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Feb 3, 2009

U.S. likely to host a World Cup in 2018 or 2022

Feb. 2, 2009, will own a historic place in U.S. soccer history. It's the date U.S. Soccer officials joined the race to host a World Cup tournament and officially announced their intention to pursue either the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.

And they'll get one of them. Book it.

Want to know why? The answer is in the whir of construction cranes encircling suburban Dallas, where the Cowboys' new behemoth of a stadium is rising. And it's in the shadow of Giants Stadium, where yet another futuristic NFL stadium is going up. And it's in all the other fabulous, mammoth athletic facilities that dot the country.

The stadium outside Dallas will have the ability to accommodate perhaps 100,000 fans for special events. The $1.3 billion project in New Jersey will seat 82,500.

Beautiful, recently opened buildings in Philadelphia, Seattle, Denver, Houston and elsewhere also will brace the bid. These are grand in scale, monuments to the place where architecture, imagination and capitalism collide. No other country is so sophisticated in exploiting sales and sponsorship opportunities inside these modern arenas.

At some point, this bid process is all about the facilities. (Well, really, it's about money. Because finances are inextricably linked to facility size, by extension, these bids are about physical structures.) The United States enjoys a stadium situation unrivaled in the rest of the world, thanks mostly to the country's love of American football and need to stack the racks with money-waving fans.

More seats mean more money for FIFA. It's that simple.

Yes, there are nice (and nicely sized) venues scattered throughout the world. Some countries have a respectable volume of facilities with impressive capacities. England, probably the front-runner for the 2018 World Cup, can get into the conversation, at least. But even England can't come close to matching the glut of structural riches available to FIFA by awarding one of the future World Cups to the United States.

Consider this: A World Cup today could be scattered quite easily around a roster of fabulous stadiums that didn't even exist when the United States hosted World Cup 1994.

Let that sink in. That's how deep the selection of stadiums is here.

And, of course, venerable facilities such as the Rose Bowl, which hosted the 1994 final, remain in play. That one also holds 100,000-plus fans.

The 1994 World Cup smashed previous records for attendance; the 52-game tournament averaged 68,991 fans, a mark that still stands. The next one here will easily surpass that record.

The 2006 World Cup was a wonderfully well-received tournament, generally spilling out without a hitch and to everyone's pleasure. Germany is a modern country with several contemporary arenas. And yet, tournament organizers still needed to employ stadiums in Kaiserslautern, Nuremberg, Leipzig, Hanover and Cologne, all of which hold 46,000 spectators or fewer. There probably won't be a single bid from a stadium in the U.S. with a capacity so small. Everybody loves all those swell U.S. soccer-specific stadiums that have done so much for the game in our country, but you don't send a boy to do a man's job, so to speak.

There's also a matter of sponsorship. Here, too, FIFA has reason to purr over prospects of a second World Cup in the United States.

"From a sponsorship perspective, the two countries that advertisers currently covet most are the United States and China, and this will probably continue to be the case in 2018 and beyond," said John Alper, vice president of Premier Partnerships, a national sales and marketing firm specializing in revenue generation for facilities, events and properties. "Obviously, FIFA considers a variety of factors for this decision. However, from a sponsorship perspective, having the USA as the host nation is definitely a plus."

And by "definitely a plus," he means more cash for the FIFA kitty. Ka-ching!

The 1994 World Cup was a rousing success, at least in terms of attendance and revenue. And soccer's profile has risen substantially in the United States in the 15 years since. That means hosting a World Cup in 2018 or 2022 would be a colossus.

The World Cup in Germany averaged 52,491 spectators per contest. Given the scale of the new facilities available to the U.S.' bid, the average crowd for a World Cup in the United States could climb to 75,000. That's an extra 22,000-plus fans for 64 matches. With an average ticket price of $140 or so (the World Cup in South Africa next year will charge an average of $139, so that is a very conservative estimate), that's an additional $197 million just in ticket revenue.

And don't forget that every person who passes through a turnstile is a candidate to buy T-shirts, hats, silly foam fingers and such. The way a typical stadium deal works, the facility keeps parking and most concession revenues. But all the merchandise money goes to the event organizers, which in this case is FIFA. So the extra 22,000 or so per match adds up further considering the multiplier, whatever that is. Let's say the foam-finger factor is $10 per customer. The extra 22,000 customers can potentially generate up to an additional $220,000 per match, or an additional $14 million for the tournament.

As they say: Pretty soon, you're talking about real money.

These are very basic formulas. The actual accounting will be far more complex, of course. But you get the point. Suffice to say, if FIFA can pour more customers into stadiums during the monthlong tournament, the financial payload will expand significantly.

There could be one potential road hump. Each of these grand, new U.S. facilities comes with a lucrative naming-rights deal already in place. And that's not part of FIFA's financial template. Because world soccer's governing body doesn't already have its hand in that pie, it demands a blank slate in terms of venue sponsorship, and that includes naming rights. That's why the AOL Arena in Hamburg became, officially speaking, the World Cup Stadium in Hamburg for 2006.

Will this pose an issue? Not likely, Alper said. First, FIFA is such a global heavyweight that it can demand a blank slate. Most existing stadium contracts have clauses that cover opportunities to host extraordinary events. Plus, Alper says a FedEx or an AT&T or whatever corporate sponsor won't jeopardize important relationships and risk a firestorm of bad publicity by saying no to a chance to host World Cup games.

One more thing: Facilities in other countries, nice as some are, aren't designed with luxury boxes in mind. Not to the extent U.S. stadiums are, at least. Those opportunities for premium sales generate good money, too. Ka-ching, again.

Money talks. FIFA listens. Another World Cup is headed to the United States in your lifetime, and Feb. 2 is the day it all officially started.

Other countries that have expressed interest in bidding for either the 2018 and 2022 World Cup:

Australia: Officials there hope FIFA's desire to grow the game in Asia and the Pacific Rim can enhance the chances. Although Australia has hosted other major events (such as the 2000 Olympics in Sydney), the odds here appear long.

England: The country's effort received a significant boost when FIFA rulers shot down the notion of joint bids. So the Spain-Portugal effort and a bid from the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) went kaput before they even got started. Thus, England is the clear front-runner if FIFA is to return the tournament to Europe.

Indonesia: The world's fourth-most-populated country (237 million) has seen its economy and political scene stabilize significantly since the turbulent 1960s. Although Indonesia might be considered a strong national team in southeast Asia, its relative weakness in the world soccer structure is a detriment.

Japan: Japan has the stadiums, the infrastructure and organizational might to pull it off, but proximity to the 2002 World Cup (which the Japanese co-hosted with Korea) hurts.

Mexico: Several new stadiums are going up in Mexico. But the U.S. neighbor would become the first country to host three World Cups, a factor that probably will work against it.

Qatar: The oil-rich Arab emirate has the world's highest GDP per capita, according to some estimates. Although money isn't an issue, physical size could be. Qatar occupies only about 4,400 square miles, roughly the size of Pennsylvania.

Russia: Talk of a bid from the world's largest nation (by area) sounded much better a year ago, before falling oil prices and ongoing crisis in the Russian financial markets crunched the nation's economy.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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