Atlanta group ‘confident’ as 2026 World Cup sites to be named Thursday

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Sports Council President Dan Corso remembers receiving an intriguing email five years ago next month – his first official correspondence about bringing part of one of the world’s biggest sporting events here.

That was the start of an unusually protracted bid process that will culminate in an announcement late Thursday afternoon by FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, of approximately 16 North American cities that will host 2026 World Cup matches.

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Atlanta long has been regarded by observers of the process as a favorite to make the list.

“I feel confident,” said Corso, the leader of the local bid group. “We have collectively done a great job, I think, of putting ourselves in the best position possible.

“But at the end of the day, it’s kind of like a sporting event, I guess: You just never know what the outcome is going to be. You can prepare as much as you possibly can, and then you go play the game and see what happens.”

According to Corso, bid cities have been informed that they won’t receive advance notice of the decision before FIFA’s live hourlong announcement from New York on Fox Sports 1 starting at 5 p.m. Thursday.

“I feel confident. We have collectively done a great job, I think, of putting ourselves in the best position possible."

- Atlanta Sports Council President Dan Corso

“We have asked and have been told there will not be a heads-up,” Corso said. “We will be tuning in, like everyone else around the country, to see hopefully good news for us.”

Member nations of FIFA voted in June 2018 – 11 months after Corso’s first email about the matter – to award the 2026 men’s World Cup to a joint bid submitted by the United States, Canada and Mexico, putting the event in North America for the first time since 1994. But FIFA left open the question of which cities would host matches, initially saying it would choose 16 or so cities from 23 candidates by June 2021. After several delays, that finally will happen.

“The pandemic, which slowed everything else in the world down, certainly slowed this process down, too,” Corso said.

Here are three things to know entering the sites announcement:

1. The competitors

FIFA has maintained some wiggle room about the number of host cities that will be chosen as the tournament expands to 48 teams and 80 matches for 2026. But indications have been given that matches will be played in two or three cities in Canada, three in Mexico and 10 to 12 in the United States.

Sixteen candidates are still vying for the U.S. slots: Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New York/New Jersey, Orlando, Philadelphia, San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle and Washington/Baltimore. Three bidders are in Mexico (Guadalajara, Mexico City and Monterrey) and three in Canada (Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver).

Corso expects Thursday’s announcement will be limited to which cities will be part of hosting the tournament. Although the original North American bid in June 2018 included a non-binding suggestion of Atlanta as a possible site for one of the semifinals, Corso doesn’t expect decisions until “sometime next year” on how many matches (likely four to six) or what levels of matches each chosen city will get.

The Atlanta bid group largely has followed the playbook it previously used in landing other sports mega-events, stressing the “walkable” array of downtown venues: the stadium, convention facilities and hotels. Corso said he believes Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is “a huge advantage” in bidding for a global event. “We certainly have played that up,” he said. They also have played up the popularity of MLS team Atlanta United.

2. The costs

Hosting World Cup matches won’t be cheap. “We are looking at this, certainly, on the level of a Super Bowl as far as a total amount to be raised to put on the event successfully,” Corso said.

Atlanta’s bid for the 2019 Super Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium placed a $46 million price tag on hosting that event – about $20 million of which came from the private sector, $16 million from a portion of the Atlanta hotel-motel tax designated for major events and $10 million from a sales-tax exemption on tickets. The same sources, in unclear amounts, are part of the game plan for funding World Cup matches here.

The amount that can be raised from the private sector depends in part on what marketing assets FIFA makes available for local use, and that remains undetermined, Corso said. Other public funding also may be sought, he acknowledged. Depending on the number and level of games played in a city, the total cost could surpass a Super Bowl. “We don’t know that yet,” Corso said. “I think a lot of it will come down to the security costs.”

On the other side of the ledger, he said, the World Cup and its ancillary events would be a boon to the area’s tourism industry and would generate global media exposure.

Credit: AMBSE

Credit: AMBSE

3. The playing surface

FIFA requires that all World Cup matches must be played on natural grass, and 11 of the 23 stadiums under consideration currently have artificial turf. That includes Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which is prepared to temporarily replace the turf with real grass for the event.

The playing surface would be raised by bringing in dirt and sand as the foundation for new sod. The grass would have to be kept thriving under the stadium’s retractable roof for matches that could span almost a month in summer 2026 if Atlanta were to host a semifinal.

“It’s not as complicated as first thought,” Corso said of the turf-to-grass conversion. “The stadium operational team has been engaged since Day 1 in that discussion with FIFA.”