and according to The Sacramento Bee, they will have an announcement of a new high-profile investor.

The lack of a well-heeled investor to back the franchise for the long term was the sticking point in the Sacramento bid in the last round of expansion. That allowed Nashville and Cincinnati to move ahead of them in the process. The other attribute that works in their favor at this point being a bid from California is the failed bid from San Diego. The referendum vote against the soccer stadium in Mission Valley sealed the demise of the San Diego attempt at an MLS franchise.

The league would probably consider moving beyond the 28 franchise total if Sacramento and St. Louis get their pitches solidified. The St. Louis bid, in a previous piece I wrote, was considered dead in the water because they lost the tax funding needed for the public-private stadium construction project that was central to their bid in 2017.

The St. Louis expansion attempt received new life when the Taylor family which owns Enterprise rental car (which is based in the city) joined the investors group. The plan now is for a privately funded stadium proposed for a parcel of land next to Union Station downtown with excellent public transportation access. This development, should it be approved, would give St. Louis a leg up in the competition because of the rich soccer tradition in the city as well as the relocation of the Rams football team. It is an interesting bid.

Phoenix has gained a lot of momentum of their own in recent months. That desert destination has assembled a large group of deep pocketed investors interested in bringing MLS soccer to a very large market. The issues with the bid are notable: they have no tangible stadium plan and they have no minor league team to drum up interest or fan loyalty.

The league would have to weigh the addition of another market in that part of the country balanced against the market size and demographic reach. The other factor as mentioned before with cities like St. Louis who have less competition for fans because they lost the Rams to relocation; Phoenix has several major pro sports teams which will have an impact on fan retention as well as corporate sponsorship opportunities. That certainly is a lot of risk.

Raleigh is another long-shot type bid for expansion that might end up gaining some traction due to a variety of factors: Steve Malick is the visionary behind the bid and he is well respected within MLS circles – so they have their big money investor, the city has an established minor league team with a fan base, and they have desirable demographics for an MLS franchise.

The main issue with Raleigh is similar to other bids: the stadium plan is not formalized. The proposal from Mr. Malick is to build a 22,000 seat soccer stadium on a piece of government owned land in downtown Raleigh. The original plan, according to The News Observer, was to privately finance the project.

However, an alternative plan is being discussed where some public funds could be used through the county and city levels as well as an increase in a hotel tax to help pay for the facility. Another scenario could put into place a government board to oversee the facility and have the MLS team lease the stadium from the board, which is a similar arrangement to how the arena in Raleigh, PNC Arena, is managed currently. The Austin MLS expansion plan for that stadium is a similar arrangement, but with a wrinkle, the team is going to “gift” the stadium back to the city of Austin in exchange for a sweetheart lease agreement.

The political will is going to be the driving factor in Raleigh because Malick is passionate about getting a team in the city. The political changes from the elections in November could alter the public contribution to a stadium. If the stadium proposal gains approval they have, in my view, a better shot than other analysts think. The opposite is also evidently true, if the stadium plan and the land use agreements get thwarted, their bid is dead just like in San Diego.

Detroit had a bid that looked like a “sure thing” at one point because of the billionaires involved in the investors group there, and their quick pivot away from the original stadium proposal which I have covered in previous pieces. The latest developments have Detroit on the outside looking in, so the saying goes.
The condensed version of the scenario is this: Detroit had a stadium proposal for land downtown where a jail is currently located and the investors were trying to work out a land swap with the local government to have a new jail built on a piece of land in another part of Detroit which the investors owned. The plan fell through, and the bid pivoted to add the Ford family as partners and use Ford Field, the home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions as the home venue for the MLS team.

The bid pointed to the Atlanta United using an NFL stadium and being very successful. The MLS officials that toured the site had some concerns and suggested that artificial turf is not desirable for the league games and that they would improve their chances at Ford Field (a domed facility) if they converted to a natural grass playing surface.

The investors attempted to propose to the Ford family, the city, and MLS a plan to convert Ford Field to natural grass and to change the roof of the facility to a retractable roof so that the grass could be maintained properly. That plan to retrofit would take place in the football offseason months, but the plan was defeated due to cost and other concerns.

MLS does not seem interested in Detroit using Ford Field with the way it is currently configured, so the bid is essentially on the last legs.

Tampa/ St. Petersburg had a strong bid at one point, but it has taken on some tough twists and turns in the past few months. The original investor, Mr. Edwards, sold the minor league team, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, to the owners of the MLB Tampa Bay Rays. The baseball team owners then appointed a group to run the Rowdies and oversee the MLS bid.

The investors from the Rays have indicated that they are considering keeping the Rowdies as a minor league team in the USL. The move to MLS would be complicated because the team would have to get permission from Orlando City FC because they share the same media market. This bid has an outside chance but is unlikely to move ahead.

Charlotte is an intriguing bid now that David Tepper, owner of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers has reinvigorated the investors there and has a plan to use the NFL stadium for soccer games. The previous investors had focused on attempting to get a taxpayer funded stadium built, and that proposal failed to gain public support, so Charlotte was passed over during the last expansion round.

Tepper is a billionaire with a bold vision for soccer in Charlotte, a city with so many transplanted residents from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic that it makes sense for MLS to want to be there as well. In fact, when I wrote my last article on MLS expansion I received messages from fans in Charlotte about how excited they are with the bid because it reminds them of Atlanta with the Falcons owner getting involved.

Charlotte has some momentum here, and the stadium is not an issue as the team would play in the football stadium, and the demographics could work well for a successful bid.

Indianapolis is another bid that is certainly in limbo at this point. The positives for the bid are the strong support for their USL team, Indy Eleven, which has the second highest attendance figures in that league last season (next to Cincinnati). The three big issues for the bid are: the Crew staying in Ohio, Nashville & Cincinnati getting approved bids for MLS teams, and the stadium financing.

They have a billionaire owner already who owns Indy Eleven and owns a construction company. The Crew staying put means that geographically there is not a need for a team in Indianapolis, but if they had moved to Texas it would have put Indy’s bid into play.

The close proximity to two teams: Nashville and Cincinnati will probably make MLS think about putting a franchise elsewhere in another less represented region to grow their overall footprint.

The final issue is the stadium plan because the original proposal for public-private development of a site downtown failed to gain full political support. The fund created by the State of Indiana to fund Lucas Oil Stadium for the Colts is currently basically out of money. The potential for playing all of their games in Lucas Oil Stadium (Indy Eleven uses it currently for special games) could be a way that this bid adapts to try to stay alive, but the MLS has come down on Detroit for a similar proposal. The other factor is some within the media in the city suggesting that they stay in USL like the Tampa Bay Rowdies and just grow their presence in that league now that Cincinnati is moving up to MLS. In my view, I think the bid is dead.

San Antonio is the final city in the group of bidders remaining for MLS, and as I have covered in prior pieces on the coverage of the Crew relocation to Austin debacle, they lost the most momentum of any other expansion hopeful.

San Antonio rebooted their MLS bid when the minor league team in the city changed ownership to the same group that owns the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs are the most successful small-market team in NBA history, and probably in all of professional sports history.

The Spurs owners then appointed a team of experienced people to run the minor league soccer team and prepare an MLS bid. The new bid would change direction away from the prior investors plan of expanding the minor league stadium on the outskirts of the city, instead focusing on getting a stadium built in the downtown core of San Antonio, which MLS traditionally favors that type of location.

Then, the attempt at moving a team to Austin took place and MLS took so much heat for trying to move the Crew out of Ohio, yet the people in Austin spent money and energy on the proposals there, that MLS felt compelled to have to give Austin an expansion team down the line.

The San Antonio bid was dead once the Austin expansion deal was announced. The county that San Antonio falls within, Bexar County, has conceded that and has closed down all proceedings related to bringing MLS to the city. It is sad for San Antonio who had followed all of the proper channels for expansion and got beat by an “end around” by Anthony Precourt and the Austin politicians.

In the end analysis, MLS has a great deal of interest remaining in all of these potential relocation cities. The league has to be careful to not make the same mistake as prior American soccer leagues which met with failure because of over expansion.

The league has a plan for 2026, that they want to be fully expanded by that point. The speculation is that number could hover between 30 and 32 teams. In my view I think that the 32 number is too many franchises for the league to remain profitable and sustainable.

The three bids I see as having the best chances after covering this topic for the past six years are: Sacramento, St. Louis, and Charlotte. I could envision the league in those three cities doing well and that would bring MLS to 30 franchises. It will be fascinating to see which direction the league will go in the next round of expansion and if they go beyond the 28 team number or not.

One thing is certain, MLS is certainly gaining in popularity and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Follow Up: Sears Begins Liquidation Process

The seemingly impending demise of the once dominant American retailer, Sears, took another significant step in that direction on Tuesday. The news media is filled with reports that Sears has rejected a proposal from CEO Eddie Lampert who was attempting to put together an investment proposal through his private equity company to salvage Sears.

The Sears Board of Directors informed the judge overseeing their bankruptcy case that they intend to move forward with the liquidation process. This is the final step taken before a company dissolves, and Sears will now take the necessary steps of liquidating inventory, shutting down stores, and laying off employees.

It is a very sad day for the American retail business landscape because Sears was a huge player for over 100 years (126 years to be exact) and the end of that company and some of the brands associated with it, is an end of an era in retail. The company consolidated with Kmart about 14 years ago and that proved to be one of the key factors in the demise of Sears.

In earlier coverage of this story, I shared how Sears was a store that my parents shopped in frequently for tools and appliances. It is unfortunate that many people thought of Sears for those products, and not for anything more. It also did not help that Sears did not connect with consumers that were not my parents age or older, they lost that next generation of families as well as their children who are now young adults.

The aggressive marketing of Wal-Mart, Target, and Amazon siphoned those customers away from Sears and Kmart ; and neither one could recover from that setback. My local area is a good representation of that effect, the Sears has been there for decades and the Target has been there for less than twenty years. The Target location is consistently crowded, jammed. The Sears has been so empty the last five years that I would drive by and wonder if it was closed.

I read a post on social media earlier that was effectively stating that Sears will cease to exist after 116 years, which is longer than Wal-Mart, Target, and Amazon have been in business combined. The “Amazon effect” is hurting several brick and mortar retailers that have failed to innovate. Sears missed the window to innovate their business model.

Sears should have built up their website and used their physical stores as essentially distribution centers where the customer could come and pick up items, especially expensive items that they would not want shipped. Sears owned so much of the real estate that their physical store locations are located upon that they controlled so much of the costs of not having to lease or rent space from a commercial real estate landlord, that they could have reaped so many benefits from the order online, pick up in store scenario. They did not capitalize on that in a forward-thinking way, by the time they went that direction it was already too late to recover the business.

However, even Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon conceded recently that one day he expects even Amazon to perish, to cease operations. That seems unthinkable to so many, myself included, but his full quote explains further that essentially everything has a shelf life, and at some point Amazon will outlive its usefulness.

Sears managed to cobble together a pretty good run when all things are considered in the retail industry space today. It was such a huge part of Americana, the trips I remember as a kid to Sears to buy a TV, a dishwasher, or going with my Dad to buy tools for a home improvement job. I also recall before I left for college my Mom taking me there to get clothes and lamps to get my dorm room all set up.

Those memories will be all I have as well as others will have left of Sears, it will join the list of retailers and in a similar fashion to Toys R Us, who were crushed by a debt load that was unsustainable. In a similar fashion, an ex-CEO of Toys R Us attempted to save the chain from going under, and was rebuffed by the board and the court in charge of the proceedings.

Eddie Lampert put together a $4.4 billion package to try to save Sears, or at least part of it. The number was deemed to be not adequate enough to effectively salvage the company for a sustained period of time. Lampert will receive criticism for his handling of the last years of the Sears brand. His involvement with a private equity firm has already drawn scrutiny from industry analysts. His next venture remains to be seen, but this loss is going to follow him around for a long time.

My own personal last visit to my local Sears store, which is slated to close very soon, was in mid-November. I went to get work clothes and active wear at greatly reduced discounts. The store was a wreck, and it was sad walking through empty corridors and empty areas of this huge store. The memories came flooding back from my childhood one last time, of days that were easier, simpler times. That is where those memories will stay, like Sears did, frozen in time. A piece of America is gone and is never coming back.

A Matter Of Trust: Johnson & Johnson and The Baby Powder Problem

A story released by Reuters recently alleges that “the world’s most trusted company”, Johnson & Johnson, knew that their talc-based baby powder products contained asbestos for decades and did not take appropriate action. The article includes personal accounts from the thousands of lawsuits (some have the number at over 11,500) that the consumer products company faces over claims of tainted talcum in their signature product.

The Reuters investigative reporting on this controversial topic has everyone buzzing from Main Street to Wall Street. The report makes claims that the company knew of the asbestos in the product and withheld that information to the regulatory bodies as well as the public. That is a hefty claim aimed at a company that is certainly polarizing in the public view.

Johnson & Johnson, for all the good they have done both within healthcare and within communities throughout the world, has not been without their own problems. They have had quality control issues with Tylenol, wound care products, and other related personal care products over the years. It can be argued that it is an unfortunate production reality that a company that enormous would have some QA/QC issues over the years.

However, the flipside to that argument could be made that the issues speak to a larger problem within the corporate culture. The insinuation here by Reuters, a well-respected news source which is known throughout the world, is that the executives in charge there now are knowingly acting without integrity. The public seems to be split on this corporate vision of Johnson & Johnson as well.

Some Americans have taken the view that the allegations in the Reuters report are true and that J&J is a big corporate titan that acted inappropriately to spare the image of the company. Then, others feel that the report is inaccurate, and that the company would never withhold that type of information because of the damage it could do to the entire company, the public, and the shareholders.

The Reuters report is very thorough and should be read by anyone who reads this because it will certainly help provide insight into this very contrasted point of contention regarding a product that is world renowned: Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder. The company maintains that they did not withhold information from anyone regarding the claims surrounding the talc-based powder.

The exposure to asbestos, even for a small amount of time or a small amount of the carcinogen, is one of the leading causes of ovarian cancer as well as mesothelioma which effects the lining of the lungs, heart, and liver. These are aggressive forms of cancer that can cause harm to a mother and child, the exact target market consumer of the J&J Baby Powder.

The mining of talc makes it very plausible to have asbestos present because of the proximity of the two substances to one another. The testing methods for asbestos and the definition of what is asbestos are two other key components of the case against J&J at this point. The article does a complete and thorough explanation of that which will not be a part of this commentary.

The impact that this type of incident can have on the brand image and public perception of a prominent company like J&J is the focus of the commentary. The court documents, emails, and other correspondence that suggest that the company knew that at least trace amounts of a carcinogen were present in the product and the ethical imperative to report that information is also at issue.

The use of the product by women for hygiene purposes and the link to ovarian cancer is a difficult connection to make for the plaintiffs in many of these cases. The way that J&J clearly mishandled this situation instead of “coming clean” about it raises the specter regarding what other situations have they potentially betrayed the public trust.

Johnson & Johnson does not want to become another Merck or Philip Morris, or Monsanto when it comes to incorrectly handling the litigation strategy for these cases. The sales of the powder compared to the entire value of the portfolio of the company are insignificant, but it caused their stock to drop like a rock on Monday.

These lawsuits can cripple a company and can damage their reputation as a leader in the consumer healthcare and personal care marketplace. The allegations if they can be proven to be true or find that J&J was negligent with these products is a terrible situation and outcome for everyone involved.

The company had the trust of the public, Wall Street, and the regulators. This major issue with the most iconic product they sell threatens to unravel all of that trust. The defensive nature with which they have responded to this situation is also unsettling and is not a sound long-term public relations strategy. It serves to make them look guilty in the eyes of the average person.

J&J is not the first company to fall victim to the “cover up is worse than the crime” scenario. They will, sadly, not be the last company to do so either. In my view, what is so unsettling about this whole tragic situation is that it effects mothers and babies. That is going to hit straight to the hearts and minds of many people. The other component that is so unnerving is that in a time of transparency, this well-regarded company seemingly and allegedly acted in secrecy to subvert data from testing done on their best -selling product.

It should also be noted that Johnson & Johnson produces a baby powder product that is corn-starched based. It has been mentioned by several industry analysts in the thought process of why the company has not recalled the talc based powder from store shelves and gone with the corn-starch based alternative.

The fallout will be interesting to watch, the opportunists on Wall Street were leveraging the sell off yesterday to buy the stock at a lower price, greed in the benefit of someone else’s misfortune.

It remains to be seen whether Johnson & Johnson will weather the storm here because the 11,500 lawsuit settlements will not be their downfall. The loss of the trust, the subversion of information, and acting in a way that is unethical if all that is proven– once that trust is broken, it can never be repaired. That loss of trust is what would become the demise of a once dominant corporation.

Follow Up: Tampa Bay Rays Stadium Deal Falls Through

In a series of articles over the past few years this forum has followed the progress (or lack thereof) for the Tampa Bay Rays of Major League Baseball in their pursuit of a new stadium in the greater Tampa area.

The team currently plays in Tropicana Field, an indoor domed stadium facility built in the late 1980s and opened in 1990, which has been renovated several times at the personal expense of the Rays’ principle owner, Stuart Sternberg, to bring certain modern amenities to the fan experience.

The team has been locked into a lease that prohibits them from relocating the team or pursuing alternatives for a new facility outside of the St. Petersburg city limits. The team has stated numerous times in the past, with MLB executives backing it up with similar statements to the media, that the team cannot compete with larger market teams because of the current stadium.

The revenue streams from the agreement with the city is unfavorable to the Rays and with Mr. Sternberg using so much of his own money to maintain the facility, the St. Petersburg municipal government decided to grant the ownership of the team a three-year grace period in which to pursue proposals for a new stadium within the Tampa Bay area.

The ownership of the team and MLB executives in New York have long maintained that the location of Tropicana Field relative to the population centers in downtown Tampa is what has hurt the attendance of the club, causing them to lose money. The argument is that, from their perspective, a location that was more central or conveniently located to the downtown area of Tampa would be ideal for a new facility.
The Rays ownership pursued a few different locations and stadium concepts that I have detailed over time on this blog. The team’s ownership found their best opportunity in a proposal around a parcel of land in an area of downtown Tampa known as Ybor City.

That neighborhood was at one point very unsafe and was near the waterfront which was riddled with drug related activity and crime. The Tampa city officials, about twenty years ago, started a revitalization plan for the Ybor City neighborhood. This resulted in the area becoming a destination for nightlife, restaurants, bars, and retail.

The Rays were working with the neighborhood in Ybor City to construct a new $900 million baseball stadium on the parcel of unused land that was agreed upon with Hillsborough County officials. The three-year window referenced earlier to get the framework of a stadium deal agreed upon is expiring in three weeks.

However, the proposal was filled with uncertainty and vague commitments from the county government on funding. The proposal was also lacking many major infrastructure details to the point where MLB and the Rays had to announce on Tuesday that the Ybor City stadium plan would not move forward.

The Rays ownership has spent millions of dollars in trying to get a new facility built in the Tampa area over the course of the past thirteen years. The facility in Ybor City, had it progressed from proposal into an approved agreement would not be ready for play until 2024. The clock is literally ticking for the Rays in the Tampa area because each day that passes means that the timeline of the project gets pushed further into the future.

That is where the press conference on Tuesday during the MLB Winter Meetings took on a feeling of weary acceptance of the reality that the club will most likely remain playing in Tropicana Field until the troublesome lease term ends in 2027. The team will literally not have a home after the 2027 season if some other developments do not take shape in the next three years.

The post-2027 timeline is another direction that this story has inevitably taken with speculation that the Rays will ultimately seek to relocate to another city. The current ownership group remains committed, at this point at least, to trying to make a stadium deal work in Tampa. However, once those options are exhausted they may be left with no other choice but to consider relocation.

The Rays ownership has certainly built the case for relocation out of the market with repeated attempts for close to fifteen years to get an agreement on a new facility which would have easier accessibility for fans (according to them and to MLB assessments) and would provide them with a better revenue situation for competition with larger market teams.

The Rays have difficulty historically with getting top free agents because of their market size and revenue situation with being able to compete for top talent with other teams that have better attendance or that play in new facilities. The situation with the Rays is very similar to the struggles that the Oakland Raiders of the NFL had with Oakland and trying for several years to get a new facility built there, before ultimately deciding to relocate the franchise to Las Vegas in 2020.

The rumor mill is spinning with relocation ideas of the Rays going to Charlotte, Nashville, or Montreal. Those three cities would work from a geographical sense with the Rays playing in the American League East division. The move to Charlotte makes sense from a demographic perspective, with so much growth there and people from all over America relocating to that city. The city also has great corporate sponsorship opportunity with Honeywell just relocating their main headquarters as an example of the growth potential of Charlotte.

Nashville is an up and coming city with a population boost and with a demographic of young people that MLB is trying to attract to their sport. The league does not have a presence in that part of the southeast except for the Atlanta Braves, so this could serve as an American League outpost in the region.

Montreal will always make the most sense for a relocation or expansion franchise for MLB because of the history of the Expos. The most worrisome variable for a professional sports team that is started through relocation or expansion is in building the fan base. The “x factor” that Montreal brings to the equation is a ready-made base of loyal fans of the Expos which also would solve for the marketing aspect of the scenario as well. Expos gear and apparel still is sold in Montreal and the nostalgia for that team will bring a diversified group of fans back to the sport.

It is a long-shot to start planning the Rays move to Montreal or anywhere else because the team does have fans in Tampa and they have been in that market for 20 years. Most professional sports leagues are very sensitive to moving teams because it will alienate a group of people that have invested time, energy and money into supporting their product (in this case: baseball).

In my view, I have covered many sports teams’ relocations from the L.A. teams being moved into that market by the NFL, to the Raiders move to Las Vegas, the Coyotes potential move out of Arizona in the NHL, and the move by the owner of the Columbus Crew in MLS to move a soccer team to Austin. The common themes there are unfortunately present in this case with the Rays in Tampa: ownership that is trying and willing to spend money to commit funds to a new facility and being fought every step of the way by the politicians or residents that do not want public money spent on an asset like a sports stadium (which I completely understand).

I have visited the Tampa area and I know the area around the downtown and throughout the area to St. Petersburg. I have written previously about how Tropicana Field is an adequate facility and that maybe the focus should be a major renovation to that facility to retro-fit it to the standards of the new facilities within MLB.
In the cost-benefit analysis if the renovation was too inefficient, then another idea would be to build a new facility on the same parcel of land right next to the current facility like many other professional teams have done in recent years.

The news on Tuesday means that the Rays will be playing in their current home for the foreseeable future, what comes next is a mystery, and only time will tell whether or not their next home is nearby or very far away from Central Florida.

Follow Up: NHL Awards Expansion Team To Seattle

The National Hockey League (NHL) approved the expansion of the league to Seattle on Tuesday, ending months of speculation over the future of the 32nd franchise in the world’s premier hockey circuit.

The decision comes as no surprise, the Seattle bid had an aura of eventuality to it because of their record setting season ticket commitment drive. The city showed their commitment and determination for a major professional hockey team, and it was rewarded yesterday.

The Seattle bid had all the elements needed to succeed: a stable and committed ownership group, favorable market demographics, robust corporate sponsorship potential, large media presence, and a dynamic, ambitious arena plan. The team name has not been decided yet, those details in the marketing of the franchise will be forthcoming. That is a crucial decision that must be carefully weighed.

What is known from the announcement yesterday is that the team and the NHL pushed the inaugural season start date a year to the 2021-22 hockey season. This will provide some much-needed extra time for the arena renovation project to be not rushed to completion as well as allow for the proper marketing and branding of the team in the community.

The Seattle team will play in the Pacific Division, which makes geographic sense and to balance the divisions out, the Arizona Coyotes will move from the Pacific to the Central Division for the 2021-22 season. This part of the announcement has gained significant attention and it is in this portion of the news from the NHL meetings in Georgia that could get interesting.

The realignment of the league to put the Coyotes into the Central either could be just a sensible logistical decision, or the harbinger of things to come for that franchise. The league office was quick to their defense of moving the Coyotes, citing that because most of Arizona (besides the Navajo nation tribal lands) does not recognize Daylight Savings Time – the team spends most of the time of the hockey season in the Mountain Time Zone.

However, the current teams in the Central Division such as Minnesota, Chicago, Nashville, and St. Louis all play in the Central time zone. This will translate into earlier starting times for games on the road for the Coyotes as well as longer travel times for the team and a shift away from their geographic rivals in Las Vegas and Los Angeles respectively.

This shift in divisional alignment has caused rampant speculation about the Coyotes being relocated to another Central time zone city that is angling for an NHL team, Houston, with a billionaire who controls the world class arena in the nation’s fourth largest city.

The move to Houston may be a bit premature even though in my earlier coverage on the failed attempts that the Arizona Coyotes have made to gain an arena in a better location in the Phoenix metro area. The Coyotes ownership has an agreement with the arena management company that allows them to go to a year-to-year lease on their current home, Gila River Arena, for five years until they determine a plan for a future facility.

The Coyotes have no plan or site on the board currently, which only fuels the fire that the team will relocate to Houston. The Houston bid for expansion definitely took a setback because after Seattle enters as the 32nd team, and finally balances out the league from a geographic and conference balance perspective, the league would not expand and add just one team.

The NHL has been clear of their interest in Houston especially to grow TV ratings and reach a more diversified demographic. The owner of the arena in Houston, Tillman Fertitta, also owns the NBA’s Houston Rockets and has been vocal about his desire to bring the NHL to the city. He met with NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, earlier this year to discuss very generally, the vision for hockey in Houston.

Some feel that the league does not want to lose the Phoenix market and that the Coyotes will find a way to stay in the desert, where they do have a loyal fan base. The speculation about a move to Houston will continue until the Coyotes find a long-term home for an arena in the East Valley or downtown.

It should also be noted that the Calgary Flames have an issue with plans for a new arena there now looking very dismal. The ownership there has threatened to relocate the team or sell the team to a party in another city. The door for Houston remains open in that relocation scenario as well.

The option to expand to Houston would require the league to expand by two franchises to 34 teams total. The logical other bid would be from Quebec, which has a new arena built and ready, but the expansion fee would be enormous in Canadian dollar figures. The Quebecor group would have to be willing to shell out a huge front-end cost to make that work.

In my view, I do not see the NHL ownership being willing to cut the revenue pie into 34 slices. I think the addition of Seattle is a home run for the league and makes some much sense from so many perspectives to add that city to the hockey landscape.

In addition, I am in the minority of people I have talked to in recent days on this subject that thinks that Houston would be an excellent destination for hockey as well. The city is much more diverse than many Americans realize and they have passionate sports fans and many transplanted people from around the entire country that now call Houston home that would fuel the appetite for the game.

It remains to be seen what happens with the Coyotes, the Houston bid for a hockey team, and if Quebec will finally get a seat back at the league table. However, what we do know is that Seattle will be joining the league to play in a state-of-the-art renovated Key Arena in the center of that great American city. The league took a bold step forward with Seattle and hockey in North America will be the beneficiary of those efforts.

(some background courtesy of ESPN, NBC Sports)

Follow Up: CVS – Aetna Merger Could Be Challenged

In a follow up to earlier pieces on this topic, the mega-deal that merged CVS and Aetna in the healthcare sector totaling about $70 billion could be challenged in federal court. The federal judge, Richard Leon, on Monday indicated that he could stop the activity of both companies to join forces and keep them as separate entities while he weighs the consumer impact of the merger.

This is out of the ordinary as the merger has met approval through the Justice Department and the federal court proceeding is often a mere formality. It should also be noted that Judge Leon is the same court officer which presided over the controversial AT&T / Time Warner merger proceedings; that was a recent topic here on Frank’s Forum, because of the content sharing issues taking place in that industry.

It is not a coincidence that Judge Leon, who has received plenty of criticism for his handling of the AT&T/ Time Warner merger, is now considering putting the brakes on this CVS/Aetna planned consolidation. The conflict of interest issue can be raised very easily in the case of CVS/Aetna because of what each entity specializes in separately.

The merger of a major healthcare/retail pharmacy company with a major health insurance carrier presents plenty of ethical concerns that could mollify the public interest. The concern is that Aetna-insured patients, whether it is individual policies or employer-provided policy coverage will be forced to fill prescriptions for medication at CVS locations exclusively.

A related concern for the consumer is when their employer-provided coverage changes to Aetna from another carrier, which then could force them into an prescription arrangement with CVS after the individual has a long-term routine and trust with another pharmacy. A similar concern was raised during the discussions of the merger in some forums online regarding rural areas that will require the consumer to drive farther to a CVS location if they are insured through Aetna, and in areas of the U.S. where CVS does not have a large presence.

In fair balance, some proponents of the merger state that it will provide better care for less cost. The addition of Aetna to their ranks will help CVS gain leverage with PBMs for the negotiation of pricing on prescription medications, which I covered in an earlier related piece.

The federal court could make this situation both very interesting and very difficult for those involved at CVS and Aetna. Judge Leon used words like “less convinced” that the merger was not an anti-trust violation. That is a very bold statement on the record and certainly could be motivated by the flack that the judge received in the AT&T decision.

Americans have long been concerned by anti-trust or monopolies because they represent, at the core, a break from our national ideals of competition in the marketplace as well as limiting consumer choice. The American consumer favors both choice and competition to create favorable conditions for price and service. The limitation of either of these market forces is looked upon rather negatively in the court of public opinion.

Both CVS and Aetna have to be alarmed that they are potentially being painted with the monopoly brush, and that this deal could unravel in the eleventh hour, unhinged by a judge who is essentially trying to rectify a previous miscalculation with the AT&T decision, which looks more like a monopoly with each passing day.

The central question is whether or not the combination of CVS and Aetna is within the best interest of the consumer. It is starting to look like that answer may alter one of the largest healthcare mergers in American history.

(some background courtesy of Reuters, CBS Market Watch, and CNBC)

Follow Up: Big Pharma Bust? The Takeda – Shire Merger

The mammoth deal that is the Takeda acquisition of the Ireland-based, Shire Pharmaceuticals, has had more bumps in the road than the New Jersey Turnpike. The regulatory review processes in China, the United States, and the E.U. each had their own type of issues relative to this enormous merger proposal.

The news this week is that now that the regulatory hurdles have been largely negotiated successfully (the European Union approved the deal on November 21) the former chairman of the board of Takeda has now come forward to the media in opposition of the merger.

Kunio Takeda, the last member of the family whose name is “on the door”, so to speak, who served in the top position for a period of 16 years; is against the deal because of the high level of risk the company is taking by swallowing up Shire. The full stockholders meeting which will feature a vote on this controversial strategic move will take place on December 5th.

The former chairman leads a group of investors that is also opposed to the deal and this move yesterday to bring those concerns to the media is a concerted attempt to subvert the perception of this proposed acquisition ahead of the crucial vote on the 5th. The merger is not without scrutiny, as many different factions from industry experts, to Wall Street analysts, to shareholders in Europe and the U.S. alike all had doubts that this merger could ever be consummated.

The risk to Takeda is heightened by their recent purchase of Baxalta, and many within the inner circles of the industry were openly questioning their pursuit of a consolidation of Shire. The Irish drug maker, at that time, had sold off their oncology portion of the business and trying to compete in a rapidly changing pharmaceutical landscape.
Takeda will take on significant debt overall from their own balance sheet, to the costs of pulling together a deal of this magnitude ($62 billion), and taking on the debt that Shire has accumulated on their balance sheet. This is the rationale behind the opposition that is being demonstrated within Takeda in recent days.

The argument could be made that Takeda could have stood pat with their success in diabetes and hypertension medications. The company looks to push through this M&A activity with Shire as a way to crack the Top 10 pharmaceutical companies in the world. It is apparent that some of the regulators have not considered that we have seen “too big to fail” companies in other industries collapse after biting off more than they could chew. It would be a devastating blow to the overall pharma industry if Takeda went down the path to ruin because of this deal.

The original concerns from the beginning of this proposed deal are still lingering around: the value of the return to the shareholders, the debt taken on by Takeda to make it happen, and the overall valuation of Shire being perhaps inflated. These components, both collectively and individually, do not seem to be throwing the merger train off course here, with some industry news outlets reporting that reps from both companies expect that the deal will be completed in the first week of January.

Takeda is looking at the diamonds in the Shire pipeline, but reportedly have looked at other brands in the Shire domain as potential targets for sale to help pay down some of the enormous debt that will be incurred. These two companies on their own are huge, so the redundancy and lost jobs is another functional reality of such a large merger.

It remains to be seen whether the consumer will benefit from this deal, if it will translate into better leverage for the combined company with the pharmaceutical distributors, it could become a scenario where they jump up the prices on medications to help offset the debt load. This is where the consumer concerns over this merger could become an unfortunate reality.

(Some background information and statistics courtesy of Seeking Alpha, BioSpace.com, CNN, and Asia Nikkei)

Giving Tuesday: Being Charitable To Those In Need

The Tuesday following Thanksgiving is known as Giving Tuesday. It was a movement started about six years ago by a New York City YMCA on 92nd Street in concert with a component within the United Nations.

The movement has gained international following and is a time when people are called upon to be charitable to those in need. The worthy causes out there can be overwhelming, so it is important to think about what resonates the most with you.

This is particularly important when you have a budget with which to give, which is the case with most people. The causes that are the “closest to your heart” will become the priority. In the event that you are new to donating, then check out Charity Navigator or Guide Star, two websites that inspect and rank charities based on their financial responsibility, transparency, and the amount of funds that go to the cause versus administrative/fundraising costs.

The past holiday weekend featured news and promotions for stores and for online shopping deals. The weekend is an ideal time to get gifts for your loved ones for Christmas. The point of today, Giving Tuesday, is to give back to those who are less fortunate, to help advance research of various diseases, and to pool our resources to help solve the problems in our society.

The act of charity is seen by some as not a popular thing in what many people portray Americans as consumed by materialism or their own self-gain. I disagree with the portrayal and know that many Americans are very generous, and although we are the wealthiest nation, we are also the most generous nation on Earth.
The platform of social media will be used to raise awareness and funds on Giving Tuesday as Facebook, Twitter, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will all be doing matching of some kind based on the gifts given today by generous Americans.

This is a good time to take a personal inventory of all that you have in your life that you are grateful for, and to think about how you could give of your excess resources to help those causes or people that really need assistance. Your generosity will help many worthy organizations to provide services and programs to people who are struggling and suffering.

Here are some worthy causes and four star rated charities that could be a potential partner for your donation activity today:
Salvation Army: www.salvationarmyus.org
Alzheimer’s Foundation of America: www.alzfdn.org 866-232-8484
Catholic Charities 800-919-9338
Food For The Poor: www.foodforthe poor.org 800-427-9104
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255
Samaritan’s Purse: www.samaritanspurse.org
Zero- The End of Prostate Cancer: zerocancer.org 888-245-9455
MAP International : www.map.org 800-225-8550

Thank you for your support of Giving Tuesday and for giving to “the least of these”. God bless you.

Follow Up: AT&T Content Ownership & The Impact On The Consumer

The debacle which was the AT&T merger with Time Warner, which is now known under the name Warner Media, has been a topic featured on this blog several times in the past. The detrimental effect it would have on competition in the media landscape is also a topic that has been part of my prior work on this merger.

It was widely reported that an outage of HBO occurred last week for customers of Dish and Sling TV services. It is hard to believe that AT&T / Warner Media had no role in engineering this outage to damage the competition with AT&T owned DirecTV standing to gain potential subscribers as an outcome.

This type of disruption or potential withholding of content is precisely what the Department of Justice was concerned about relative to AT&T merging with Time Warner. This potential misuse of the control of content or content ownership to damage the competitors of DirecTV was a central focus of the DOJ lawsuit in this merger earlier this year.

In that court proceeding, one judge made the decision to allow the merger to proceed, no jury was involved. The judge sided with AT&T in “buying” their version of the case that they wanted to reinvent AT&T for the long haul. The government argued that the merger would impact competition because it would give AT&T too much influence and control over content. The government argued that AT&T would use that control to provide favorable pricing for their own enterprise, DirecTV, at the expense of Dish, Fios, Comcast, and other cable television providers. It was a conflict of interest that the government was concerned about with this merger.

The exact situation has played out and could become a factor when the content of certain premium HBO programs comes up for distribution as well as the March Madness NCAA basketball tournament which Turner Sports (part of Warner Media) has the rights to broadcast. The new AT&T/Warner Media could jack up the prices on that content to the competition, while at the same time create advantageous promotional pricing for DirecTV in order to siphon off subscribers from their competitors.

DirecTV Now is a service that allows people to stream content without having a satellite dish attached to their residence. The service is opening up a new subscriber base to the DirecTV platform with less equipment and front-end costs. The development is one that can be viewed as positive, and the reviews are good overall for the service to this point. In some ways, this advancement will help competition because it gives the consumer another option if they are not a candidate for a satellite dish and they may feel locked in to one cable television provider.

However, this service can become problematic if AT&T influences the content available on this service and withholds that content from their competition in some way. This ties in to the other big media news of the Warner Media streaming app-based service that is built and being pushed to launch ahead of the long-awaited Disney app launch. Warner Media is trying to beat Disney to the punch on getting their streaming service up and going in the marketplace.

The question within the media industry at this point is whether that is a smart strategy by Warner Media if they rush the service to market and then have some glitches that lead to customer disappointment.

In the event that the outage or the disruptions that have involved Warner Media content and the competition for DirecTV in the marketplace are, in fact, valid that is a sad state of affairs for the whole industry. This has led to some analysts with greater knowledge of the industry space than myself to produce some insightful commentary pieces on the potential for the Department of Justice to reintroduce legal proceedings to reverse the merger.

That would certainly create a ripple effect throughout the media, telecommunications, and cable/satellite TV services industries all at the same time. The counterpunch to that effort was a group of businessmen writing op-ed type pieces of their own to implore the court system to not entertain the reversal of the merger. It is going to get interesting.

The issue in my own view of this situation is not the streaming services being offered to provide more choices to the customer. The issue is that you cannot set the playing field up in a way that is going to unfairly treat competition in the marketplace or set the rules up so that one party gains from them and everyone else is at a competitive disadvantage. That is what I want all the readers out there to think about in this circumstance; because those consequences will be felt across other industries that will have a much greater impact on your life than just being able to watch a program on your television set.

(Some background courtesy of Reuters, CNBC, CBS MArketwatch, and CNN)

Certified Transitional Farming: Impact On Eating Organic

The challenges of organic farming have been an area that I have covered in previous articles on other related subjects such as GMO, pesticides, the seed market, and the overall food supply. The transition of farmland that has been devastated by pesticides, herbicides, and other agricultural chemicals is an involved process.

The certified transition process identified by QAI (Quality Assurance International), is frequently a three- year endeavor by the farmer in order to properly prepare the land to produce organic crop yields. The larger farming operations can afford the significant financial outlay to convert the land from what is known as a conventional farm into an organic farm.

However, the small and mid-sized farming operations, such as family owned farms with smaller yields, could easily struggle with the burdensome costs especially on the front end which becomes a deterrent for overall agricultural land use reform toward organic farming in America. The QAI goal of organic farming growth found that the overall acreage of transitional land use for organic food production could be enhanced by financial incentives underwritten by corporations and other interested parties.

The organization also determined that if a farm had at least 51% of their total usable crop space being verified as “in transition”, then that farm could use the QAI seal for transitional organic farming on their products. This helps to raise awareness of the transition process, it helps the farmer because it provides visibility as well as profitability to aid the transition, and it helps the consumer because they are purchasing a product that will benefit them while ensuring that more organic products can be made in the future. It is the definition of a “win-win scenario”.

The estimates available from the USDA state that only 1% of all farmland in the United States is suitable for organic farming. This is a shocking statistic for many who have not closely followed this situation. My prior work has detailed the destruction of the soil used in farming by GMO containing seeds, dangerous pesticides, and harmful herbicides. These products have caused destruction to bees, birds, and other wildlife as well as being linked to several different types of illnesses in humans.

The trend toward organic eating, the utilization of organic cleaners, and the use of organic products for personal care use is a positive development in America over the past decade to fifteen years. That change notwithstanding the organic product pipeline cannot be sustained or made scalable for the long term without an increase in usable farmland.

The process for being Certified Transitional is difficult and the steps become increasingly demanding as the farm moves through the stages from year 1, 2, and 3. The optimal goal is to have each farm “graduate” into certified organic status by the end of year 3 in the process. The people at QAI achieve this by surprise audits and random sampling of crop yields to ensure that the organic transition is following the proper protocols. It should be noted that QAI is a USDA accredited organization.

The organization also has consultants that can help the individual family run farms or medium sized farms with the application process for the Certified Transitional program. The farm will be inspected at least once per year for the three- year transition process. The QAI certification personnel will review the inspection reports and have a procedure where any deficient areas can be reviewed and resolved with follow up type visits. The final step would be to have the organic certification awarded once all the requisite steps are completed.

The involvement of certain companies, such as Kashi, helps farmers with the cost of transitioning their land to organic use. Most of those farms would be unable to participate in the process based solely on the financial commitment needed to move forward through the three years of increasingly rigorous standards required to earn the organic certification.

The commitment by Kashi to source ingredients from farmers that are participating in the Certified Transitional program helps provide much needed financial resources to the individual farms through the process. The QAI inspections and the verification of the day-to-day operations of each farm in the program is an expensive scenario for the farm, especially the front-end cost.

The farms in the transitional program cannot use GMO seeds or any type of chemical agents in their farming practices. This can be challenging for a farm in transition because the cost of organic seeds can be prohibitive. The vast majority of seeds for staple crops such as corn, wheat, soybean, and sugar beet are genetically modified in some way.

The certified transitional farms that have agreements to be ingredient suppliers with major food producers such as Kashi, have some help in offsetting the costs of the process. This is imperative in the U.S. where autoimmune disease, celiac disease, and other types of cancers are on the rise. The ability for gluten free, organic products to become more mainstream will help drop the price points on certain products so they can be more affordable for people across all economic backgrounds.

The Certified Transitional farming process is a bold step in the right direction for the future of organic food availability in our country for decades into the future.