With the FIFA World Cup in Russia next year and the 2022 tournament on track for the controversial visit to Qatar, the bidders are lining up for the next bidding cycle to award the 2026 tournament. While the tournament has made the continental rounds in the last couple of decades – Brazil 2014, South Africa 2010, Germany 2006, Japan/South Korea 2002 – it has not been hosted on the North American continent since the USA hosted it in 1994 and previously in Mexico in 1986.
The US Soccer Federation just announced that it will be submitting a joint bid with its colleagues in Canada and Mexico to host the 2026 tournament.
"This is a milestone day for U.S. Soccer and for CONCACAF,” said US Soccer president Sunil Gulati at the announcement press conference. “We gave careful consideration to the prospect of bidding for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, and ultimately feel strongly this is the right thing for our region and for our sport. Along with our partners from the Canadian Soccer Association and the Federación Mexicana de Fútbol, we are confident that we will submit an exemplary bid worthy of bringing the FIFA World Cup back to North America. The United States, Mexico and Canada have individually demonstrated their exceptional abilities to host world-class events. When our nations come together as one, as we will for 2026, there is no question the United States, Mexico and Canada will deliver an experience that will celebrate the game and serve players, supporters and partners alike.”
Because of FIFA’s intention to rotate the tournament, Europe and Asia are out of the bidding for 2026 since they will be hosting the 2018 and 2022 tournaments. That leaves the North American bid against Africa, South America and Oceania for the hosting rights in 2026. Oceania is a non-starter as New Zealand would be the only viable candidate there (Australia is part of the Asia confederation.) South America would be eligible since it will have been 12 years after Brazil served host; however, the only other bidder there with an interest is Argentina and Uruguay which are more interested in hosting the 2030 tournament when the World Cup celebrates its centennial (Argentina and Uruguay hosted the original World Cup in 1930). While South Africa successfully hosted the tournament in 2010, recent changes for the 2026 tournament make infrastructure an impossibility for 2026 as the tournament expands to 48 teams and increases the need for more stadiums. Africa simply does not have the infrastructure to support the expanded tournament. So, that leaves the North America bid as the heavy favorite.
So, that begs the question: If North America is likely to land the tournament anyway, why is the USA not submitting its own bid for 2026? The USA is an expert at staging major events – including the men’s and women’s World Cups, multiple winter and summer Olympics, and countless World Championship events. The country was also on display last summer during the 2016 Copa America Centenario held across 10 venues across the United States and attended by almost 1.5 million spectators for the 32 match tournament. The average attendance of more than 46,000 fans per game, made it the most attended Copa America in the competition’s 100-year history. Not to mention, the tournament put up huge TV ratings for soccer across the region and pulled in major global sponsors. With the expanded tournament, there are probably about 50 American stadiums capable of hosting World Cup games with more stadiums – including the Rams/Chargers new stadium in Los Angeles - on the way. So, there is no question the USA could host the tournament all alone.
However, the joint bid is probably the right way to go. Given the recent scandal-induced shake-up at FIFA, there is still an anti-American sentiment in the organization given the U.S. Justice Department’s role in leading the charge. Separate bids by Mexico and the United States would actually leave one of the countries out in the cold and there is probably enough benefit for all to work together. Given the global political nationalism taking root, that might not endear the United States either and make Mexico a more sentimental favorite – even though they would not have nearly as strong a technical bid. Why risk it?
The expanded field for 2026 means there are enough games to go around for all three countries now that 2026 will include 48 teams. Given the enormous cost of hosting large scale events such as the Olympics or World Cup, you are starting to see countries getting priced out of the market. You only have to go back to Brazil to see how ravaging these events can be on an emerging countries. So, FIFA will want to get this experiment right and no better way to do that than to include the USA. Mexico and Canada also benefit from more manageable impacts too with a limited number of games. If this model works out well – which there is no reason it shouldn’t – expect to see even more unified bids in the future as few countries would have 15 or more stadiums that could handle a 48 team tournament alone. In Africa, it might allow countries such as Nigeria, Cameroon, and Ghana to band together to offer a better option for the continent to land the tournament in 2030 or 2034.
Combined bids may be the “new normal” for such large scale events. They do take some of the downside risk away by limiting the number of facilities needed by any one country. The have worked successfully before – including the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup and Poland/Ukraine’s Euro 2012. It definitely expands the pool of candidates while also providing more sponsorship opportunities. It will be interesting to see how a winning USA-Mexico-Canada bid will impact Olympic Games awards in the future. With the rising costs, getting enough Olympic bidders is becoming a challenge. Could a joint Olympic bid be far off?