Atlanta makes next World Cup cut

Atlanta could be one of the host cities should the United States win the rights to the World Cup in 2018 or 2022.

The city is one of 18 finalists that were announced today by the U.S. World Cup bid committee.

"Southern hospitality," Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, said in a quick explainer of the city's inclusion.

The U.S. will submit its bid to FIFA, international soccer's governing body, in May.  FIFA will announce its finalists in December. The 18 cities will be cut down to 12 roughly five years before the World Cup, should the U.S. secure the event.

"It's interesting to contemplate that Atlanta could be one of the few cities to host an Olympics and a World Cup," Atlanta Sports Council President Gary Stokan said. He led the committee to secure Atlanta's place among the finalists. "It shows how Atlanta has become a player on the world sport's scene because of its infrastructure and airport accessibility."

The U.S. will be competing against bids  from Australia, England, Japan, Russia, and joint bids from Belgium and Holland, and Spain and Portugal. Indonesia, South Korea and Qatar are bidding for the 2022 games only.

The 70,000-seat Georgia Dome was included as the host stadium in Atlanta's bid, though Stokan said an addendum was included that said that if the Falcons build a new stadium it could host the game(s).

The average stadium size for the finalists is 78,000 seats, which would mean more than 5 million tickets could be sold. That's 33 percent more tickets than were sold in 1994 when the U.S. last hosted the World Cup and dwarfs its competitors' bids, according to Gulati. More importantly, Gulati said no new stadiums will need to be built and no infrastructure updates would be needed, unlike in South Africa (2010 World Cup) and Brazil (2014).

Atlanta didn't host any of those  games in ‘94,  but the city has taken a keen interest in soccer recently, which helped its bid.

First, the city proved that it has an interest in the highest level of soccer.

The Georgia Dome hosted an international friendly between Mexico and Venezuela last summer in which 55,000 fans attended. A month later it hosted a game between two of the biggest club teams in the world, Mexico's Club America and Italy's A.C. Milan, in which 52,000 fans attended.

Members of U.S. Soccer's bid group were at the second game as part of their tour of Atlanta. Stokan said they are working on trying to secure more games. FIFA representatives will visit the city sometime this fall to look at facilities and infrastructure as it begins to weigh the United States' bid.

Second, Atlanta has proved it has a foundation for future interest.  The Georgia State Soccer Association said it has more than 80,000 youth players, making it the most popular organized sport in the state. The Organization said it anticipates at least matching that total for the pending season.

"The game is in us," Stokan said, repeating the phrase the U.S. bid committee has used to promote its bid.

Being included in the World Cup would be another in a list of sporting events coming to the city:

  • 2011: The PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club, SEC men's basketball tournament, which returns in 2014.
  • 2012: The ACC men's basketball tournament, as well as a regional in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. The College Football Hall of Fame will also open.
  • 2013: The Final Four of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

In addition, the city hosts the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game, the SEC football championship,  the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and the Tour Championship.

But few would trump the World Cup, especially if the city is chosen as the site for the final. The World Cup is the final tournament in a two-year qualification process that features more than 200 teams competing for 32 spots divided between six regions. It is dubbed the biggest and most popular single-sport tournament in the world. The 2006 final was watched by an estimated 250 million people world-wide, dwarfing the 2009 Super Bowl (95.4 million viewers), its next closest competitor.

"We are excited that USA Bid Committee has recognized the reach and scope of Atlanta as an international city that can make significant contributions to the bid for the FIFA World Cup," said William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. ”As a city that has played host to major championships in nearly every sport, we look forward to competing for the opportunity to host the largest sporting event in the world."