Before the term “influencer” was defined by Instagram, it was defined by people like David L. Cohen. Few people in the Philadelphia area have the kind of clout he has amassed in his career at Comcast and in local politics.
So it makes ample sense that Cohen is the head of Philadelphia’s bid committee to host games in the 2026 men’s World Cup. And it’s another barometer of soccer’s growth here that Cohen has given the world’s game a solid part of his Philadelphia sports fandom.
“I’m a sports fan, and I have enough balance in my life that even though I didn’t play soccer growing up, this is the world’s sport, and if you’re interested in sports, it’s something you should be interested in,” he said.
Cohen started following soccer when he was chairman of major local law firm Ballard Spahr from 1999 to 2002. During that time, one of the firm’s top attorneys, John Langel, became the top laywer for the U.S. women’s national team’s players’ union. He kept the role for 17 years.
“I was involved with that, and then became interested in the development of the women’s sport and women’s league,” Cohen said, referring to the Women’s United Soccer Association in which the Philadelphia Charge played in the early 2000s.
Langel said Cohen was “a huge fan” back then, and recalled that in the late ’90s, Cohen signed off on Ballard representing the U.S. women’s players’ union pro bono. When the team went on a post-1999 World Cup indoor soccer victory tour, Cohen secured the Spectrum as a venue and got then-mayor Ed Rendell to attend the game.
Fast-forward to the present, and a conversation between Cohen and Mayor Kenney.
They talked, Cohen said, “about how serious he [Kenney] was about trying to compete for the World Cup, making the case that I thought it would be fantastic for Philadelphia. It has Olympic-like impact, but unlike the Olympics, it’s something where I think we had a legitimate shot at competing for it.”
A few months later, Kenney called Cohen to ask him to chair the city’s bid.
Cohen probably didn’t need much convincing. He has a long history of being involved in bringing big events to town, and he puts the World Cup on the same list.
“It’s both the interest in soccer, the interest in sports, but it’s also the complete passion for Philadelphia,” he said. “I wasn’t and I’m not a Catholic, and it didn’t stop me from being all-in and trying to organize and build a successful visit for the Pope [Francis in 2015]. I wasn’t and I’m not a Republican; it didn’t stop me from being chair of the host committee for the Republican National Convention [in 2000].”
Cohen got on more familiar turf when he helped bring the Democrats’ 2016 convention here. And he is on familiar turf with soccer, for many reasons -- over two billion of them, in fact. That’s how many dollars NBC has spent on soccer rights in recent years.
Comcast made its first modern foray into soccer in 2011 when NBC Sports signed a three-year, $30 million deal with MLS. In 2013, the company signed a three-year, $250 million deal with the English Premier League; then, in 2015, the two sides agreed a six-year deal for $1 billion.
In 2011, Comcast landed the biggest fish of all: FIFA World Cups from 2015 through 2022. The deal cost $600 million, a record for any U.S. TV network and one of the biggest rights fees ever paid to FIFA by any broadcaster. It also ended Univision’s 44-year hold on Spanish-language U.S. World Cup TV rights.
Then, in 2015, Telemundo and Fox teamed up with Canada’s TSN to get 2026 World Cup rights at a no-bid discount price -- a deal made to avoid a lawsuit from the networks over moving the 2022 men’s World Cup from the summer to the winter. That happened three years before the U.S., Canada and Mexico won the rights to host the 2026 tournament.
Cohen hasn’t had to wade as far into the mud of global soccer politics as colleagues like Telemundo Sports executive vice president Eli Velasquez have. But over the years, Cohen has learned about the landscape.
“I don’t have any direct experience, but I have indirect experience through the Comcast, NBCUniversal, and in particular Telemundo negotiations and conversations with FIFA,” he said. “So, I think I have at least the beginning of an understanding of FIFA politics - and by the way, you can add U.S. soccer politics into that. I’m not going to overstate my knowledge, but I’m not uncomfortable in political situations, and I think I can help, in a significant way, Philadelphia navigate those politics to a succesful conclusion of the bid process.”
No one around the bidding process will say directly that Comcast being a FIFA rightsholder helps Philadelphia’s case. But lots of people involved have said it can’t hurt.
“One of our aspirations... is to become known as a major international sports city, and you can’t be a major international sports city without soccer,” Cohen said. “It shouldn’t matter to anyone in Philadelphia, whether you’re a passionate soccer fan or a passionate baseball fan or a football fan or a basketball fan - the World Cup is going to be a win for Philadelphia.”
If Cohen’s work succeeds, that is. Now to get down to it.