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Toronto wants the 2026 FIFA World Cup, but there are risks

Fans of Spain partied atop a TTC streetcar after that country won the 2010 World Cup. Now, Toronto wants to host several games at the 2026 event. (Patrick Dell/The Canadian Press)

From Toronto FC hoisting its first championship trophy aloft to soccer fans shutting down streets (and streetcars) while celebrating big wins, this city has a long-documented love affair with the beautiful game.

But should it host the FIFA World Cup?

This June, Toronto, along with Montreal and Edmonton, will find out if it’s part of a successful North American bid for the 2026 tournament. That World Cup is set to be the largest ever, with 48 countries competing over a 30-day span.

Mayor John Tory says this “soccer mad” city would be a great host for the event, while council strongly backed pushing ahead with a bid. But an expert warns this is a risky move for the city, while other big cities, including Vancouver and Chicago, have already dropped out.

Toronto FC’s fans are among the loudest in Major League Soccer. Many would likely relish the chance to catch a World Cup match. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty)

Toronto would spend an estimated $30 to $45 million — a price tag it plans to split with other governments and the private sector, but also one that does not factor in security — to host three or four games in the opening round of the tournament. The final rounds of the tournament will be played in the U.S.

However, there are two major concerns.

The cost of security

In a report on the bid, city officials say the security cost “cannot be accurately predicted at this time.” Further, “the city has little control over major aspects of the security system.”

There is no greater sporting event than the FIFA World Cup and no greater Canadian city to serve as host than Toronto.- Bill Manning, President of Toronto FC

Victor Matheson, an economist with College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., specializes in major sporting events. Unfortunately, he says they’re “gigantic bullseyes” for terrorism, something that’s forced officials to spend more and more on security.

“The security costs of hosting major events has become astronomically expensive,” he told CBC Toronto, noting in this case it may be slightly cheaper because only one venue needs patrolling.

Toronto won’t host the finals, but even the opening rounds of the World Cup are packed with emotion. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

The Sydney Olympics, for example, cost less than $250 million to secure. The Athens Games, post 9/11, cost $1.6 billion.

Security is expected to be a federal and provincial responsibility, but Matheson warns if costs escalate the city could be on the hook.

Tory says Toronto still has the right to reconsider if the federal government isn’t “playing the kind of meaningful role they must play” and paying for big ticket items like security.

But so far Tory says he’s “quite happy” with the commitments he’s received from Ottawa.

What happens if FIFA demands a bigger stadium?

Toronto plans to host the games at the recently-expanded BMO Field, its 30,000-seat stadium (36,000 with the addition of temporary stands) on the Exhibition Grounds.

Matheson isn’t sure if that will be big enough for FIFA. At this summer’s World Cup in Russia, most of the stadiums have room for some 45,000 people.

Just as there were public viewing areas for Brazil’s World Cup, Toronto will set up sites to watch the games if you can’t get tickets. (Steffi Loos/Associated Press)

He also warns soccer’s governing body could demand the city modify the stadium, which could also prove costly. And no, it’s not just about adding cameras to capture the action.

“I’m not sure how much they care about the press or the cameras or that sort of stuff. But they certainly want the most fabulous suites for the FIFA dignitaries themselves,” Matheson said.

Vancouver was also set to host some games until B.C. bowed out. Provincial Tourism Minister Lisa Beare cited concerns with the terms of hosting the games, which she says include FIFA being able to unilaterally change the stadium agreement at any point.

Chicago, Minneapolis, and Glendale, Ariz., have also dropped out, citing FIFA’s “inflexibility” among their concerns.

Matheson says the biggest risk for Toronto is that once it officially agrees to host the World Cup, it will have to backstop costs to ensure the games go ahead.

City staff note no final deal should be signed until funding commitments from other governments are in place.

‘Once in a lifetime’ chance

 

Toronto city council voted 29-1 in favour of joining the bid in January, although 15 councillors missed the vote.

Many others are encouraging the city to push ahead.

It’s North America versus Morocco in the showdown to host the 2026 World Cup. (Matthias Schrader/The Associated Press)

Bill Manning, president of Toronto FC, calls hosting the event a “once in a lifetime opportunity” in a letter to council.

“There is no greater sporting event than the FIFA World Cup and no greater Canadian city to serve as host than Toronto,” he wrote.

The Greater Toronto Hotels Association also backs the plan, noting it would provide an influx of spending in the entire region.

The city’s economic development arm, meanwhile, highlights a finding from the Boston Consulting Group that estimates hosting between three and five games could generate some $210 million for a city the size of Toronto. It also estimates the tournament could create 1,000 jobs.

However, Matheson says even that should be questioned. He notes that when the U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup, Orlando, one of the host cities and an already-popular tourist destination, actually saw fewer visitors than normal. His theory: would-be visitors are scared off by the soccer fans.

If the North American bid does beat out Morocco, pegged by many as the frontrunner, it will have until 2021 to come up with a final financial plan.

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