America's 250th birthday party will have a special guest of honor: the world's biggest sporting event.
FIFA, global soccer's governing body, voted Wednesday to stage the 2026 men's World Cup in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. It's a historic triumph for soccer's growth here, and Philadelphia is expected to be a big part of the event. Lincoln Financial Field was prominent in North America's bid, as one of 23 potential host venues.
The tournament will spread 80 games involving 48 teams across this continent, from coast to coast: 60 in the U.S. and 10 each in Canada and Mexico. It will be FIFA's first tournament with 48 teams.
The bid process was not easy. North America had to fend off a competing bid from Morocco, and fight through some rough seas. President Trump's denigration of immigrants from Africa, Asia, and the Americas rattled voters from those countries. The U.S. government's ongoing investigation into corruption in global soccer rattled FIFA's old guard in its halls of power.
But in the end, North America won in a landslide. When FIFA's 200-plus member nations cast their ballots in a Moscow convention hall, the margin was 134-65 on the first ballot.
"About 10 days ago, we had a sense that this was breaking our way," U.S. Soccer Federation president and bid co-chair Carlos Cordeiro said. "To say that we knew it was going to be a landslide is probably unfair, but we knew it was going to go well for us. So we were very, very pleased at the end with the result, and delighted that it was quite the result."
The North America bid was led by two key points. One was a guarantee of streamlined visas for players, officials, and the thousands of fans who will travel here. The White House even put its official stamp of approval on that, according to the New York Times.
The other was what likely proved decisive: a promise of $11 billion in profit to FIFA's coffers. That money will come from ticket sales, sponsorship revenue, and broadcast rights — and is projected to send $50 million to each FIFA nation.
Morocco's bid promised $5 billion in profit, but acknowledged needing to spend $16 billion on building stadiums and infrastructure. FIFA's technical reports gave Morocco's bid a 2.7 score out of 5, compared to North America's 4.0. A summary of the technical reports was read aloud by FIFA's secretary general before the vote. If that was a nudge in North America's direction, well, the bid team wasn't complaining.
Philadelphia scored well in many categories. Lincoln Financial Field got a 4.2. The transportation infrastructure got a 4.0, thanks in no small part to SEPTA's quick ride from Center City to the Sports Complex. The Fan Fest plan — Penn's Landing was the bid book's main proposal — got a 3.5. The only drawback was a lack of hotel rooms, leading to an accommodations score of 2.4.
PHL Sports executive director Larry Needle said he isn't worried about the hotel question. He cited travel options for fans across the Northeast Corridor, and noted that more hotels will go up in the city in coming years. According to hospitality industry consulting firm STR, which PHL Sports works with, 12 new hotels are expected to open in the city between now and 2020 with a combined total of 2,275 rooms.
"We're comfortable that both the city and region are more than capable of hosting the international visitors that this event would bring," Needle said. "We feel confident that we can deliver."
The World Cup organizing committee expects to pick 16 venues from the bid's 23 candidates in June 2020.
Expect soccer's rapid growth in the United States to become even faster now. America's vast supply of corporate sponsors has already started flocking to soccer in recent years and will do so even more between now and 2026. FIFA needs those sponsors badly, because many jumped ship after years of those corruption scandals.
The biggest of those scandals affected the last American World Cup bid, for the 2022 tournament. Qatar upset the U.S. with an effort fueled by bribery and corruption. On that same day back in 2010, FIFA awarded this year's World Cup — which will kick off Thursday — to Russia.
Now, at last, the prize has been won. Organizers can dream of packed stadiums and huge TV ratings. Fans can dream of Hershey native Christian Pulisic — or maybe even Media-born Union defender Auston Trusty — playing for the United States in a World Cup at Lincoln Financial Field.
"It's obviously been a long journey, after the disappointment coming out of the '18 and '22 decision a few years ago," Needle said. "We feel great for the many folks who have been on that journey over the years. … It's thrilling that we'll have the World Cup in North America and in the United States — and certainly, our goal now is to make sure that it's also in Philadelphia."