Vying for the World Cup
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.”
“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.
“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.”