Since the Seattle Sounders officially started MLS play in 2009, the league has enjoyed an explosion of popularity in the Pacific Northwest. The Cascadia region added two more teams in 2011, the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps, reigniting a tripartite rivalry that began in the defunct North American Soccer League four decades earlier.
The Cascadia region has helped vault MLS into the upper echelons of attendance among domestic soccer leagues around the globe. Last year, the overall average of 18,807 fans per MLS game ranked the 19-team league eighth worldwide in attendance among domestic soccer leagues.
Seattle has ranked first in attendance every year since joining the league five years ago, and is on pace to repeat the feat a fifth straight year in 2013. Portland and Vancouver have consistently ranked among the top six in attendance over their three years of MLS existence, including the 2013 season. In terms of popularity, MLS has made no better move in the past decade than its decision to expand into Cascadia.
So with the fanaticism that has proven itself in the geographic region that extends through British Columbia into Washington, Oregon, and expanding based on its watershed into western Idaho and northern California, it is hard to argue that any other region of North America is more soccer-hungry than the Pacific Northwest.
The World Cup has not come to American soil since 1994, and the earliest it could come back is 2026. And as MLS demographics have shown, there is really no region north of the US-Mexico border more deserving of the World Cup than Cascadia.
Imagine it… two powerhouses of the sport, perhaps even the US men’s national team at that point, square off at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. 80,000 or more fans are raining down noise onto the pitch, the stage for a worldwide audience wondering who will next hoist one of the most iconic trophies in sports.
It could be as memorable as Roberto Baggio’s tears on the Rose Bowl turf as he missed the pivotal penalty kick in Pasadena in 1994. But is a World Cup in Cascadia merely a pipe dream, or is it more than mere fantasy? Could it really be viable to host the tournament in this locale?
What does it take to host a World Cup? FIFA theoretically requires a plan that encompasses 12 venues that can seat 40,000 or more spectators. But as we have seen, those stipulations are hardly a hard and fast number. To assess the viability of the two possible directions a Cascadia World Cup bid could take, we must first figure the baseline requirements for pulling off the world’s largest single-sport legacy event.
The last time the United States hosted the event in 1994, they won the bid utilizing nine stadiums designed for NFL and NCAA football. The smallest two venues, Foxboro Stadium and RFK Stadium, each offered seating for more than 53,000 fans per match. Among the nine stadiums from sea to shining sea, 52 matches were played. In the end, a worldwide audience witnessed Brazil’s fourth hoisting of the World Cup. While that tournament was the last to be played with a 24-team field, it offers several pertinent notes for the viability of both potential Cascadia bids.
First, it shows that both NFL and college football stadiums can be modified to accompany the wider field dimensions required for soccer. Second, it shows that there are plenty of viable stadiums regionally in the United States which any World Cup bid would be foolish not to utilize. Third, it shows that any American bid for the World Cup will require either a massive leap in the capacity of MLS stadiums or the utilization of venues that traditionally house a completely different field sport.
But no World Cup has used just nine stadiums since the field expanded to 32 teams when France hosted the tournament in 1998. And, with any regional bid, the example of 1994 is a weak precedent that offers little pertinent comparison. Instead, the baseline must be set by the World Cups that have transpired since France hosted the first expanded eight-group tournament in 1998.
First, we must look at the joint Japan/South Korea edition of the World Cup in 2002. This edition was essentially an outlier in that both nations utilized 10 stadiums apiece for an outlandish 20 stadiums overall. Thus it automatically skews every possible baseline to which future World Cups would aspire. But if we remove the 2002 figures from the numbers, the rest of the tournaments – those that have been hosted and those that are already in the planning – stages provide an interesting look at what it truly takes to host the 64 games it takes to crown a world champion.
The first thing to look at is the number of venues used by each tournament. France in 1998 and South Africa in 2010 each hosted the tournament by using 10 venues. The 2006 tournament in Germany used 12 stadiums, and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2018 edition in Russia are both also projected to use 12 stadiums. That leaves Qatar in 2022; FIFA has already ruled that the country can scale back its plans for a 12-stadium tournament to as few as eight stadiums. In general, though, we can assume at this point that FIFA recognizes that a 64-game, 32-team tournament can be hosted in nine to 12 stadiums.
But FIFA, remember, has that basic requirement that a stadium be able to seat at least 40,000. The average capacity of the stadiums in the five World Cups at which we are looking is 51,298. The important thing to look at, though, is the fact that this number is skewed by the fact that there is usually one or two large centerpiece stadiums with eight to 10 stadiums that scale just beyond the 40,000 minimum. The median of the 56 stadiums involved in the study is 45,060, showing that a World Cup bid scales best at that size – as long as you have at least one or two showcase stadiums that can host the largest draws.
Construction is another factor that must be considered when we look at the viability of a bid. Since 1998 (and excluding Japan/Korea 2002, remember), there have been 23 stadiums built from the ground up for the World Cup. 27 more stadiums have been renovated to host the tournament over that period.
Only six venues were ready to host the World Cup when the host country bid for its chance to invite the rest of the globe to its soil. All of those venues were Bundesliga stadiums that hosted the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Thus there is obviously a lot of leeway. But either way you slice it, a Cascadia bid has a good chance regardless of which plan you go with.