Unity. Certainty. Opportunity. And billions of dollars
by Jonathan Rest
Money makes the world go around - especially at Fifa. Jonathan Rest examines the finances and politics behind North America's bid to host the 2026 World Cup. Author
8th June 2018, 09:09

“There’s a lack of understanding about the passion for the game in our three countries. The EPL [English Premier League] is one of the most popular broadcasts, fans are out at 7am in the morning. The bars are filled, people are wearing the colours. We are just as passionate as many other parts of the world.”

Steve Reed, president of Canada Soccer, issues a defence over claims the three-way North American bid to host the 2026 Fifa World Cup is purely about money.

It's a strong claim, though, $14 billion of commercial revenues, to be precise, of which $11 billion would make its way back into the Zurich coffers of Fifa.

Carlos Cordeiro's response is less measured. It's clearly an assertion that grates the US Soccer president.

“The point about passion is a very jaded view from 1994 [when USA last hosted the World Cup]. We are filling Atlanta week in week out, 75,000 people watching soccer for a club that didn’t exist two years ago. Seattle, Portland, you name the city, these clubs are selling out every weekend. Bars on the east coast are serving breakfasts at 7am so fans can watch EPL matches. We have tremendous passion for the game.

“Give us a little due when it comes to passion please, and give us a little due that we deserve a World Cup. I think we can more than justify it based on the certainty, the unity and the economics.”

Atlanta United supporters have helped dispel 'jaded views' on North America's passion for soccer

Despite his pleas, you just cannot escape the economics related to this United 2026 bid. 

The riches on offer to Fifa member associations are so vast (equating to around $50 million each) they need to be laid out:

  • $2.5 billion in ticketing revenues
  • $1.5 billion from hospitality
  • $3.6 billion from sponsorship and licensing
  • $5.2 billion in media rights
  • $1.4 billion in additional revenue opportunities (the Confederation Cup, as well as stadium tours and concerts held during the World Cup are just some examples contained in the bid book).

They’re big, quotable numbers, no doubt designed to resonate in the minds of voters when it comes to the 13 June ballot in Moscow.

But they require examination and explanation, and the United 2026 bid leadership of Cordeiro, Reed and Decio de Maria, the outgoing president of the Mexican Football Federation, certainly got a grilling on economics at a media briefing in London this week.

Aware of the pull of money in global soccer, officials with the rival Morocco bid are highly sceptical of the financial promises made by North America in its bid book.

“I don’t want to talk about Morocco,” interposes Cordeiro. “But Fifa are not sceptical. They seem to give us the highest of marks [in an evaluation report] when it comes to the commercial side, and they don’t seem to have any questions with any of the assumptions, which again are their assumptions.”

United 2026 has proposed 23 host cities, of which Fifa would select 16 to stage World Cup matches

The $2.5 billion in ticketing revenue is based on the assumption that, with an average stadium capacity of 68,000, all 5.8 million tickets will be sold out.

That, a quick calculation finds, means an average ticket price of an eye-watering $431. Hardly the price tag you want associated with a tournament designed to entice younger generations and kick-start grassroots soccer.

Cordeiro replies: “The reality is, we could fill every stadium in our view and sell only category 1 price tickets. So the issue to us is not about maximising revenues but finding that optimal point where you fill a stadium, but you provide for a mix of cat 1, 2, 3 and 4 ticket prices. It is completely consistent with every other World Cup.”

There will, the bid states, “obviously” be cheaper ticket prices on offer for the 20 games in Mexico (there will also be 20 in Canada, with 60 in USA), where the standard of living is lower.

United 2026 insists its commercial projections are actually “conservative,” none more so than when it comes to hospitality revenues, which average out to $19 million per match.

It cites the example of this year’s NFL Super Bowl in Minneapolis, where $150 million was made on hospitality.

A unique World Cup format, whereby one game would be played in each of three host countries on the opening day of the tournament, would be dressed up as ‘Super Bowl-like’ events, along with both semi-finals and the final.

Cordeiro explains: “In today’s dollars, those six matches at $150 million a clip gives you $900 million. Then we’ve got another 74 games. So it’s not difficult to estimate $1.5 billion, we think that’s actually very conservative.”


At a time when Fifa’s reputation has never been lower in the eyes of blue chip brands, United 2026 is adamant a World Cup on home soil will repair relationships and spark new ones

One of North America’s biggest calling cards, it believes, is the fact it is home to many of the world’s biggest corporations.

At a time when Fifa’s reputation has never been lower in the eyes of some blue chip brands, United 2026 is adamant a World Cup on home soil will repair relationships and spark new ones.

The corporate sponsorship market in North America accounts for upwards of 50 per cent of the global corporate sponsorship market for sports. In North America last year, it was worth $70 billion. 

“Here is an opportunity for Fifa to engage with the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies which are headquartered in North America, with whom they have no relations,” Cordeiro notes. “This is not just Coca-Cola, this is Coca-Cola-plus. There are a vast number of major North America corporations who do not currently engage with Fifa. And this is annuity - these are long-term deals that go way beyond just one World Cup.”

While Morocco 2026 accepts it cannot compete with North America in terms of gate receipts, it is confident its ideal time zone for European audiences (the same as the UK) will swell Fifa's broadcast revenues. 

While media rights deals are already in place for 2026 in North America, South America and the Middle East and North Africa, lucrative European and Asian markets are yet to be sold.

Last year, when Fifa’s council voted in favour of expanding the World Cup from 32 to 48 nations, the federation estimated that TV rights revenues would rise from a projected $3.1 billion in 2018 to $3.6 billion in 2026, in part because of the increase in the number of qualifying matches.

Morocco’s media rights revenues are in line with Fifa’s projections, but United 2026 is way ahead with $5.2 billion.

Another large number designed to attract votes? Or a legitimate target, even considering the big markets that have already been sold for 2026?

“That is a number we feel very comfortable with,” Cordeiro says. “It’s been discussed and submitted to Fifa. It is based on looking at the trend line for media rights over the last four or five World Cups, and it has nothing to do with time zones. I know certain people want to make a big issue of European versus US time zones, but in reality these [media rights fees] have progressively been increasing by 40 to 50 per cent from cycle to cycle.”

Fifa knows it is already onto a guaranteed near-$300 million bonus should the 2026 World Cup be staged in North America from rights-holders Fox, the national television network, and Telemundo, the Comcast-owned Spanish-language broadcaster.

The riches on offer, thanks to a buoyant, hungry sponsorship market and a plethora of large-capacity, ready and in-use stadia, form two of the pillars - ‘certainty’ and ‘opportunity’ - that make up United 2026’s ‘Football for All’ banner.

The outstanding pillar, ‘unity,’ is perhaps the most fascinating to dissect in this politically-charged bid race.

There’s no doubting the unity in the ranks of Cordeiro, Reed and de Maria: a bond formed by spending the last four months on the road, in airport lounges and hotel bars, pressing the flesh with as many of the 207 eligible voting nations, as time permits.

But politically, the governments of the bidding trio can be described as anything but unified.

In the last week, there have been further disagreements between the three nations on US president Donald Trump’s proposed border wall between USA and Mexico and steel tariffs.

Di Maria admits to hostilities, but says it would not impact preparations for a World Cup, noting: “In the past we have differences, today we have differences, and I’m sure tomorrow we will have differences. We are here for football. The message we are sending is that football can bring together these three countries. We have the support of all three governments.

“Yes, the wall is an issue. But the unity is here, we can show it. We have been working together for the last six months every day. The unity in terms of our governments has been shown in all the guarantees sent to Fifa. If you want to make out that unity means all is perfect, well life is not perfect.”

Reed adds: “Each of our heads of state have unequivocally stated their support for our bid for the World Cup. We have formal documents to reflect that. They can argue all they want about other stuff, but when it comes to football they are saying ‘we are with you’.”

Cordeiro, however, dismisses these issues as a potential problem at the vote in Moscow next week.

'Really?' Trump's controversial policies have not been a factor in 2026 World Cup talks

He even claims that Trump has not been a factor in any of the discussions the United 2026 bid has had with member nations. It's a comment met with exclamations of 'really?' from around the room. 

This, after all, is a president who has managed to upset a range of countries, ergo voters, through imposed travel restrictions on certain Muslim-majority countries, opposition to the Paris climate agreement, relocating the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and making highly inflammatory comments about immigrants from African countries.

Not to mention a threateningly-worded tweet sent in April in which he hinted he would be willing to withdraw political and financial support to those nations that do not back the United 2026 bid. 

We would not like to be judged on the politics of today, Cordeiro says. “What we know is that there will be a [US] president in eight years' time and they will have to live up to the commitments made to Fifa today. And if Fifa had any problem with these commitments we would have had multiple red marks [in the technical report] but we didn't. We believe we're stronger as a three than if we were by ourselves.”

And the logistics of those three being stronger than one is proving to be a strong message, according to Reed.

“When we’ve gone around speaking to all the member federations, and when we talk about the joint bid and the fact that it is in three countries, they look at that and say ‘that makes sense’, both from a financial perspective and also infrastructure, logistics-wise, rather than doing a 48-team World Cup on their own.

“There have been comments that in the future, it will be difficult for any one country to host this event.”

No bid for a major sports event would be complete without a legacy plug, and United 2026 does not disappoint.

The last World Cup staged in North America, USA 1994, sparked the birth of the US professional game with the launch of Major League Soccer, now considered a legitimate member of the country’s established major leagues brotherhood.

This time around, it’s about grassroots, specifically using the corporate wealth that would derive from staging the World Cup to drive down the cost of participation.

Soccer has quickly become the sport for wealthy, privileged white kids in America, at a time when the demographic is the polar opposite.


There’s been very significant progress at the grassroots but not enough, so we see this World Cup as transformation

Cordeiro says: “For Mexico, football is religion. In the northern part of North America it is a rapidly growing sport. In the US it is probably three or four, and in Canada there are more girls and boys playing soccer than ice hockey. There’s been very significant progress at the grassroots but not enough, so we see this World Cup as transformation. 

“At the grassroots this is going to drive the sport to levels that we may not see without a World Cup for 25, 50 years. It becomes a lightning rod for change. For us, bringing in the investment and all the sponsorship to North America that we don’t currently enjoy drives the cost of playing down. As such participation rates go up and it becomes the number one sport.

“That all coincides with a demographics change happening in North America right now. The majority of our population, and I’m talking about Canada and the US, will be non-white in the next 10 years with the growth of the Hispanic, Asian-American and African-American communities. It is in these communities that boys and girls are playing and want to play football. 

“We see this as a huge opportunity for North America.”

Sportcal