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Major League Soccer

Earthquakes seem set to leave San Jose for Houston.

By Robert Wagman

(Friday, July 8, 2005) -- It now appears all but certain that the San Jose Earthquakes will play next season in Texas with a new owner and probably with a new name. This has been expected for quite some time, but what is different is the club will be playing in Houston and not in San Antonio as most in Major League Soccer believed would be the case.

The negotiations for the sale of the Earthquakes by the Anschutz Entertainment Group to Grupo Televisa, a Mexican media conglomerate are all but complete. Grupo Televisa, in addition to its far flung media empire also owns Club America in Mexico's top division and as such is probably the principal rival of Chivas, which put an MLS expansion team in the Los Angeles area this season.

The talks between AEG and Grupo Televisa have been going on for almost a year. AEG is the owner-operator of five MLS clubs -- the Los Angeles Galaxy, Chicago Fire, MetroStars, D.C. United and the Earthquakes, though a sale of United is nearly complete. For some time the organization has wanted to pare down its holding to three -- Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. AEG reportedly tried to find local ownership to keep the team in or near San Jose, but failed. So, in the last few months the talks with Emilio Azcarraga, the chief executive officer, president and principal stockholder of Grupo Televisa quickened.

According to a league source, the purchase of the Earthquakes by Televisa will not be a simple transaction. Rather, it will become part of a much larger and much more complicated new relationship between Philip Anschutz, Azcarraga and Grupo Televisa.

Talks are ongoing. For instance, Grupo Televisa owns the Spanish-language rights to the 2006 World Cup, while Anschutz, through his Soccer United Marketing (SUM) partnership, controls the English-language rights. The new relationship between the two could result in a unified broadcast plan for the World Cup including putting matches, in both languages, on pay-per-view.

Azcarraga has a relationship with concert presenter Clear Channel Entertainment and likely will buy the company outright. It is, interestingly, the main competition for AEG Live, Anschutz's concert production arm. The merger possibilities seem clear.

The final form of the ownership of the Earthquakes is still not clear. It might be with Grupo Televisa the team outright, but, according to a league source, more likely a complicated partnership in which others will be involved and in which AEG might retain an interest.

Reportedly, what has moved the negotiations along in recent days is a clarification of where the team will play next season.

In April, MLS had reached an oral agreement with the city of San Antonio and its outgoing mayor Ed Garza to put a team in the Alamodome as early as next season. Since MLS had said it would not expand again until at least the 2007 season, it appeared that either Kansas City or San Jose would be moving and league sources said it would likely be the Quakes.

A memorandum of understanding was signed between MLS and the San Antonio City Council, but then the agreement became a political football in the mayoral election campaign to choose who would succeed Garza. Phil Hardberger, the 70-year-old former business executive who ended up winning had based a part of his campaign on his opposition to the deal with MLS.

"Goodbye, that's what I would tell the MLS," Hardberger said when asked what he would say to MLS commissioner Don Garber. "Call us again in about 10 years. We'll see what the market looks like (and) whether you really can bring money into San Antonio."

Then MLS received a formal lease agreement from the city and the league says it contained both new and changed provisions from the memorandum of understanding. So Garber and MLS have backed away.

"Since being approached over a year ago by the Office of the Mayor for the city of San Antonio in an effort to bring MLS to San Antonio, MLS has negotiated in complete good faith," Garber said in a formal news release. "The product of those negotiations, which involved members of the city's staff and representatives of the City Council, was an agreement which the Cwty determined would provide significant benefits to the city and its citizens."

This left Houston as probably the only option that appealed to Grupo Televisa. However, the league has been stymied for some time trying to find a place to play. Reliant Stadium, where the National Football League's Houston Texans play, was looked at, but its ownership did not want to become MLS franchise owners at this time, nor did it want to become landlord. Other venues were looked at, including the University of Houston's Robertson Stadium, but have been dismissed for various other reasons. Now, according to local media reports, an inventive solution may have been found - playing in the all but abandoned Astrodome.

Since Reliant was built, the only thing the Astrodome has been used for, besides some high school events, is the two-week long Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which draws over two million attendees each year to the February event. Otherwise, it sits empty, much as Washington, D.C.'s RFK Stadium did before MLS's D.C. United became its main tenant 10 years ago.

Televisa executives Javier Perez Teuffer and Juan de Villa Franca have recently visited Houston for talks with Mayor Bill White and Houston Sports Authority head Oliver Luck. In addition, operational personnel from Club America have toured the Astrodome.

There reportedly are a number of issues still to be solved, including what kind of playing surface would be used. The Astrodome has a permanent roof, and when baseball and football were played there, growing grass was a lost cause, leading to the advent of AstroTurf. A grass tray system is being studied.

In any event, the Astrodome would be a temporary solution until a soccer-specific facility could be built.

Robert Wagman is a SoccerTimes senior correspondent. E-mail Robert Wagman.

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