Breaking Down the U.S. World Cup Bid

The Game is in US

“No nation embodies the values and spirit of the FIFA World Cup™ quite like the United States,” the US’ official bid website boldly proclaims.

The World Cup bidding competition for the 2018 and 2022 finals is hotting up with one year to go until FIFA’s 24 man Executive Committee makes its decisions on the hosts for each tournament, and it’s interesting to take a look at the approach of the American bid at this stage. Five members of the US bid committee are currently in South Africa for a presentation to FIFA, along with the competing bids from Australia, England, Japan, Russia, Belgium-Netherlands, Spain-Portugal, Indonesia, Qatar and South Korea.

David Downs, executive director of the U.S. bid, has been interviewed a few times out in South Africa, so along with the published information on the U.S. bid website, let’s take a look at the reasoning being presented to FIFA for why the world should come to the United States again for the World Cup.

Financial Benefits and Attendance
Downs (SI.com):It would produce an astronomical record for the event.”

The U.S. is touting potential ticket sales of over 5 million for the finals. And indeed, no country can match the stadia the United States has to offer for the games. Only twelve stadiums are needed for the finals, but the U.S. is still considering bids from 27 different cities featuring 32 stadia with an average capacity of a phenomenal 74,000. No new stadium would need to be built, and almost zero renovation would be required.

Would the stadiums be full?  Yes, we can take Downs at his word on this based on the historical record.  The U.S. still retains the aggregate attendance record for the World Cup finals from 1994, a pretty impressive achievement in itself given the World Cup expanded from 24 to 32 teams in 1998, with an extra 16 games being played in France, Japan/South Korea and Germany. 3,587,538 attended at an average match attendance of 68,991 in 1994. It’s entirely believable that the U.S. would again break the attendance record in either 2018 or 2022.

In terms of television revenue, it’s also no surprise that the latest addition to the U.S. bid committee is John Skipper, Executive Vice President for Content with ESPN, perhaps the most powerful sports television executive in the world. The interest of American television, the most lucrative sports television market in the world, in soccer has clearly grown considerably in the past decade, and it’s no surprise Downs is emphasising this: “One of my favorite examples to cite is ESPN these days… turn on Sportscenter and look for the top 10 plays of the day, you almost inevitably see a soccer highlight in those top 10 plays. That was not the case probably even five years ago.”

US Soccer timeline

Passion for Soccer
Downs (Q&A with World Football Insider): “The biggest challenge that we have is convincing the voters who are 24 people from 24 different countries that the United States bid is not just about fancy stadiums and loads of ticket revenue, that there really is a unique passion for the sport in the United States. We are often judged incorrectly by the strength of the MLS…The trick is to unify all those disparate factions of folks who are touched by the game, who indeed really worship the game… all those folks who are living here care about the sport, want the World Cup to come here to the United States and represent a passion for the sport that may number 70, 80 or 90 million people.”

Unlike in ’94, when the World Cup was billed as a fresh start for the sport in the United States with the promise of a new professional league to launch after it (finally fulfilled in 1996, of course), the bid committee has been billing a second World Cup as building on the legacy of the past and trying to demonstrate the diversity of the sport here. As well as touting the success of ’94, this has included an emphasis on the 1984 Olympic Final as a launchpad for the game when over 100,000 packed into the Rose Bowl, and the US bid website features an outstanding timeline (“Its in our DNA”) documenting the game’s roots deep into the American past.

Yet to the rest of the world, the U.S. remains a soccer backwater: like it or not, folks. So a key part of the bid remains convincing FIFA that the passion for the sport that needs to be present at a World Cup is in the U.S.. This is, indeed, why the bid committee has adopted the slogan “THE GAME IS IN  US”, and has pushed an online petition gaining over 250,000 signatures. The US bid website is notably low on an emphasis on MLS (the league is not even mentioned on the “GAME IS IN US” page) and high on pushing the diverse culture of the game: “It is in our schoolyards and stadiums, our church parking lots and cornfields, our back alleys and beachfronts, pulsing through our cities and suburbs and countryside alike.”

World Cup Legacy
Downs (Q&A with World Football Insider): “Because we have the luxury of not having to spend hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars on construction of airports and roadways and stadiums and infrastructure in our cities, we can afford to focus on some of the more social aspects of a World Cup. By that I mean leaving a legacy of using the sport for positive social change or for promoting “green” aspects of staging the competition that may alter the way people think of sports for decades to come.”

This is an interesting angle to take, and a poke in the eye for one of the U.S.’s main competitor’s, Russia, who would need enormous infrastructure work done.  Though it may be unfair, it’s no surprise Russia is already fending off concerns that neighbouring Ukraine’s struggles to prepare for the 2012 Euros may be repeated by Russia.

It is, however, not evident to me exactly what Downs means about the social and green aspects of the bid, so it’ll be interesting to see the details of that slightly speculative point come out. Right now, the US’s bid page on social change touts the many worthy causes American soccer organisations like MLS currently fund and support, but there is little on what a future World Cup would bring, and no mention of environmental plans: one could say that the need to build very little infrastructure wise is the greenest aspect of the U.S. bid, though the carbon miles from travel across the US would obviously be far, far greater than, say, England.

But the most important part of the legacy claim for FIFA is the potential of the World Cup to spring American soccer to the next level, and Downs is smart in stating this would be a long-term benefit evident in the years before 2018 or 2022 as well as after:

If there is a World Cup coming to a city near you in a decade’s time, or whatever the actual time turns out to be, I think that will absolutely be on every youth soccer player’s mind. We’ve encouraged the cities that are in dialogue with us to have a decade-long marketing program that will promote the sport in their market through everything from staging international exhibitions with the top clubs in the world to youth tournaments. I think it’s only logical that if we have this World Cup on the horizon to inspire us all, it will be in the marketing plans of companies throughout the country that use sports in their marketing and that will have an enormous effect.

One Year To Go
So far, the American bid has been a model of smoothness (I’m looking at you, England), and in each area of emphasis, the U.S. has strong evidence to support its claims. The bid is compelling on the face of it, and the key challenge over the next twelve months will be a tough one: navigating the internal politics of FIFA’s Executive Committee — something Chicago’s Olympic bid spectacularly failed to achieve with regard to that similarly impenetrable edifice, the IOC.  24 men of FIFA, many of them not known for their rectitude, will decide if all the above means anything or not.

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