Philadelphia’s bid to host games in the 2026 men’s World Cup got a jolt of caffeine Thursday with the announcement that Wawa has come on board as a major sponsor.
The news marries the most local of institutions — where generations of area residents have made daily pilgrimages for coffee, newspapers, hoagies, and iced tea — with the most global of sports.
“There is no more popular consumer brand in Philadelphia, and Wawa is an amazing institution for its civic commitment,” said David L. Cohen, the former Comcast executive and city power-broker who chairs Philadelphia’s bid committee. “I’m appreciative to the Wawa team for everything they’ve done for the city, including their commitment to the World Cup.”
Wawa CEO Chris Gheysens knows how many of his customers associate his company mainly with the Phillies and Eagles, as in the food you take to the ballpark in the summer or to tailgates in the fall. But his view of the landscape goes far beyond Pattison Avenue.
“The reality is this is bigger than just sports,” he said. “To bring the World Cup to [Wawa]’s hometown and the region … it’s such a significant event, we had to support it.”
That support included a promotional event Thursday at the opening of Wawa’s newest store, on Penrose Avenue between 26th Street and the Platt Bridge.
Gheysens believes the Philadelphia region will be at “an inflection point” in 2026, which will also be the United States’ 250th birthday. (A U.S.-England knockout game at the Linc on July 4 would fit the bill.)
“I think Philadelphia, we’re always pretty critical of ourselves, but the reality is we have so much going for this city, for the region,” he said. “The city is ready for it. It has the assets, it has the leadership, you have the civic [side], you have the business [side], you have the neighborhoods all joining together, it’s the right time.”
The Eagles’ involvement
Among the dignitaries present Thursday was Eagles president Don Smolenski, who’s been a soccer fan since the 1990s. During the 1994 World Cup, he was a film runner for photographers at games in the old Pontiac Silverdome outside Detroit. So he had a front-row view of the United States’ 1-1 draw with Switzerland, the first World Cup game ever played at an indoor venue.
“Because of social media and the international, global media stage, the fan today is more knowledgeable,” he said. “Just that whole connectivity between the U.S. and the rest of the world has made people fans of the game of soccer, and I think that just lends to their desire to see the World Cup — the premier event — here in the United States, and in particular Philadelphia.”
Such a global perspective might not fit the traditional image of one of America’s most parochial fan bases. But Smolenski knows there are a lot of soccer fans in his locker room — and increasingly, in his stands.
Smolenski and Cohen have lately been working behind the scenes to connect FIFA with local officials ahead of the governing body’s expected visit to town this fall.
Cohen broke the news that FIFA will be involved in the construction of a new soccer complex in FDR Park that would be used as a practice facility for World Cup teams that play here. It will include fields, locker rooms, and meeting space.
“FIFA is very excited about that,” Cohen said. “Thanks to the city and the mayor, we’ve invited FIFA to have a seat at the table. … All of our practice facilities are very high-grade, but I think they’re particularly excited about the opportunity to be involved at the ground level.”
The other proposed practice venues are the Eagles’ NovaCare Complex, the Union’s Subaru Park, and the soccer facilities at Penn, Temple, and Drexel. The last two of those have artificial-turf fields that will need to be replaced if they are to be used.
Cohen also said FIFA gave its approval to Philadelphia’s hotel room stock, which was a worry for some local officials since there aren’t as many high-end rooms here as there are in other cities.
Next on the docket is a human rights survey that’s due to FIFA by June 30. Cohen said the city has completed it and will publish it, along with the list of names on the bid’s Social Impact Council — a group of over 30 people whom Cohen said are “involved in human rights [and] corporate social responsibility issues.”
After that, the bid could have one more major hurdle to clear before FIFA’s site visit. Cohen has been widely reported to be President Biden’s expected nominee as ambassador to Canada. If he gets the job, he’ll likely step down as bid chair.
The nomination isn’t official yet, but he and the bid committee are ready for it to happen.
“If I’m fortunate enough to receive an ambassadorial appointment somewhere, anywhere, we have more than enough people to be able to step in, step up, and take over,” Cohen said. “I think the biggest job I’ve had so far is to put the structure in place to be able to host the games, and to begin to generate the enthusiasm around the bid. … I have zero doubt about the city’s ability to pull this bid off without me — I’m not the most important piece in this puzzle, I’m one piece in this puzzle.”
He added that Comcast will continue its major commitment to the bid effort, knowing the company owns Spanish-language broadcast rights to the tournament for Telemundo.
“Comcast and Telemundo and NBC Sports are all in,” Cohen said. “Again, that is not dependent on me. I whet the whistle, if you will, but they’re all in, involved, and committed to the World Cup in general, but also to helping to bring the World Cup to Philadelphia.”