There’s nothing in all of sports like the World Cup, and I’m eager to see the matches starting June 14, when this year’s host nation, Russia, kicks off the tournament. But my excitement doesn’t extend to the prospect of Boston being a host city for the 2026 event.
Yes, 2026 seems like a long time from now, but the sport’s governing body, FIFA, will decide June 13 where that event will be held (2022 is set for Qatar). Vying for it are Morocco and United 2026, a joint effort by the United States, Mexico, and Canada. The United 2026 bid, the likely winner, would put games in 16 cities, 10 in the United States. And since the organization’s honorary chairman is Robert Kraft, who owns the New England Revolution as well as the New England Patriots, the Boston area will almost certainly be a venue. Kraft has already established a nonprofit, Boston Soccer 2026, to raise money to cover the costs of hosting games at Foxborough’s Gillette Stadium . It’s a classy move by Kraft — it should insulate local taxpayers from the costs of hosting the matches, including marketing and potential adjustments to the facilities.
But we should still be against bringing World Cup tilts to Boston. Cities such as Chicago, Vancouver, and even soccer-mad Minneapolis have opted out of being venues. Their stated reasons boiled down to this: FIFA, the sport’s world governing body.
FIFA insists on financial transparency from host cities, and also forces them to pick up the tab for any changes the organization wants, with no questions asked. To honor the facilities adjustment clause, Russia had to add 18,000 seats to one of its stadiums, which meant erecting a giant set of temporary bleachers outside the place.
So let’s say Boston Soccer 2026 raises enough money to cover the marketing costs, police overtime, and extra MBTA trains to get fans to Foxborough. There’s still that facilities adjustment clause. What if FIFA decides Gillette Stadium needs a dome? Even a temporary inflatable dome — not that FIFA would allow one — would probably run $15 million to $21 million. A retractable roof could easily mean spending more than $100 million. Who will pony up that sort of cash for what will probably be three matches?
Certainly not the spectators. FIFA keeps all ticket sales revenue from matches. Host nations are supposed to benefit from foreign sports fans spending like crazy. Here’s a secret: It’s not going to happen. Japan and Korea co-hosted the World Cup in 2002 and saw no increases in their tourist numbers compared to 2001. When the tournament came to Germany in 2006, tourism revenue for the entire year rose a mere $76 million over 2005.
The United States hosted the World Cup by itself in 1994. It based its bid on projections that the country would see $4 billion in increased tourism and related revenues. After the event, research by economists Robert Baade and Victor Matheson instead found the nine metropolitan areas that hosted, including Boston, lost in aggregate at least $5.5 billion, and as much as $9.26 billion. No World Cup 2026, anyone?
As a soccer fan, I hate to say this, but it’s also not just about the money. Although I love the World Cup, I confess there are some games I will skip. I don’t want to sit through a 0-0 snooze fest between Hungary and Paraguay. And my guess is most fans will skip them, too. Part of what makes the World Cup exciting is the passion and pageantry of the fans. If the stadiums are half-empty, it’s a lot less fun.
In 1994, it is true, even Korea vs. Bolivia managed to bring 54,000 fans to the old Foxboro Stadium. But 1994 was special, the only time the United States has ever hosted the World Cup. And the US team outperformed all expectations on the pitch, driving up interest in the overall event. In 2026, things could be a lot different.
Look what happened in 2016, when world powers Argentina, Brazil, and Chile each played at Gillette Stadium, when the Copa America, the South American championship, was held outside South America for the first time (the event typically includes two non-South American teams). Argentina played in a quarterfinal, and more than 59,000 fans came. But defending champion Chile and Brazil played opponents in the group stage. Their matches drew just 55,000 fans . . . combined.
Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist who studies the monetary impact of events, says that for Boston, the World Cup will be like adding a few extra Red Sox home games. He thinks it isn’t worth losing sleep over. If it were up to him, “I would probably take a nap and then wake up and say go ahead and do it.”
Maybe we should all take a nap, then go to a local sports bar instead. It would be a lot easier to get to, you’ll know the barkeeper receiving the financial benefit, and no one will have to drink Budweiser (FIFA allows only Anheuser-Busch beers to be sold at World Cup events).
For Boston, the 2026 World Cup is likely to bring just enough tourists to make traffic even worse, for 0-0 draws between soccer minnows. I love soccer in any form, but I wouldn’t pay to see that.Cameron Smith is a sportswriter and vice president of content at Fancred, a sports app. Send comments to magazine@globe. com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.