A D.C. World Cup viewing party in 2014
A D.C. World Cup viewing party in 2014 Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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As the lived experiences of countries that have played host to the World Cup have shown, securing the rights to host the event isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

But D.C. is convinced that it won’t land in the category of cities who have regretted hosting the event. That much is clear from its enthusiastic bid to be a host city for the 2026 men’s FIFA World Cup, which will be co-hosted by the United States, Mexico, and Canada. (City Paper owner Mark Ein is the advisory board co-chair for D.C.’s World Cup bid.)

“This is the mega event that we want from an economic impact perspective but also it’s good for our city,” says Greg O’Dell, president and CEO of Events DC, the city’s events and sports authority. “We’re a global, diverse city and a World Cup is arguably the most global international sports event there is.”

D.C. is one of 17 American cities who are vying to host matches. Of that group, 10 are expected to be chosen. Though the World Cup, which will feature 48 teams for the first time beginning in 2026, will be co-hosted by three countries, the U.S. will carry most of the load, staging 60 of the 80 matches. 

The 17 finalists are in the process of making virtual presentations to FIFA, aiming to convince soccer’s governing body that they deserve to be a host city. D.C.’s bid team conducted a virtual one-on-one workshop with FIFA and U.S. Soccer this morning. But not every major American city is gunning for the honor.

Minneapolis, Phoenix, and, most notably, Chicago—co-host of the 1994 men’s World Cup and 1999 women’s World Cup—all pulled out of the running early, citing concerns over FIFA’s exorbitant demands that have left behind major financial craters in past World Cups. Vancouver also withdrew from the running. 

“FIFA could not provide a basic level of certainty on some major unknowns that put our city and taxpayers at risk,” Matthew McGrath, a spokesperson for then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in 2018. “The uncertainty for taxpayers, coupled with FIFA’s inflexibility and unwillingness to negotiate, were clear indications that further pursuit of the bid wasn’t in Chicago’s best interests.”

FIFA demands a myriad number of tax exemptions from host cities for the opportunity of staging their event, as well as a relaxation of local laws on visas and work permits. That’s in addition to what have proven to be massive security costs, as well as often taxpayer-funded spending on stadiums and infrastructure that may not have much use beyond a World Cup.

Cities frequently justify these costs by touting the boost in tourism that a World Cup brings, but the effect can be muted or even erased completely by the potential visitors who stay awayin order to avoid the commotion of a major event. Studies have found a decrease in tourism caused by the 1998 World Cup in France, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and even the 2012 Olympics in London, among other events.

D.C. has also promised that its bid will boost the economy by creating 3,500 job opportunities for residents, but those positions are almost all temporary. John Falcicchio, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s chief of staff and the acting Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, tells City Paper that those jobs would be “still additive to our job market as such.”

Adding it all together, many World Cups have been money-losing propositions for host countries and cities. Countries like South Africa and Brazil, which required massive spending on stadiums and infrastructure, were hit especially hard; Germany and the U.S. have also suffered financially.

In a study done 10 years after the 1994 World Cup in the United States, economists Robert A. Baade and Victor A. Matheson found that the nine host cities of the tournament experienced cumulative losses of $5.5 to $9.3 billion.

“Generally the [economic] impact is small or even negative,” Dennis Coates, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County tells City Paper. “There are frequently large costs that aren’t typically well reported or well recognized and there are fewer benefits than are frequently touted.”

Given this backdrop, why would D.C.which is predicting an economic impact of $500 millionwant any part of a World Cup?

For one, the city believes that unlike other potential hosts, it does not need to make any major investments in infrastructure. 

“Generally speaking, we have significant infrastructure not only in Washington D.C. but the region,” O’Dell says. “So the good news about this bid is that we’re not building a lot of new structures or venues. I think this is a smart and responsible bid where we’re not having to spend a lot of money on infrastructure.”

Though O’Dell admits that at minimum, spending on hotels may be required, the city’s financial burden would be reduced because it would only be hosting a handful of matches. Having more than a dozen other cities help shoulder the load makes a bid more feasible than, for example, the Olympicsanother global sporting event D.C. showed an interest in hosting at one time.

“If you’re going to do it, this is the mega event to participate in,” Coates says. “Putting together a bid for the Olympics for D.C., that would be insane.”

Falcicchio also insists that the reduction in tourism that has plagued past hosts would not be a problem in D.C.

“We actually see in terms of hotel occupancy that the summer is a slower period and so this would actually fill up hotel rooms at a time when we’re generally in a slower period of hotel occupancy,” he says. “For us, we actually see that it would accrue to our benefit and it wouldn’t cannibalize our regular tourist business.” (It is misleading to imply that summer is a “slower period” for tourism. As a recent BisNow article reported, the summer months “have always been the backbone of D.C.’s tourism industry.”)

D.C.’s most responsible financial decision may be its choice of a stadium, but that selection does have a catch. 

FedExField is the D.C. bid’s selected venue, but there could be an alternative in place by the time 2026 comes around. Bowser has made no secret of her desire to build a new stadium for the local NFL team where RFK Stadium currently stands. Her one conditionthat the team change its namewas met last week.

Could D.C. win a bid for the World Cup with one venue, only to subsequently change to a different stadium later?

“If there were a new stadium we would of course have to explore that,” Falcicchio says. 

O’Dell echoes that sentiment but was emphatic that the cost of a new stadium, which would almost certainly be picked up by D.C. taxpayers to some extent, should not be viewed as additional spending on a World Cup bid. 

“We’re leading with what we think is a quite viable venue that’s hosted lots of international soccer events and FIFA is already aware that we are pitching this,” O’Dell says of the Landover, Maryland stadium. “We’ll do all our analysis and due diligence about the merits of having a new venue in D.C. as a separate effort and conversation but that has nothing to do with this bid.”

FedExField may not be a cost-free venue either. FIFA has made it clear that some stadiums may require renovations if they are to be selected. FedExField, which will be 29 years old in 2026, could certainly be a candidate for upgrades.

D.C. will have to sort this out in discussions with soccer’s governing body. The virtual presentation today will be followed by a site visit later in the year before FIFA likely makes its decision some time in 2021.

It may be difficult for D.C. to be a host city and turn a profit—or even get off without losing much. But there is another factor that the city is hoping will work in its favor, regardless of the economic outcome. 

Coates calls them “psychic benefits,” referring to the overall sense of happiness and pride that a city derives from hosting a major sporting event. He invoked the 2006 World Cup in Germany to explain a tournament that was extremely popular with the public despite being a financial loser.

“I think Germans might, if you say, ‘This is how much it cost, do you think it was worth it in terms of your image?’ You might get yes,” Coates says. “Did it generate dollars and cents for them? Absolutely not.”