Standing side by side on the top floor of the western world’s tallest building, a sparkling edifice located in the heart of its media capital, New York City, the heads of the national soccer federations of the United States, Canada and Mexico had clearly chosen a symbolic setting from which to trumpet their long-awaited ‘historic’ announcement.
Coming together atop Manhattan’s One World Trade Center last April to launch what would be known as their United Bid, an unprecedented three-way effort to host the 2026 Fifa World Cup, the trio’s message was confident and unequivocal: this is our time.
By 2026, they noted, the North American continent and Central America – a region represented within soccer circles by Concacaf – will have gone 32 years without the sport’s greatest spectacle; Concacaf is the only one of Fifa’s six confederations not to have hosted the tournament since the USA staged it so successfully back in 1994. Moreover, after contentious World Cups in Russia this year and Qatar in 2022, this beast of an international sporting event would become unwieldier than ever, a swollen slate of 48 teams and 80 matches ensuring that only the wealthiest, most developed nations with suitable existing facilities and capable infrastructure could possibly countenance organising such an occasion.
For Fifa and its 211 member countries, the trio went on, the United Bid would be both restorative and redemptive, a much-needed financial fillip for a much-maligned organisation. Each of the three ready, willing and able members of this neighbouring triumvirate could, in principle, host the tournament themselves, they said; together, they would put on a multinational, cross-border show of unity and commercial might befitting the largest and most ambitious World Cup ever staged.
John Kristick, executive director of the United Bid Committee, on the campaign trail
The United concept
The idea of the United States teaming up with one or both of its closest neighbours to host a World Cup was floated long before last April’s confirmation. Still, there was an element of surprise that came with the sight of then-Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) president Victor Montagliani – who also serves the same role at Concacaf – finally announcing a tangible plan alongside then-US Soccer president Sunil Gulati and Decio de Maria, head of the Mexican Football Federation (FMF).
Without a doubt, any of the countries could have justifiably bid for 2026 alone. Between them, they have staged no fewer than 13 Fifa competitions, including three previous editions of the men’s World Cup.
Of those, the USA’s 1994 tournament holds revenue and attendance records for the event to this day, while it also served as the launchpad for the creation two years later of Major League Soccer (MLS), the country’s fast-growing domestic club competition. Mexico, by some measure the most established soccer nation of the three bidders, has hosted the World Cup twice, in 1970 and 1986, and while Canada has yet to do so, it held a record-breaking Women’s World Cup in 2015 and a men’s under-20 edition in 2007.
Still, as United Bid Committee executive director John Kristick explains, there was a prevailing sense that the three bidders would be better off together, not least since Fifa decision-makers had warmed to the idea of joint World Cup bids and, just as importantly, elected to make the tournament 50 per cent larger for 2026.
“We really are a united effort,” says Kristick, speaking to SportsPro in late February, a little under three weeks before Fifa’s 16th March deadline for formal bid submissions. “The overriding message of our bid is really centred around unity, certainty and opportunity. From last April, when we announced it, the three nations have been working hand in hand. It really is essential, we think, that together we offer Fifa an unprecedented and united opportunity to stage a new World Cup.
“We think we put forward a tremendous amount of operational certainty and no one should underestimate what it does mean to stage a World Cup of this size. And we think it offers tremendous opportunity, not just economically, given the size of our facilities and the strength of the commercial markets around it, but also the opportunity to really help propel the sport itself in our nations and our region across Concacaf.”
If successful, the United Bid would herald the first World Cup to be staged across three separate countries, with the only other jointly hosted edition coming in South Korea and Japan in 2002. It would also, according to Kristick, satisfy a desire to broaden the appeal of its flagship property under Fifa’s internationalist president Gianni Infantino, delivering “a new blueprint” for World Cup hosting.
“We recognise the vision of Fifa under the ‘2.0 strategy’,” Kristick adds. “The first World Cup of this size and significance, opening up the scenario where joint bids would be welcomed, and appreciating that, for future hosts, being able to prove the template that we can make an event of this size work.
“Those were things that our three countries looked at said, ‘Listen, we can tick that box.’ We can help Fifa achieve that vision and establish this blueprint, and do it across three countries that are close neighbours, that have worked together in the past, that have existing facilities in all cases that we can build off of, and really focus on building the game and a lot less on building stadiums and airports and roads.”
We think it offers tremendous opportunity to really help propel the sport itself in our nations and our region across Concacaf
The last time the World Cup came to North America the final delivered one of the tournament's defining moments: Roberto Baggio's missed penalty in the final at the Rose Bowl
Few doubt that the United Bid has the means at its disposal to comfortably meet Fifa’s technical requirements for World Cup hosting. Yet the current process is more than a straightforward box-ticking exercise, says Kristick. Pitching the bid as a collaborative North American effort is also a politically wholesome move within the region, he says, one that aligns neatly with Montagliani’s ‘One Concacaf’ vision, a series of reforms and measures which the Canadian set out as part of his successful campaign to become the confederation’s president in May 2016.
Not only does the joint proposal avoid the unwanted – and at one point strongly rumoured – possibility of Concacaf’s two largest and most powerful members, the USA and Mexico, going head-to-head in a bidding race, it also grants the comparative minnows of Canada a chance to feature in a World Cup for the first time since their only appearance, a winless, goalless showing in 1986 – provided Fifa permits all three would-be hosts automatic qualification.
Under the United Bid proposal, the US would stage 60 matches, including all games from the quarter-finals onwards, with Canada and Mexico hosting ten fixtures each. While final logistical details such as host city selection and match scheduling will ultimately be down to Fifa, Kristick explains that the bid calls for 16 cities to be selected across the three countries.
In mid-March, shortly before delivering its final bid book to Fifa, the United Bid announced a whittled-down long-list of 23 potential host cities, including three in each of Canada and Mexico. Each of the potential hosts boasts existing or already planned stadiums and other required infrastructure, and those that miss out on staging matches will likely host other elements of the tournament such as training sites, team base camps, and fan zones.
“We’ve had thousands of people across the different cities working on this,” explains Kristick, who joined the bid last May and is now tasked with overseeing all aspects of the effort. “Those are the most senior stakeholders at the government level, the sport level, the business level, across all of the cities.”
Tracking the frontrunner
While the United Bid’s only competitor for 2026, Morocco, confirmed its challenge in August just hours before a Fifa deadline for expressions of interest, the North American proposal has been busy putting plans in place for some time. That longer lead time has firmly positioned the bid as the frontrunner in a two-horse race.
Though few are writing off Morocco just yet – the country is understood to have the support of most, if not all, of Africa’s 54 nations, as well as broad backing within Asia – the reality is there are numerous factors working in the United Bid’s favour. Besides boasting superior stadiums and infrastructure, for instance, the North American market’s corporate heft and unmatched media profile harbour obvious appeal for Fifa stakeholders.
“Certainly, we’re thrilled to put forward a North American market approaching 500 million people,” says Kristick, who previously served as managing director of the ill-fated US bid for the 2022 World Cup. “Clearly, the strength of our commercial market, the continent itself, whether it be from a marketing and sponsorship side or whether it be from a television and media side, offers a great added benefit. We know, and we are very confident, given the size of our existing stadiums, that we’ll be looking at probably an average of close to 70,000 – I think it’s about 68,000 – seat capacity.”
Kristick adds that “100 per cent” of around 5.8 million tickets would be sold for the tournament, generating over US$2 billion in ticketing revenue. “These are some very, very considerable benefits from an economic standpoint that we’re very proud of,” he says.
Sunil Gulati and Victor Montagliani, then presidents of Canadian Soccer Association and US Soccer respectively, join Mexican Football Federation head Decio de Maria to launch the United 2026 bid last May
In purely commercial terms, he continues, one would be hard pushed to find a more compelling proposal than the United Bid. While many within Fifa will be familiar with the records the USA set in 1994, even though that tournament featured just 24 teams, they will likely be aware, too, that the federation has failed to sign any new American corporations as sponsors since agreeing a one-tournament deal with Johnson & Johnson back in 2011.
Given that Fifa relies on World Cup commercial deals for about 85 per cent of its income, some within the federation may therefore deem a World Cup staged in North America a profitable and perhaps necessary way of filling the void left by the likes of Visa, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Anheuser-Busch InBev, who all declined to renew their most recent sponsorship contracts.
Kristick, for his part, is well aware of the commercial factors at play. A former executive director for Infront Sports & Media and, more recently, a senior executive at global advertising giant WPP, where he helped launch the company’s dedicated sports and entertainment agency, ESP Properties, his involvement in international soccer spans more than two decades and every World Cup since USA
94. Moreover, he has an enviable breadth of experience having worked on those tournaments in various capacities, from sponsorship and broadcasting to bidding and marketing support.
“The North American market is one of the most sophisticated ones in the world for the sport,” he notes. “It’s somewhat fragmented from a positive standpoint in that you’ve got some many different entry points into the sport, whether it’s through the national teams, through the professional domestic leagues, or whether it’s just becoming a fan of an international league that happens to be broadcast here or happens to entertain friendly competitions during the summer and things like that.”
A World Cup in the region, he says, can act as the “north star” and “galvanise all of those interest points”.
“Certainly, from the standpoint of the companies and sponsors,” he continues, “this is going to give them a chance to reintroduce themselves to the Fifa World Cup and find different ways that they can invest in the sport and help activate that.”
Another commercial factor that could yet sway the outcome of the bidding process is a reported financial incentive written into Fifa’s current North American TV deals.
It is already known that the 2026 tournament will be aired in the US by Fox and Telemundo, and by CTV and TSN, two networks under the Bell Media umbrella, in Canada. Fifa agreed those deals in early 2015, for a discounted fee and to widespread surprise, as it sought to stave off the threat of legal action from its broadcast partners, each of whom was reported to be opposed to the plan to stage the 2022 World Cup in the winter, rather than the usual summer slot, due to the likelihood of extreme temperatures in Qatar.
Fifa’s decision to effectively hand over the North American rights to 2026 drew criticism from those who believe it was too eager to placate its disgruntled partners, and in fact left money on the table by not running an open bidding process. Further suspicion surrounding the affair has been roused by more recent reports in the UK and the US that revealed if the 2026 tournament were to be awarded to North America, Fifa would be in line for a windfall running into hundreds of millions of dollars thanks to bonuses offered up by the local broadcasters.
From the standpoint of the companies and sponsors this is going to give them a chance to reintroduce themselves to the Fifa World Cup and find different ways that they can invest in the sport and help activate that
Besides the obvious commercial virtues of the United Bid, Kristick notes the extent to which the United Bid also presents a compelling cultural proposition, particularly since there are “probably 200 different ethnic groups” and “about 300 languages” spoken across North America. “In many regards, every team has a home here,” he adds. “For sure, the Hispanic market is a very important and passionate part of our base here.”
Throughout the process, the United Bid has sought to highlight that cultural diversity as well as the strength of the public support for staging the World Cup in its constituent markets. Citing an Ipsos survey conducted in September, they point to the fact that 77 per cent of adults in the three nations are in favour of co-hosting the tournament, with the bid especially popular in Mexico, where 83 per cent of those surveyed expressed their approval.
Much of that backing has to do with the fact that no new stadiums will need to be built to host World Cup matches, alleviating the financial burden on taxpayers and local authorities, and strengthening economic arguments. Of those respondents in favour of the bid in the Ipsos study, 61 per cent cited generating economic activity as the top reason for their support, while another 50 per cent felt hosting the most-watched event on the planet would boost the global image of their nation.
Separately, another study commissioned by the United Bid Committee found that hosting the tournament could generate more than US$5 billion in short-term economic activity, including around 40,000 jobs and more than US$1 billion in incremental worker earnings across North America. That study, conducted by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a leading global management consulting firm, also found that individual host cities could expect to see as much as US$620 million in incremental economic activity, as well as a measurable ‘feel-good’ effect on residents.
USA 94 set records for World Cup attendances that stand to this day
A matter of perception
Although the technical, logistical and commercial aspects of a World Cup bid are of undoubted importance to Fifa and its members, the final outcome often comes down to perception. In that respect, the United Bid’s widely accepted frontrunner status is open to conjecture.
Much has been made of what impact public opinion and the current political climate in the US could have on the bid. President Donald Trump and his much-publicised vow to build a wall along the US-Mexico border has frayed relations between the two neighbouring countries. Meanwhile, his disparaging comments towards a host of foreign countries – most notably in Africa – and repeated attempts to impose tougher immigration policies and ban incoming travel from certain Muslim-majority nations have done little to strengthen America’s standing in the eyes of the international community.
In February, a bipartisan effort to demonstrate support for the bid at the highest levels of the US government saw 44 senators send a signed letter to Trump seeking his endorsement, but such is the polarising nature of the president and his views that it is difficult to know whether his blessing would actually help or hurt the bid.
Leaders of the campaign have nevertheless touted their continued support from within the White House, whose administration would be required to guarantee visa-free travel plus certain work permit and tax exemptions to the extended Fifa family. Gulati, a prominent Fifa powerbroker who remains on the United Bid Committee’s board of directors despite stepping down as head of US Soccer last year, has sought to allay any fears, yet he himself has acknowledged the complicating effect of political factors. “This will be a tough battle,” he conceded in January. “This is not only about our stadiums and our hotels and all of that. It’s about the perception of America, and it’s a difficult time in the world.”
Montagliani, meanwhile, has insisted the three bidding nations “have a duty to navigate” difficult political situations regardless of who is in power. “It’s up to us to put on the World Cup because we have a duty to the fans and I think the World Cup – no pun intended – needs to trump politics,” he told SportsPro early last year. “If you could tell me what the world would look like in ten years, you’re a lot smarter than I am. [The 2026] World Cup is ten years away and a lot of things can change, including presidents.”
Kristicks echoes that sentiment. “We’re trying to avoid the politics of the day,” he says. “We’re still talking about a World Cup that is eight years away, and I think that’s where everybody is most focused when looking at these types of decisions that have to be made.”
Vancouver’s BC Place staged the Fifa Women’s World Cup final in 2015 but the city has withdrawn from the running to be one of Canada’s hosts in 2026
Still, it could be that other political factors serve to derail the United Bid.
In May 2015, US federal authorities made global headlines when they handed down indictments to more than 40 high-ranking Fifa officials and marketing executives, a move that shocked world soccer and hit Fifa where it hurts most: the bottom line. Last year, the federation projected a US$489 million deficit, largely owing to a marked drop in sponsorship revenue and spiralling legal fees brought about by the investigation, which precipitated the so-called ‘Fifa-gate’ scandal and led to the downfall of Fifa’s long-time president, Sepp Blatter.
For some observers, the fallout from those indictments has stoked anti-American sentiment within Fifa circles and added a further layer of intrigue to the 2026 bidding process. For the first time, moreover, the decisive vote will come down to Fifa’s entire 211-nation membership, not the small group of elected members that make up the federation’s ruling council, previously known as the Fifa executive committee.
Fifa members will decide whether to accept one of the two bids at their 68th Congress in Moscow on 13th June, the day before Russia and Saudi Arabia contest the opening match of this year’s World Cup, provided both make it through Fifa’s ongoing evaluation phase. Many commentators believe that that democratisation of the ballot, plus the fact that the vote will be made public for the first time, has ensured the 2026 race is by no means a foregone conclusion. Even if a World Cup primarily staged in the US would likely be a certain financial and sporting success, they argue, there are no guarantees that the federation’s voting members will not bring political grievances into their decision.
There is irony in the view that a US-led World Cup could rescue Fifa from the financial malaise that arose from the findings of a US-led investigation, but there are soccer politics dimensions to the United Bid’s prospects. Unlike Blatter, Infantino has publicly expressed his support for joint bids. He has also personally enjoyed unwavering backing from within the Concacaf region; many observers put his election to Fifa’s highest executive office down, at least in part, to some last-minute string-pulling from his close friend and confidant, Gulati.
That Gulati – and also, it should be said, Montagliani – harbour such lobbying heft within Fifa is undoubtedly a positive for the United Bid. A further boon comes in the fact that the bid’s leadership team comprises several other influential movers and shakers, including the newly appointed bid committee co-chairs of Carlos Cordeiro, Gulati’s replacement as US Soccer president, and his Canadian counterpart, Steven Reed.
“That’s one wonderful part about having three countries joined the way we are,” acknowledges Kristick. “We have a tremendous amount of experience within the Fifa community who are out there to be very strong ambassadors and spend the time and invest the time with the different voters to be able to explain our proposition. We feel that we are absolutely taking the right steps with the right people.
“We very much believe, and are confident that as our proposition is put forward, that the members will see [our bid] for its merits and judge it on what it brings to football and what it brings to their teams and their fans and their member associations. So I feel very good about the proposition. We’ve got three great nations and we all have our strengths and challenges. None of us are perfect nor should we even pretend to be. But together we’re very strong and I think the unity of our offering puts a very positive message to all of the voters in the world. And I think that’s good for football, to be very honest.”
We very much believe that the Fifa members will see our bid for its merits and judge it on what it brings to football