What hosting the World Cup means for Atlanta

For many viewers of the FIFA World Cup, the global phenomenon is a host city’s chance to boast. 

For Atlanta, it is also an opportunity to show off for the first time since the 1996 Olympic Games.

The 2026 World Cup will span over Canada, Mexico and the U.S. Across the three countries, 16 cities will host games. Atlanta is one of the cities in the mix.

“Georgia is excited for the opportunity to host 2026 FIFA World Cup matches in Atlanta,” Gov. Brian Kemp said. “We are a soccer state.”

But since the turn of the century, there has been increased pushback against international sporting events coming to cities because the profits generated tend to benefit FIFA and stadiums and related structures are often abandoned following the games’ conclusions.

Atlanta has hosted numerous significant sporting events, including the NCAA Tournament Final Four and the Super Bowl. However, the city has not held an international sporting event since it hosted the Summer Olympics in 1996.

To many, the World Cup is an even bigger deal than the Olympics. But some cities that host get the short end of the stick. With so many cities around the world having to lose money after spending on the games, some Atlantans feel it may not be worth the risk.

Former host cities Rio de Janeiro, Saransk and Cape Town are among those that abandoned their World Cup stadiums. But many residents of Atlanta do not see the city succumbing to these wounds. 

The 2018 World Cup in Russia left some arenas vacated and in financial disarray. The issue lies far beyond the stadiums, though. Who will pay for the new facilities to host the athletes, media and millions of tourists from around?

Furthermore, many residents of the host cities believe that the money should be spent elsewhere. Clear examples of underfunded areas include public schools, construction projects in low-income areas or other areas of concern. 

Atlanta is no exception to this.

While the vast majority of city and state officials are excited about hosting games, a vocal minority is less than enthused.  

Christopher Harden, a season ticket holder for the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United FC, opposed Super Bowl 53 in 2018 and is not much more fond of the World Cup coming to the city.

“I think [the World Cup] is overrated,” Harden said. “We keep being told how big these are for the city, but what about putting money to fix these damn streets and MARTA?”

Many of the same issues that were prevalent when it hosted the Super Bowl might reappear in the World Cup, including unpaid work and potentially wasted spending. Employees were not compensated until early in March, about a month after the iconic game.

Harden is not the only person to feel this way.

Lewis Anderson worked during the 1996 Summer Olympics as a bus driver. He is among those who oppose the World Cup.

“The last thing I want is our city subsidizing other sports organizations,” Anderson said. “Hosting the World Cup does not make the city more money long term, and we have bigger priorities.”

Both Harden and Anderson want to invest the money that will be for the games into current solutions for the city. The concerns are identical to the issues raised by Boston residents in 2016, which the city ultimately canceled.

Mark Wilson, a writer for The Conversation, is a longtime skeptic of cities hosting world cup games. 

“Sometimes building what it takes to host a world cup or other big events dovetails with the cities ambitions,” Wilson said. “Often, the extensive preparations distort local priorities, and Atlanta can’t make that mistake.”

John Kristick, the executive director of the North American bid, highlighted the high cost for Atlanta in hosting the World Cup. He worries about the long-term financial implications after the end of the event.

“I don’t think, sitting here today, anyone should consider Atlanta an underdog,” Kristick said. “They just have to be smart about their approach.”

He estimates the cost of hosting the games could cost Atlanta anywhere from $30 million to $80 million. This number does not take into account potential setbacks faced, which many cities have had in the past.

The smart approach for Atlanta would be not spending money on infrastructure to only use for the games, but instead long term for the city. Recently, FIFA faced scrutiny for taking advantage of host cities and not giving them their share of the revenue. 

The vocal minority who oppose the World Cup does have valid points, especially when it comes to current issues. The biggest one is obvious: awful traffic and a lack of a comprehensive transit system. 

Reports suggest that that the 2018 World Cup brought nearly 5 million tourists to Moscow. Atlanta is already a congested city, and with millions of worldwide tourists coming to the town, it will be overwhelming, not to mention the recent COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the world. 

Many of the same issues that were prevalent when it hosted the Super Bowl might reappear in the World Cup. Among the problems, unpaid work and potentially wasted spending.

If the city had a difficult time paying workers for the Super Bowl, the world cup will prove more difficult. Employees did not receive their paychecks for work until early in March. It never became a widely discussed topic amongst the mainstream media. 

FIFA will announce the 2026 host cities soon. In Atlanta, the leaders need to carefully weigh the long term risk of hosting the World Cup.