Chris Palmer

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Earlier this year, word arrived that the Canadian Soccer Association is preparing to make a very serious attempt at a bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. As one would expect, the move is being looked at with both excitement and skepticism by the public. You can count me firmly in the company of the former.

Soccer is not, by many Canadians, considered a major professional sport in Canada. It is often left out of discussions of other popular sports in Canada including Hockey, Football, or Basketball, but that is changing. While the Canadian national men’s team is currently 113th in FIFA rankings (firmly between Latvia and Iraq), the country is a nation on the rise. Now home to three Major League Soccer franchises (The Montreal Impact, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Toronto FC), Canada will host the Women’s Under-20 World Cup this year, and the Women’s World Cup itself in 2015.

And there is good reason for the rise. According to Stats Canada, Soccer is now third behind only Ice Hockey and Golf in terms of the raw number of adults who practice various sports. As of 2012, there are 845,000 registered soccer players in Canada, 695,000 of which are under 18.

team_canadacelebrates

What also shouldn’t be lost is the passion that briefly captured the hearts of Canadians from coast to coast when the Canadian Women nearly played in the Gold Medal game of the 2012 Olympic Games in London (eventually winning the Bronze medal). So, it’s obvious that there is at least a foundation upon which to build the sport here.

The big question swirling around hosting the World Cup is logistics. That is, could an event the size of the World Cup work in a nation as spread out as Canada, with the limited facilities that Canada has?

WCY

For the purposes of comparison, I’m going to look at 3 other FIFA Cup host nations: Brazil in 2014, South Africa in 2010, and the closest the event has ever come to Canada, the 1994 event in the United States.

The Cities

FIFA rules state that the number of participating cities must be between 8 and 10, and that no more than one city may host 2 stadiums. An exception to this guideline has been made for Brazil this year, allowing for 12 stadiums in 12 cities, but the rule remains more or less intact. This is one area where Canada certainly stands with the crowd. Using Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) as the metric, Canada actually has a number of cities significantly larger than the major host cities in Africa.

World Cup Population by host city (2011 census figures for Canada, Brazil, and Africa. 1990 Census for USA)

The Canadian cities considered in this table were selected based on 1) Total population and 2) Presence of an existing facility. Important to note that in 2011 (the year used for census data) Canadian numbers, neither the Hamilton or the Kitchener-Waterloo areas have stadiums sufficient enough in size to support anything close to a World Cup event, though they do have populations that would make them otherwise viable host cities.

As expected, the populations of the American cities for the 1994 World Cup (even by 1990 numbers) dwarf those here.

The Stadiums

In 2010, the South Africa games took place at 10 stadiums. This summer in Brazil, the games will take place at 12 stadiums. When the Americans hosted the games in 1994, they were hosted out of 9 venues. While nations typically build multiple new venues in anticipation for the games (6 of the stadiums for Brazil will be new, 5 of those in South Africa were), the US games were hosted entirely at facilities previously built to host American Football events (NCAA or NFL). As Canadians may not be likely to support government investment in dedicated soccer stadiums, a similar approach is probable here.

It is important to note the similar dimensions of a FIFA Regulation Pitch (100m-110m x 64m-75m) and a CFL Field (137m x 60m). Most CFL facilities would be capable of hosting the added width required by the FIFA pitch.

Rogers Centre DL

Assuming a seating cutoff of 40,000 (reasonable considering the attendance needs and past facilities used), Canada has 4 large stadiums ready to host the World Cup today, all of which either host MLS teams, or have hosted FIFA events in the past. 2 of these stadiums (Toronto’s Rogers Centre and Vancouver’s BC Place) have been relatively recently renovated, while Olympic Stadium (Montreal – 1976) and Commonwealth Stadium (Edmonton – 1978) are solely in need of upgrades. Regardless, the facilities wouldn’t take much to be ready.

With temporary seating, McMahon Stadium in Calgary can be expanded to play host to 46,000 bodies, opening the possibility to either use temporary seating or renovate the facility to permanently expand capacity. Either way, Calgary provides a viable option for facility #5.

Like McMahon stadium, Mosaic Stadium in Regina can be expanded using temporary seating to a capacity of over 55,000. Due to the massive popularity of Regina’s CFL club, and growing population, a likely case could be made for the permanent installation of additional seating. Mosaic Stadium has never before hosted professional soccer.

In Winnipeg, the CFL’s Blue Bombers play at Investors Group Field. This facility is one of the newest in Canada (opened 2013), but has not yet hosted professional soccer. Seating at the stadium can be expanded to an even 40,000. Similar to Winnipeg, newly renovated TD Place in Ottawa will contain seating expandable to an even 40,000 once it is completed. Both stadiums are slated as host venues in the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

Canadian Stadiums(last row denotes whether the facility has been used for soccer before or will be used in 2014 or 2015)

That makes for a total of 8 stadiums in 8 cities, geographically disbursed from one end of the country to the other, in nearly all of Canada’s dense population centres. Unfortunately, there is no stadium #9 or #10, so new facilities may still need to be built. Plans to extensively revamp Toronto’s BMO Field (where Toronto FC plays today) would be one option, as would a new field in Hamilton (home of the CFL Tigercats), or a new field in Quebec City, though it would not (at least as of now) have a permanent tenant.

Of course, all these assumptions are based on facilities available in 2014. It is quite possible that new facilities will be purpose built for the CFL, MLS or the North American Soccer League over the years between now and the games, which could alter these assumptions significantly.

Much like a select number of venues were used much more than others in USA ’94, it would be hard to imagine the lions share of the games not being played in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

Concerns

Artificial Turf

Artificial turf may pose a problem. Nearly all of the stadiums mentioned have moved to one form of artificial turf or another. While it’s not unheard of for professional soccer events to take place on fake grass, it’s not common. FIFA has guidelines in place to ensure that soccer turf meets specific standards. These standards intend to ensure the playing experience on turf is as close to that as real grass as possible. BC Place currently has turf of the standard suggested by FIFA, other facilities may soon move in the same direction.

Regardless, due to the preferences of players, professionals, and teams, this is another concern that could either be exacerbated or muted depending on how these surfaces handle the 2015 event.

Population

Canada’s relatively low population density is another serious question mark. While the population of the metropolitan areas outlined is similar to those from other host cities, populations in Canada are far further apart. The Canada-hosted event would need to rely on a more significant proportion of foreign visiting fans and local fans than past events. That said, even with limited number of Canadians willing to travel between cities to draw from, the World Cup is more than capable of drawing global fans in significant enough numbers to fill stadiums to capacity, and most of the cities mentioned above have extensive hospitality industries.

If we build it, they most definitely will come.

CFL Conflicts

The Canadian Football League season begins in late June or the first week of July. The FIFA World Cup generally runs from mid-June through mid-July. Any bid to host the games is absolutely going to require the use of stadiums with CFL tenants, meaning that, without agreement from the CFL, this could well prove a dealbreaker.

Possible solutions would be to shift the entire CFL season forward 3-4 weeks, or running a short season. Neither of which is likely going to be the easiest of sells to the league. This poses what is potentially the largest of the challenges to the World Cup bid.

It is important to note that Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Ottawa will all be hosting the 2015 Women’s World Cup through the first week of July, overlapping the CFL preseason, so there is likely to be some room for discussion on this point, assuming the 2015 event goes well. Edmonton, for example, is already planning around the 2015 event. The same would likely be possible in 2026, with a much higher profile event on the table, and a longer planning horizon.

The Cost

Cost is a major factor with any event like this. The cost for the South African games in 2010 was pegged at around $3.5billion. That, of course, included the construction of 5 brand new dedicated soccer stadiums, and extensive renovation to all of the others. This figure also included general infrastructure expansion. Canada’s costs would likely be quite a bit less.

A cost estimate anywhere near accurate would depend upon a lot of factors, and may not be possible until closer to the bid date, but it may be a sticking point for many Canadians, particularly considering Canada’s lack of professional success in the sport.

Next Steps

cda1415
Before the CSA can even begin to think about putting a bid for the men’s event together, the 2014 under-20, and 2015 Women’s World Cup need to be successful. If we fail to excel at hosting either of these smaller events, it will be hard to make a case to host the biggest event in the world.

A joint bid with USA Soccer

I believe I’ve made a case for why a nationally-hosted Canadian games is possible, but if we hold that some of the concerns outlined become roadblocks, there is a somewhat obvious solution: Co-host with the United States.

As opposed to building 2 new facilities in Canada, leverage one North West (Seattle) and one major North East city in the United States (NYC/NJ). For added diversity, cut down to one venue in Alberta and bump the total number of host venues to 10. Use the existing NFL venues in Boston and/or Chicago to create a truly joint-hosting experience along the US/Canada border.

Apparently the idea of a joint bid has already been raised with USA Soccer by the Canadian Soccer Association. While not ideal (the big games would undoubtedly be hosted on the southern side of the border, and questions regarding host seeding would arise), it presents a viable way to push the proposal ahead.

A world cup in Canada in 2026 might just be a long shot, but it is entirely possible, and would catapult our nation into the conversation around the most popular sport on the planet. The next decade could be very interesting for Canada and “The Beautiful Game.”

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