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Volume 22 No. 35

Events and Attractions

CenturyLink Field, Seattle
Photo: Getty images

Fewer than seven years from the 2026 World Cup, bid organizers for American cities seeking to host some of the tournament’s 80 matches are restless.

 

Canada, Mexico and the United States — together, called the United 2026 bid — were awarded hosting rights in the summer of 2018.

“The process to win the bid was engaging, enlightening, hard, tedious, and ultimately, rewarding,” said Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation, and a leader in Nashville’s bid. “I would say there has been virtually no communication since the three federations were awarded the World Cup.” 

Sixteen cities across North America will host 2026 World Cup matches, fan festivities and other associated events. While the three Mexican and three Canadian host cities appear to be set, 17 American cities are still competing for the remaining 10 hosting spots, with each city staging at least five matches. The three federations will have input but FIFA will make the final decision on host cities, according to Colin Smith, FIFA’s chief tournaments and events officer.

The restlessness in the bidding cities — Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New York/New Jersey, Orlando, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. — is understandable given the potential reward. The United 2026 bid, led by John Kristick, projected potential tournament revenue of $14 billion, including $400 million to $600 million per city. Boston Consulting Group predicted short-term economic activity of $5 billion, including about 40,000 jobs. 

“We all understand that there is an enormous return on investment,” said Jason Siegel, CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission.  

Looking at World Cups from 2006 to 2018, an average of 642 days passed between the winning bid being announced by FIFA and the selection of host cities for the matches. Using that rough estimate with the 2026 World Cup, FIFA’s picks would be made by March 16, 2020.

A number of factors have likely contributed to the sluggish progress so far. 

The 2026 event will be the first with 48 national teams competing — the last six World Cups had 32-team fields — as well as the first played in three countries. Each of those aspects raises unique logistical challenges for organizers, especially over such a large land expanse. 

Starting with South Africa in 2010 and including Qatar, site of the 2022 edition, each World Cup host has undertaken substantial infrastructure projects. Seven of Qatar’s eight venues for the 2022 World Cup had to be built from scratch.

The United 2026 bid boasts the best stadiums in the world and a vastly improved soccer infrastructure thanks to Major League Soccer and the strength of soccer in Mexico, and it also includes top airports and accommodations. It is, as Smith wrote in an email, at “a different starting point if compared to previous hosts.”

Hard Rock Stadium, Miami
Photo: Getty images

“This is the first World Cup in a long time where FIFA and the stakeholders can really focus on building the game, as opposed to stadiums,” said Kristick, whose work with the United 2026 bid is completed. “They can really stay focused on what is most important: How do we build the game? Because we don’t have to worry about the infrastructure.” 

In the past, FIFA relied on a local organizing committee in the host country to run business and logistical aspects of the tournament. FIFA President Gianni Infantino took over in 2016 and released his FIFA 2.0 plan, which included FIFA’s objective of assuming operational control of the World Cup. The 2026 tournament will be the first one that is completely organized and played under Infantino’s watch, and the first to not lean on a local committee. Establishing the new setup may have also slowed the start of FIFA’s 2026 work.

“For the FIFA World Cup 2026, we will be operating a FIFA-led subsidiary, which will be responsible for the operational delivery of the tournament, always in close collaboration with the hosts,” Smith wrote in an email. “The success of that local structure — and ultimately of the event — will be insured by blending international operational expertise and local knowledge.”

The United 2026 bid intentionally provided an overabundance of compliant potential host cities, according to Kristick. That pleased FIFA, because it raised the likelihood that cities deliver on promises made during the bidding process. 

“You’ve got all the stakeholders for the first time, in all these cities, thinking about soccer,” said Kristick. “And that is such an enormous opportunity for FIFA, U.S. soccer, Mexico and Canada to take advantage of this build-up, particularly while you have this competitiveness.”

Sports Business Journal spoke with representatives from 16 of the 17 cities, as well as other soccer insiders from across the country. Many of them recognized that the aforementioned factors have contributed to FIFA’s lack of noticeable 2026 World Cup activity. They also recognized the historic nature of the bidding competition that is about to ensue in earnest.

“It will be as competitive as a sports-hosting competition that’s ever happened, certainly in the U.S.,” said Kristick. 

Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York/New Jersey and Washington, D.C., seem to be in pole positions. That would leave the other 11 U.S. cities competing for four spots. At that point, the gap between the bids narrows significantly.

That leaves another gnawing question in the minds of bid committee members. 

“What drives the decision?” said Manny Rodriguez, chief marketing, experience and customer officer at UCHealth, and one of the leaders of Denver’s bid.

The United 2026 bid and FIFA bid evaluation books combine for more than 750 pages of minutiae, down to the number of men’s and women’s toilets in each stadium (drink up in Cincinnati, but make sure to hold it in Seattle). Nine categories were used to judge the United 2026 bid, and each of those categories is broken into dozens of further subsets. The number of factors to consider — just from the bid books alone — is paralyzing.

AT&T Stadium, Arlington
Photo: Getty images

“Is it media?” asked Rodriguez. “Is it where the fans would enjoy the most? Is it political pressure? It’s very interesting to see what will drive their decision. There are so many incredible options.” 

Kristick and others think the next part of the process — FIFA inspection visits to the cities — will start in early 2020. And indeed, FIFA’s bid evaluation book says that the “initial operational phase” ends on Dec. 31, 2019.

“The next steps are the selection of the venues and the setting up of a local structure,” said FIFA’s Smith, “which are planned to take place during the course of next year. Successfully laying the groundwork for 2026 will be key. On that note, the close cooperation and common understanding we have with the host associations give us confidence that we are on the right track.”

Beyond stadiums, hotels and airports, Kristick said FIFA inspectors will be looking for indicators of what kind of partners the cities will be, seeking evidence on funding mechanisms, whether from city, state and/or private sources, and scrutinizing the level of civic energy for World Cup hosting in the different locales.

“That isn’t easy to calculate,” said Premier Partnerships Chairman Alan Rothenberg, who ran the 1994 World Cup that was held in the United States and is involved with Los Angeles’ bid this time around. “But I think when they go out and do the inspections, they’ll test that kind of depth of enthusiasm that exists in the community.”

While the decision-making will be brutal, it’s a strong position for FIFA to be in after the controversy that followed awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively. And it’s a position soccer’s governing body could have only hoped for when it awarded the 1994 World Cup to the U.S., said Rothenberg. That tournament set an average attendance record — almost 69,000 fans per match — that still stands 25 years later.

“The long view,” he said, “is that the gamble that FIFA took by granting the World Cup to the United States in ’94 obviously has paid off beyond anybody’s imagination.” 

Seventeen U.S. cities are bidding for 10 spots to host 2026 World Cup matches. FIFA will make the final call, with feedback from the U.S., Mexico and Canada soccer federations, but in the meantime Sports Business Journal took a shot at sorting the 17 bids into three categories: locks, competitors and underdogs.

 

Populations based on 2015 U.S. census data. All projected capacity figures include seats set aside for VIPs and media.

 

Locks

 

Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Photo: Getty images

Atlanta

Metro population: 6.4 million 
Venue: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (65,085 projected capacity for World Cup)
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018: 2

Why it could get selected: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the world’s busiest airport and the capability to host the International Broadcasting Center are all strong facets of Atlanta’s bid, in addition to densely located hotels, competition venues, attractions and potential fan fest areas. The city, with a burgeoning soccer culture, was put forth as a potential semifinal match host, and FIFA definitely seems interested. Atlanta was one of just two American cities, along with New York, that received site visits from FIFA inspectors in April 2018, prior to the announcement that United 2026’s bid beat Morocco. 

 Why not: Again, it’s very difficult to see Atlanta not winning a bid, but if both Florida sites are picked and the three North American federations decide that growing the game in Nashville is more important than cementing Atlanta’s emergent soccer culture, then maybe ATL gets passed over. 

 

AT&T Stadium, Arlington
Photo: Getty images

Dallas

Metro population: 7.5 million 
Venue: AT&T Stadium (80,415) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018: 8

Why it could get selected: Among the 17 competing U.S. cities, AT&T Stadium has the biggest projected World Cup capacity and the most luxury suites, providing a huge revenue driver. The city, home of AT&T, could also host the International Broadcasting Center, as it did for the 1994 World Cup. Dallas FC President Dan Hunt said he wants to get his city the final or a semifinal, and said it could host base camps for competing national teams thanks to the elite training facilities at F.C. Dallas.

Why not: Jerry World feels like Dallas’ insurance policy against not getting a bid, but the stadium is removed from city centers in Fort Worth and Dallas, and public transportation is lacking. But that’s nit-picking; it feels like Dallas is in good shape.

 

Rose Bowl, Los Angeles
Photo: Getty images

Los Angeles

Metro population: 18.7 million 
Venues: Rose Bowl (76,106) and SoFi Stadium (TBD) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018: 17 

 Why it could get selected: L.A. will almost certainly be the 2026 World Cup’s West Coast hub, in large part because of the major infrastructure improvements already underway for its 2028 Summer Olympics hosting duties, and its world class assortment of stadiums, venues and training facilities (not to mention its cultural relevance to the world). L.A. is the only bid that formally submitted two stadiums, one representing the country’s soccer past — the Rose Bowl hosted the finals of the 1994 men’s World Cup and 1999 women’s World Cup — and another, SoFi Stadium, its sports entertainment future. 

 Why not: It seems almost impossible that L.A. wouldn’t be involved in 2026 hosting. If California’s wildfire issues continue to worsen in the next year, would FIFA have to consider that eventuality with a summer World Cup? 

 

Hard Rock Stadium, Miami
Photo: Getty images

Miami

Metro population: 6.7 million 
Venue: Hard Rock Stadium (60,404) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018:

 Why it could get selected: Hard Rock Stadium was built with soccer in mind and a recent $500 million renovation makes it one of the best soccer stadiums out of those making bids. FIFA rewarded Miami’s ability to house and transport visitors with strong technical scores and the city’s airport, with 100-plus direct international flights, including many from South America, is a huge boost. 

 Why not: Miami’s 1994 World Cup bid fell apart because the Florida Marlins were also playing in the stadium; FIFA didn’t want World Cup matches played on a field that also hosted baseball. That won’t be an issue this time around, but will the lawsuit Relevent Sports — owned by Hard Rock Stadium owner Stephen Ross — filed against U.S. Soccer influence decision-makers in any way?

 

MetLife Stadium, New York/New Jersey
Photo: Getty images

New York/New Jersey 

Metro population: 23.7 million 
Venue: MetLife Stadium (74,895)
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018: 15 

 Why it could get selected: The New York/New Jersey bid could be the first name on the list of 2026 host cities. One of the most international metro areas in the U.S., with immense international airport accessibility, highly developed public transportation, over 100,000 hotel rooms, and a premier venue in MetLife Stadium, New York was proposed by the United 2026 bid as a potential host of the World Cup final. 

 Why not: If the decision was based solely on passenger experience at New York’s Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, or Newark’s Liberty, the New York/New Jersey bid might not make the cut. It’s otherwise safe.

 

FedEx Field
Photo: Getty images

Washington, D.C.

Metro population: 9.6 million 
Venue: FedEx Field (60,961) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018: 7

 Why it could get selected: The D.C. bid is set up for the dignitary, from its 177 embassies to FedEx Field’s club seating options, which are tops among the 17 U.S. cities bidding. Just two of the previous 21 World Cups didn’t include the country’s capital city among the host sites, though in both cases – Sweden in 1958 and South Korea/Japan in 2002 — major venues in the capital city’s outskirts did host. D.C. viewership for the 2018 men’s and 2019 women’s World Cups were both top-3 nationally among U.S. markets.

 Why not: None of the other host city bids involve three different states/territories, like the D.C. bid does. That carries logistical headaches that could make the experience more difficult for World Cup fans and teams. There are more compact options that FIFA and the federations could pick instead, especially in the eastern corridor.

 

Competitors

 

Gillette Stadium
Photo: Getty images

Boston

Metro population: 8.2 million 
Venue: Gillette Stadium (60,335) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018:

Why it could get selected: Gillette Stadium is a very capable World Cup facility and Boston is one of America’s major urban areas with a sizable international community. Robert Kraft was the honorary chairman of the United 2026 bid, so that can’t hurt either. His company owns and controls every aspect of Gillette Stadium’s offerings, which would make life easier for World Cup organizers. 

Why not: Several of these potential host cities represent American soccer’s safe places, and it’s conceivable that some of the old guard, like Boston, miss out this time around in the pursuit of growing the game in other parts of the country. Gillette Stadium’s location, removed from Boston’s city center, could be an issue, especially since the bid’s proposed training sites are an average of 16.3 miles from team hotels, the longest average distance of any of the cities. Decision-makers could also decide New England’s soccer fans can easily reach World Cup matches in New York or Montreal. 

 

Mile High Stadium
Photo: Getty images

Denver

Metro population: 3.4 million 
Venue: Mile High Stadium (69,977) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018: 3

 Why it could get selected: Denver largely stands alone geographically and topographically among the bidding U.S. cities, which could be a positive. Mile High Stadium’s high altitude (5,280 feet) could work well in tandem with Mexico City, which stands at 7,200 feet, if World Cup organizers want another high-altitude venue. The stadium is light-rail accessible and Denver’s airport is highly regarded.

 Why not: Denver has the fewest projected hotel rooms and scored the lowest in fan fest technical assessments, though Manny Rodriguez, who is the Denver bid committee’s co-head, said he thought that score owed more to the preparation of the city’s bid, and less to the reality on the ground. 

 

NRG Stadium
Photo: Getty images

Houston

Metro population: 6.9 million 
Venue: NRG Stadium (62,444) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018:

 Why it could get selected: It seems likely that the Mexican Federation would support Houston, due to its location just hours from Mexico and its regular and capable hosting of Mexican soccer (club and international) during the last decade. Houston is America’s fourth-largest city and has a huge international population and a well-maintained stadium with a retractable roof, crucial for a summer World Cup. 

 Why not: California, Florida and Texas are the three states that each have two cities in the running. In each state, the two cities’ chances feel intertwined. If Dallas gets a bid, is there room for Houston, too? Also consider Monterrey, which is locked in as one of Mexico’s host cities. Will its location a few hours from the U.S. border hurt or help Houston?

 

Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City
Photo: Getty images

Kansas City 

Metro population: 2.4 million 
Venue: Arrowhead Stadium (69,070) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018:

 Why it could get selected: Without Chicago and Detroit — both of whom hosted 1994 World Cup matches and neither of whom pursued hosting rights this time around — there is a gap in the middle of the United 2026 geography that Kansas City would be happy to fill. The city has a strong soccer culture — remember its jam-packed watch parties in the Power & Light District during recent World Cups? — elite training facilities, and Arrowhead Stadium’s $375 million renovation in 2010 has kept one of the older stadiums in the United 2026 bid in decent shape.

 Why not: Kansas City received low scores in transportation and accommodation. Arrowhead is removed from the city’s downtown area, something that FIFA’s assessment of the United 2026 bid pointed out as a negative because there is no public transportation to the venue. 

 

Camping World Stadium
Photo: Getty images

Orlando

Metro population: 3.1 million 
Venue: Camping World Stadium (58,012) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018: 4

 Why it could get selected: Orlando is a hosting juggernaut, with one of the cheapest and best-rated airports in the country, and the second most predicted hotel rooms of the 17 bidding cities. Oh, and it has Disney (and, by extension, ESPN). Orlando has a strong soccer culture and its growing transportation rail links with Miami could strengthen both cities’ chances if decision-makers want to use closer geographic clustering to save fans money and time. 

 Why not: Camping World Stadium underwent a $207 million renovation in 2014 but still feels like the weakest part of Orlando’s bid. It has the smallest projected World Cup capacity of the bidding American venues and the fewest suites (33, compared to AT&T Stadium’s 300). Another question: Can Orlando and Miami both win? Or are they too close (240 miles) together for both to earn bids?

 

Lincoln Financial Field
Photo: Getty images

Philadelphia

Metro population: 7.2 million 
Venue: Lincoln Financial Field (62,123) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018:

 Why it could get selected: The city has an elite venue in Lincoln Financial Field and a prime geographic location amid the potential Canadian and U.S. East Coast host cities. And 2026 will be the United States’ 250th birthday, giving Philadelphia — where the Declaration of Independence was signed — a clear story to tell decision-makers. 

 Why not: The competition among the I-95 corridor cities is brutal and there is every chance that two very strong potential hosts from that region get left out simply because of numbers and a desire for geographic variety. Philly also received a low accommodation technical score from FIFA; will it have enough high-end hotel rooms?

 

Levi’s Stadium
Photo: Getty images

San Francisco (Bay Area)

Metro population: 8.7 million 
Venue: Levi’s Stadium (61,198) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018: 6

 Why it could get selected: First, the Bay Area bid is a strong one in almost every regard, especially its stadium and training facilities, its access to some of the world’s most innovative companies, and solid public transportation. Second, it seems unlikely that organizers would isolate L.A. by itself on the West Coast. San Francisco would pair well with L.A., and maybe even Seattle, in a West Coast cluster. 

 Why not: Few bids have as many logistical challenges to solve as the Bay Area with its widespread geography and four municipalities. Recent event hosting bids in California rarely received public funding, so controlling costs will be a challenge, too, for one of the country’s most expensive regions. FIFA could look at the collected obstacles and decide the Bay Area isn’t worth the effort. 

 

CenturyLink Field, Seattle
Photo: Getty images

Seattle

Metro population: 4.6 million 
Venue: CenturyLink Stadium (61,812) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018:

 Why it could get selected: Seattle’s proximity to Canada should draw support from the Canadian federation. The city — and the region if you include Portland and Vancouver, Canada — is one of North America’s soccer hotbeds (think Seattle’s 69,000-plus sellout for the MLS Cup final). CenturyLink Field is centrally located and highly accessible, and the Seattle region, one of Asia’s gateways to America, is making major investments in transportation upgrades. 

 Why not: If FIFA and the three federations decide that Edmonton covers the area sufficiently, then Seattle could miss out. If FIFA wants another Western host city located inland from the coast, Denver could also edge out Seattle. 

 

Underdogs

 

M&T Bank Stadium
Photo: Getty images

Baltimore

Metro population (includes Washington, D.C.): 9.6 million 
Venue: M&T Bank Stadium (63,689) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018:

 Why it could get selected: Baltimore has a well-maintained and recently renovated venue in M&T Bank Stadium and is one of the most centrally located sites among the bidding markets, with nine other potential host cities no more than a two-hour flight away.

 Why not: Baltimore’s proximity to so many other East Coast hubs seems like a negative, and the city has not hosted major international-level soccer matches in several years while its stadium underwent renovations. Baltimore’s training sites are an average of 15.7 miles from team hotels, the second-longest distance of the 17 bids. Also, would decision-makers pick both Baltimore and Washington, D.C.? It’s more likely that elements of Baltimore’s bid would be folded into the D.C. offerings. 

 

Paul Brown Stadium
Photo: Getty images

Cincinnati

Metro population: 2.2 million 
Venue: Paul Brown Stadium (60,294) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018: 1

 Why it could get selected: F.C. Cincinnati President Jeff Berding said World Cup teams based in his city wouldn’t spend their time stuck in traffic. That’s one way to spin the city’s smaller size. Cincinnati annually hosts over 500,000 people for the world’s second-largest OktoberFest, an indication of a European-influenced culture that FIFA decision-makers may embrace. And if FIFA wants to continue to grow the game and spread opportunities around a country that it badly wants to fully engage with soccer, then Cincinnati makes perfect sense. 

 Why not: Nothing against Cincinnati, but the alternatives are simply too good. FIFA’s assessment noted that Paul Brown Stadium would need more than $300 million in renovations. Plus, the city’s hotel and airport infrastructure could be insufficient for something of this scale. 

 

Nissan Stadium
Photo: Getty images

Nashville

Metro population: 1.9 million 
Venue: Nissan Stadium (62,498) 
International-level soccer events hosted in the city since Jan. 1, 2018: 3

 Why it could get selected: There is soccer buzz in Nashville thanks to the ascendance of its new MLS team. If FIFA wants to use the 2026 World Cup to grow the game in the U.S., Music City represents a perfect location for that goal. The city is a known tourist destination and received widespread acclaim for its hosting of the 2019 NFL draft. 

 Why not: Nashville doesn’t have the advanced and internationally focused infrastructure of many of the other cities on this list. Nissan Stadium, especially, has not had the next generation refurbishments that so many other competing venues have had.

 

What's in the bids

Stadiums make up 35% of the potential host city’s bids, the biggest portion of the overall bid. FIFA’s bid evaluation book mentions that the three most important ingredients of the stadium grade are the orientation of the facility’s main stand with regard to the sun from midday to sunset (think TV cameras), stadium capacity, and field of play dimensions.

Transportation constitutes another 13% of each city’s overall score, while media and marketing revenue, organizing costs, and ticketing and hospitality revenue each make up 10%. Information technology and telecommunications (7%), accommodations (6%), teams and referees facilities (6%) and FIFA Fan Fest capabilities (3%) make up the rest of each bid’s technical evaluation. The two main categories are infrastructure (70%) and commercial elements (30%).

This week, writers Bill King and Bret McCormick kick off the discussion of our research and analysis of 2026 World Cup host cities. Writer Terry Lefton joins the cast to discuss holiday gifting and the rise of BirdieBox. Then, Publisher and Executive Editor Abe Madkour on what he’s watching around sports business.