Henry Bushnell: Finally. The World Cup is almost here. And over the past month in the FC Yahoo Mixer, we’ve discussed just about everything World Cup-related there is to discuss. Messi-Ronaldo. VAR. The USMNT’s absence. Much more.
And now right before the tournament, another event has sprung up on the calendar – rather rudely, in my opinion. The vote that will award 2026 World Cup hosting rights to either Morocco or North America is Wednesday. That’s a big freakin’ deal. Or at least I think it is.
That’s what we’re here to discuss today, though. Is it a big deal? Should American (or Canadian, or Mexican) soccer fans be glued to their computers or phones on Wednesday morning? How important is it that the U.S., Canada and Mexico get the 2026 tournament? I’m open to any interpretations of that question.
Doug McIntyre: Oh, it’s a big deal. Huge. In fact, I’d go as far as to argue that failure to win the hosting rights to the 2026 tourney would be a bigger blow to the sport in America than the U.S. national team missing out on this summer’s event in Russia.
For those of us who are old enough to remember how the United States hosting the competition in 1994 exploded the sport’s profile stateside, the reasons are obvious. Every fan in North America sees room for the sport to continue to grow. This is particularly true in Canada and the U.S. where, unlike in Mexico, the beautiful game isn’t the most popular sport. Rarely in life is there a magic bullet, a shortcut to success. The awesome power of a World Cup is among the few exceptions. No other single event or decision has the ability to transform the landscape for soccer in North America the way Wednesday’s vote could.
Because if the United Bid succeeds, you’ll see a massive and immediate investment of money and resources into the sport. It could result in the owners of Major League Soccer, which came into existence as a direct result of USA ‘94, finally loosening the purse strings and attempt to truly compete with the planet’s top leagues after methodically building MLS’s infrastructure during the first quarter century of its life. Player development, a hot topic (and rightfully so) since the USMNT’s qualifying debacle, would get a major boost, too, what with the United States desperate to field a competitive team on home soil. I don’t see a better way to incentivize the U.S. Soccer Federation and professional clubs across all levels to find and polish talent. After all, eight years is a long time to prepare. And the legacy of 2026 would last a lifetime.
Henry Bushnell: That’s a big statement, Doug. “Failure to win the hosting rights to the 2026 tourney would be a bigger blow to the sport in America than the U.S. national team missing out on Russia.” Not saying I disagree with it. But I think many would. So let me play devil’s advocate for a second.
When we were discussing the consequences of the qualifying failure a few weeks ago, Leander made the point that “the game is so prevalent now, and Messi and Ronaldo so omnipresent,” that American kids no longer need to see American players on the global stage for inspiration to pursue the sport. In some sense, doesn’t that apply to fans and a World Cup on home soil as well? It’s so easy to connect with the sport through TV and digital media nowadays … is an in-person glimpse necessary? Would 2026 be anywhere near the soccer stimulus that 1994 was?
And that leads me to your last paragraph, Doug. I’m fascinated by the idea that a successful bid would encourage investment in the game. Can you expound on that theory a bit? Why would it compel MLS owners to open up checkbooks?
Joey Gulino: Allow me to interrupt and make my own case for that. I’m not toootally sure failing to get the 2026 bid would be as big as missing Russia, as I’m still not sure how many people stateside actually know we’re up for it, but I do think the impact of getting the bid would be tangible. What USA ‘94 brought us, and I’m speaking from personal experience here, is a sense of, “Why don’t we have that?”
Whereas soccer had an almost parochial presence in this country before the 1994 World Cup, it suddenly grew into a national game. There was pressure for change. Why don’t we have a national league? Why isn’t our program good enough to qualify for every World Cup? And so on and so forth. If we land the United 2026 bid (and I use “we” as guiltlessly as perhaps I’ve ever used the term in talking sports), the stakes of the questions will change, too. Why don’t we have one of the best teams in the world every edition? Why shouldn’t we set the expectations at semifinals or bust, especially with such a truly talented crop of youngsters?
This may be a lazy comparison, but this is also how corporate America works: competition, competition, competition. You don’t need to manufacture a certain product until you see another company manufacturing that product and consumers devouring it at an insane clip. If USA ‘94 gave birth to soccer in America, it’s not only time for that kid to start walking, it’s time for it to start sprinting. The four-year (and maybe eight-year) hype associated with bringing the World Cup back to our shores, even if we share a few random early games with Mexico and Canada, would establish irrepressible momentum in my mind.
That would be the engine of MLS spending more, and not just on older stars who may or may not have something to offer. The Ezequiel Barco signings wouldn’t be the exception, they’d be the expectation. Improve or fall behind. The great Wright Thompson once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “If you ever want to see what’s hot in the stock market, just go to the Kentucky Derby.” And what he meant was that the ultra-rich horse owners knew growth markets when they saw them, so not only did they stable one or two of the 20 best horses in the world, they had their hands in everything else that’s value was skyrocketing. Imagine those people behind the soccer infrastructure in this country. It can be that way. We just have to get the World Cup bid to prove it.
Doug McIntyre: I was going to answer Henry’s question here, but I couldn’t have said it any better than Joey. There’s no question, at least to me, that the impact of hosting a World Cup is greater than the value of merely participating in one. Knowing that the biggest event ever staged — remember, 2026 will (probably) be the first World Cup with 48 teams — is coming here eight years in advance changes the calculus for those most invested in the sport, as Joey points out.
I think we all agree that the soccer has plenty room to grow in the U.S. and Canada. It doesn’t take a ton of imagination to see MLS’s next TV deal, should Wednesday’s vote go in favor of the United Bid, dwarf the $90 million per season the league currently gets from ESPN, Fox and Univision, or for the domestic league, which now spends about 20-percent of its revenues on salaries, bumping that up closer to the 50-percent plus threshold that we see in some of world’s top circuits as well as other North American sports leagues like the NBA and NHL. I’ve often said that if MLS paid the sort of wages the NHL does, it would be the best soccer league in the world. There’s admittedly a bit of hyperbole there, but that certainly would go a long way toward closing the gap. It will happen eventually. Getting the World Cup would only accelerate that process.
Leander Schaerlaeckens: It’s corny when the media writes about the media, but I think that’s another major factor here. I think we’re at a point where the major sports media outlets are all paying attention to soccer pretty consistently. That’s a fairly new development. In fact, it was only just over a decade ago — when David Beckham arrived stateside — that Yahoo hired its first soccer writer. And now, well, there are a half dozen of us.
But the national media isn’t the variable here. I think hosting another World Cup would multiply the amount of attention paid to soccer by the local media in the various markets vying and then preparing to be a host city. And there’s still real value in that. It would bring soccer into new households more regularly. Whereas now your local station or paper might do a few quick panicky sections or articles on a local player with World Cup ties just before the tournament every year, an effort to become a host city would be a major story over the course of several years.
I don’t think you can underestimate the impact here.
More soccer from Yahoo Sports:
• 2018 World Cup preview hub
• Everything you need to know about the 2026 vote and bid
• Sunil Gulati’s exclusive interview with Yahoo Sports
• 2018 World Cup contenders, tiered and ranked 1-32
• Carlos Cordeiro’s first 100 days