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26 x 26 Targets Unprecedented Philanthropy for 2026 World Cup

There has never been a World Cup quite like 2026. The 26 x 26 initiative is aiming for something equally ambitious in low- and moderate-income communities.

Mike Piellucci

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Photo Credit: Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA TODAY Sports

There has never been a World Cup quite like 2026, in which the United States, Mexico and Canada will tri-host sports’ most prestigious tournament. So it’s only fitting, then, that a group of partners ranging from nonprofits to sports broadcasters to soccer fans are collaborating for a philanthropic endeavor so ambitious that it will require seven years of planning to reach fruition.

The 26 x 26 initiative aims to construct 26 soccer fields in under-resourced communities across the three host nations in time for the start of the 2026 World Cup. 16 of those fields will be installed in the tournament’s host cities, while the other 10 will be placed in select cities throughout the United States.

The project is a joint collaboration between several partners across the globe Lionsraw, Local Intiatives Support Coalition (LISC), streetfootballworld, UNICEF and The American Outlaws. Its scope may be unprecedented.

READ MORE: Rematch: Analyzing the USWNT’s Latest Legal Battle with the USSF

“For me, it’s always been about the opportunity here to really change the landscape in a fundamental way through a World Cup in the sense that the profile of the game itself, but also how that can be leveraged for social impact,” said Mike Geddes, managing director of streetfootballworld USA. “I don’t think there’s ever been an opportunity quite like this to create change at the scale.”

The idea traces its roots to a conversation between Lionsraw, a nonprofit focused on “recruiting and enabling [soccer] fans around the world to invest in transforming the most needy communities, to create chances for change for disadvantaged children,” and The American Outlaws, the unofficial supporters group of the United States men’s and women’s national soccer teams. Lionsraw had the idea to build a series of football fields one-by-one across the country and needed help to do so. The American Outlaws, who boast more than 200 chapters nationwide, had plenty of volunteers interested in helping a good cause.

“We have the manpower and willpower to take care of projects like that and to help sustain any sort of program as they move forward in the future,” says American Outlaws Founder Justin Brunken. “Because most of our chapters and these local communities, they’re looking for something to do to give back.”

More partners were recruited as the idea gained steam. streetfootballworld, a global network of about 170 nonprofit organizations, was tapped to coordinate logistics. It was a natural extension of their previous work, which includes collaborating with FIFA on social justice initiatives in the 2010, 2014 and 2018 World Cups as well as UEFA for the European Championships.

“Soccer is a very unique force in the world in terms of how it can be used as a medium to address social challenges,” said Mike Geddes, managing director of streetfootballworld USA. “We thought it was just such a fantastic kind of visionary idea and it was so clean focused on the needs of the local communities.”

LISC, meanwhile, will serve as the backbone organization that handles the fundraising and implementation of the facilities. The organization has more than two decades of experience bringing high-quality recreational spaces to low- or moderate-income neighborhoods, highlighted by a 20-year partnership with the NFL that has built or refurbished more than 330 football fields in cities throughout the country. According to LISC president and CEO Maurice Jones, the organization was “delighted” at the chance to incorporate soccer into their mission.

“It’s our opportunity to leverage a big international event to benefit communities all across the country who don’t have equitable access to, in this case, fields on which to play the game of soccer — and, most importantly, to learn what comes from that,” he says.

A group of ambassadors has already signed on, too, including former MLS stars Landon Donovan and Dwyane DeRosario as well as media personalities like FOX Sports’ Rob Stone and beIN Sports’ Kay Murray.

Now, it’s time to raise funds. The collective has already begun to approach financiers and, according to Lionsraw’s Ben Astin, the 26 x 26 project manager, have set a goal of raising $12 million in initial capital and formally issuing an RFP by the end of 2020 or the start of 2021. If it gets funded, he says, “we’re not going to wait until like two years before the World Cup or a year before the World Cup – we’re going to start building pretty much straight away.”

READ MORE: Elias Sports Bureau Continues Evolution While Staying in the Family

There’s no point in wasting time, they figure, when communities could be served sooner and better than they have before. To that end, Jones says LISC already vetting local partners “who have skin in the game;” namely, a willingness to maintain the fields long after the World Cup has passed.

None of the respective funding parties are naïve to the road ahead of them. All of them, however, understand the stakes.

“This one is really exciting for us because the game of soccer is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country,” Jones says. “The ability to leverage it to make sure that folks in every community has a chance to become part of the game, to learn the game, to own the game, to have infrastructure for the game is critical.”

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Meet the WNBA’s New Boss

Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert will become the first commissioner of the WNBA and the first woman to lead a Big Four professional services firm in the U.S.

Front Office Sports

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Photo Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else.

For the first time ever, the WNBA will have a commissioner. Before now, all of the league’s previous leaders like Val Ackerman and Lisa Borders were given the title of president. 

Cathy Engelbert, the current CEO of Deloitte, will take control of the role on July 17th and will report directly to Adam Silver. 

What should you know?

1. By the time she is done at Deloitte, Engelbert will have spent more time at the company (33 years) than the WNBA has been a league (23 years)

2. Engelbert is the first female to lead a Big Four professional services firm in the U.S.

3. She is the fifth person to lead the league after Val Ackerman (1997-2005), Donna Orender (2005-10), Laurel Richie (2011-15) and Lisa Borders (2016-2018)

4. Engelbert has spent the past four years in charge of Deloitte’s U.S. operation.

Basketball is in her blood…

Although she might be an accountant by trade, Engelbert is no stranger to the game of basketball. 

According to Bob Hille of Sporting News, she played at Lehigh for Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw and was a team captain as a senior. Her father Kurt also played and was drafted in 1957 by the Pistons.

What are they saying?

“Cathy is a world-class business leader with a deep connection to women’s basketball, which makes her the ideal person to lead the WNBA into its next phase of growth. The WNBA will benefit significantly from her more than 30 years of business and operational experience including revenue generation, sharp entrepreneurial instincts and proven management abilities.” – Adam Silver on the hiring of Engelbert

“I think that’s probably one of the reasons I was selected for this role, to come in and bring a business plan to build the WNBA into a real business and a thriving business, quite frankly.” – Engelbert to ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel

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Adam Silver Wants More Gender Diversity

The NBA commissioner states his desire to get more women into the sports industry. The NBA currently has a 31.6 percent ratio of women in team management.

Front Office Sports

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Photo Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else. 

If Adam Silver has his way, 50 percent of the new incoming NBA officials will be women.

That number applies to coaches too, Silver said speaking at the Economic Club of Washington.

How do the leagues stack up?

The following numbers, outside of MLB, come from 2018 reports put together by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. MLB is the first league to have a report done on it this year.

1. NBA – 31.6% of team management are women / 37.2% of team professional admins are women

2. NFL – 22.1% of team senior admins are women / 35% of team professional admins are women

3. MLB – 28.6% of team senior admins are women / 26% of team professional admins are women

4. MLS – 26.5% of team senior admins are women / 31.6% of team professional admins are women

5. WNBA – 48.6% of team VPs and above are women / 58% of team managers to senior directors are women

6. NHL – No report done

Quotes from Silver… 

“It’s an area, frankly, where I’ve acknowledged that I’m not sure how it was that it remained so male-dominated for so long. Because it’s an area of the game where physically, certainly, there’s no benefit to being a man, as opposed to a woman, when it comes to refereeing.”

“The goal is going forward, it should be roughly 50-50 of new officials entering in the league. Same for coaches, by the way. We have a program, too. There’s no reason why women shouldn’t be coaching men’s basketball.”

That’s not all Silver wants to see change…

Silver, who has been adamant about getting rid of the one-and-done rule, provided some clarity as to when that might be achieved.

According to the commissioner, the 2022 NBA Draft will likely be the first one since the 2005 NBA Draft to allow high school players to go straight into the league rather than playing a season in college first.

Citing “active discussions” with the NBPA, Silver noted that they are still “a few years away.”

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“I Thought This Was a Good Deal”: AAF Vendors Speak Out

Amidst the spring football league’s collapse, countless vendors are still waiting to get paid for services rendered.

Robert Silverman

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Ultimately, it was the little things that best told the story of how dire things had gotten for the Alliance of American Football (AAF), an ex-team social media manager said. Starting in Week Five, social media managers no longer traveled with the team for road games. Even before, they’d doubled up on hotel rooms. The final bit of penny-pinching was the most bizarre: For the eighth and final AAF game, social was told Getty’s photographers would not be in attendance. Instead they would have to rely on “generic images,” making the job vastly more difficult.

Less than a week later, on April 2, the chaotic, short-lived lifespan of the spring professional football league, launched in March 2018 by filmmaker Charlie Ebersol, the son of venerated TV producer Dick Ebersol, came to an abrupt end. A little over two weeks after that, the AAF filed for bankruptcy, as first reported by Front Office Sports.

In the aftermath, stories like the social media manager’s have become ubiquitous. A  former player was sent a medical bill for treatment received during training camp. Scores of others reportedly had to cover their own airfare or were sent four-figure bills for hotel rooms. There was the class-action lawsuit filed by two players, claiming that ownership misled them about the league’s long-term fiscal solvency. Founders pointed fingers at one another after the debt-ridden league came crashing down. All manner of now ex-employees, from team officials to players,  learned they were out of a job thanks to social media.

The league’s bankruptcy filing revealed that $48.3 million was still owed to a variety of creditors against a $11.3 million in concrete assets, a scant $536,160.68 of which remained in the league’s bank accounts. Moreover, the AAF informed the thousands of creditors that any attempts to recoup their losses would be pointless right now, because, per Sports Business Journal, its coffers are entirely bare… “If it later appears that assets are available to pay creditors, the clerk will send you another notice telling you that you may file a proof of claim and stating the deadline,” the filing states.

But like the social media manager, many of those selfsame creditors began to suspect the AAF was on rocky financial ground long before the league officially pulled the plug.

Shortly after Tom Dundon, the majority owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, who built his financial empire on the backs of subprime auto loans, bought a majority share of the financially-strapped league, he started to cut corners, looking to pare down expenses by any means necessary according to a report by Sports Illustrated. “As soon as Dundon took over, our f——— expense reports were getting approved out of Dallas,” where Dundon Capital Partners’ office is located, a former mid-level AAF employee told the magazine. (Dundon did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent via the Carolina Hurricanes. The form to contact Dundon Capital Partners on their website was removed at some point in the past few months )

With the AAF bleeding millions each and every week it remained in existence, per USA Today, Dundon deemed it necessary to scrimp and save wherever possible including on the margins. So vendors—companies that supplied locker room supplies, traveling equipment and more—were approached hat in hand and offered less than the full amount owed by the AAF.

READ MORE: AAF Files for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy 

While AAF officials served as the point of contact, two sources involved with the negotiations told Front Office Sports that the debt-clearing plan was conceived and ordered by Dundon’s financial team. If that meant exploiting AAF officials’ pre-existing relationships with vendors and playing on the faith placed in the league, so be it. As one former AAF official told Front Office Sports, it was “just a shit situation.”

Some of the companies did take the lowball offers, but others refused to accept less, insisting on full payment. It didn’t matter. Both paths led to vendors getting stiffed by the AAF. Dundon’s financial team kept stalling, promising the equivalent of “the check’s in the mail,” right up until the moment when the AAF closed its doors for good.

Now those vendors have been reduced to poring over the bankruptcy filings. They know all too well that, despite being out five or six figures, they’re way at the back of the line, trailing giant conglomerates like MGM and Aramark which are owed millions. And they’re not happy about it.

“I definitely feel scammed,” one vendor said.

(more…)

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