Hosting the World Cup Is the U.S.’s Chance at Redemption

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The success of North America’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup is one hopeful sign that the U.S. and its neighbors could be ending the era characterized by dysfunctional governance, infrastructure neglect and a withdrawal from the world stage. For the first time in ages, America has something to look forward to.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the world has seemed zero-sum, divided into winners and losers: the political extremes of left and right, terrorism versus nations, the wealth of the housing boom offset by crushing debt for some and a financial crisis. Even looking ahead to a technology boom, Americans fear automation and mass unemployment, with concentrated wealth for a few. It’s been almost two decades of this binary “winners and losers” thinking.

Hosting the World Cup is different.

Over the next few years, 10 U.S. cities will know for sure that they're going to be hosts for the world's biggest event in 2026. It’s a little like hosting the Summer Olympics, which brings a similar global spotlight … but also a devastating price tag. In some ways this could be more like Amazon's search for its second North American headquarters.

The Amazon parallel seems apt because of both the timing and the number of cities involved. Amazon's remaining list of candidate cities includes 19 in the U.S., comparable to the World Cup list of 17 potential host cities, which will be winnowed down to 10 hosts. Unsurprisingly, there's a great deal of overlap between the two lists -- 10 cities are on both lists, plus Amazon's existing headquarters, Seattle.

But unlike with the Amazon search, being a World Cup host won't require billions of dollars in tax giveaways or a strain on a region's affordable housing situation. As the former head of the United States Soccer Federation said, winnowing the list of World Cup candidate cities from 17 to 10 will be about seeing who's investing the most in building out a soccer culture and infrastructure. It's more cultural than anything.

But infrastructure spending will be affected in the cities ultimately selected to host. Like with the Amazon sweepstakes, being a future World Cup host gives cities an incentive to do what they probably want to do anyway. For some that might mean finalizing and funding transit and transportation plans. For others it might be investing in parks and the streetscapes of their downtowns as they prepare to host crowds of global tourists and local residents alike. It's likely going to impact mayoral races of the host cities in the years leading up to 2026.

It may also impact the commercial real estate cycle in the 2020s. The U.S. will host 60 World Cup matches across 10 cities, or an average of six matches per city. That's a lot of visitors, tourist dollars and hotel stays. Hotel development cycles are likely going to be coordinated to complete projects in 2025 or early 2026. For food halls, mixed-use developments, or any other kind of large-scale amenity project, timelines are likely to be similar. It wouldn't be surprising to see an urban development boom in 2024 through 2026 that falls off afterwards.

Beyond the economic impact of public and private investments in the 10 host cities, though, the bigger effect may be on the national mood.

Hosting the World Cup is sure to unleash national pride, and more positive feelings about the global community and welcoming outsiders. Soccer is a global game. As one of the hosts of the World Cup, the U.S. can once again feel like a global leader.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.