Sporting competitions don’t get much bigger than the World Cup. Staged every four years since 1930, except for during World War II, soccer’s most prestigious tournament is watched on TV by an estimated 3.5 billion—half the world’s population. The only event that compares is the Summer Olympics, which normally attracts a roughly similar audience—although the recent Tokyo games produced record-low TV audience numbers. By comparison, this year’s Super Bowl attracted a measly 96 million U.S. viewers.
So the prospect of the World Cup coming to Texas in a few years is getting local officials understandably excited. The United States, Canada, and Mexico won hosting rights for the 2026 tournament in a joint bid. Canada and Mexico will each host ten matches, while the United States will host sixty, including the quarterfinals, semifinals, and final. FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, has named the Canadian and Mexican host cities (Edmonton and Toronto; Mexico City, Monterrey, and Guadalajara), but a decision on the eleven American cities that will host matches isn’t expected until the beginning of next year. And two Texas cities, Dallas and Houston, are considered strong contenders.
“This is the world’s largest single sports event,” said Monica Paul, the executive director of the Dallas Sports Commission, noting that the Olympics encompasses dozens of sports. “It would be like hosting six Super Bowls in a very short time period.” Chris Canetti, the president of Houston’s World Cup bid committee, estimated the economic impact of being a host city at upward of $1 billion—almost triple the $350 million impact of the 2017 Super Bowl at Houston’s NRG Stadium. “Imagine having six games, each of them being broadcast worldwide to around ninety, one hundred million viewers, plus all the social media, plus bringing visitors into town from across the globe,” he said. “This is a significant opportunity for Houston.”
The only other time the World Cup has been held in the United States was 1994, when Dallas was one of nine host cities. That tournament gave birth to Major League Soccer and is widely credited with popularizing the sport in America. The Dallas matches were played in the Cotton Bowl and attracted a mix of fanatical international fans and curious locals, many of whom were unfamiliar with soccer. “A lot of people told me it was their first soccer match,” recalled Dan Hunt, whose father Lamar was cochair of Dallas’s host committee. “There were a lot of fans there who didn’t understand some of the rules of the game. Fast-forward to today, and soccer is becoming a dominant sport in our culture.”
Houston was shut out of the 1994 World Cup, a snub that still rankles local soccer fans. “The last time I don’t even believe we were at the table,” said Janis Burke, CEO of the Harris County–Houston Sports Authority. City leaders are determined to get in on the action this time around. The privately funded World Cup bid committee was formed in 2019 under the auspices of the sports authority. Chaired by billionaire philanthropist and soccer aficionado John Arnold, the committee’s first move was hiring Canetti, the former president of Houston’s men’s and women’s soccer teams the Dynamo and the Dash. “I’m very, very confident that Houston deserves to be one of the eleven host cities,” Canetti told me during an interview in his downtown office, which is filled with framed jerseys and other soccer memorabilia. “I’m approaching it as though we’re a team on the bubble to go to the NCAA basketball tournament. We need to work our tails off to make sure we’re doing everything to earn a spot.”
As Canetti points out, Houston has hosted numerous international soccer tournaments and matches in recent years. It was one of ten American cities to host games during the 2016 Copa América Centenario, a special edition of the famous South American tournament, and it regularly hosts CONCACAF Gold Cup matches, including a recent semifinal between Mexico and Canada at NRG Stadium. Many of the world’s top club teams have played friendlies in Houston, including Manchester United, Manchester City, Barcelona, and Real Madrid. Houston boasts more direct flights to Central and South America than any other American city, making it a convenient destination for Latin American soccer fans traveling to support their teams.
In the coming months, FIFA officials will make site visits to the seventeen American cities it has named as finalists: Dallas, Houston, New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle, Atlanta, San Francisco, Boston, Denver, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Nashville, Orlando, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C. FIFA requires stadiums that can hold at least 40,000 spectators for group stage matches, which is why nearly all the American World Cup matches will be played in NFL stadiums—with the possible exception of the Rose Bowl. The opening match and final must be played in stadiums with a minimum capacity of 80,000. That eliminates NRG Stadium (72,000) but not AT&T Stadium (80,000).
But even an early-round, group-stage match in the World Cup is a big deal. Each one of the tournament’s eighty matches is expected to sell out almost instantly. Hundreds of thousands of fans will fly to America from around the world to cheer on their national teams. Hunt, the president of FC Dallas and a member of the city’s World Cup bid committee, has attended every World Cup since 1986. He has fond memories of driving around Italy with his family during the 1990 World Cup, during which he attended no fewer than 22 matches. His family were the only fans with American flags. “The beauty of the World Cup is that if you’re not a soccer fan, you can become one by watching it because it’s the greatest soccer on the planet,” Hunt said. “You see the passion that the fans bring for it, and all their traditions from their home countries.”
Of the American cities under consideration, six won’t make the cut. Officials in Dallas and Houston desperately hope it won’t be them. The official position in each camp is that both Texas cities should be chosen, but dig a little deeper and you can hear echoes of an age-old rivalry. Dallas partisans note that AT&T Stadium is bigger, newer, and just generally more special than NRG Stadium, home to the woeful Houston Texans. “It’s iconic,” Paul told me of the Cowboys’ home. “It’s a magical experience.” One selling point shared by both stadiums is a retractable roof, which would likely be closed for matches given the heat of a Texas summer. Houston boosters brag that their city is bigger and more diverse than Dallas, and has hosted just as many, if not more, major sporting events. How, they ask, could FIFA ignore the fourth-largest city in America?
Then again, the country’s third-largest city, Chicago, didn’t even submit a bid, citing the potential cost to taxpayers. The bid committees in Dallas and Houston insist that most of the money required to host the World Cup—around $60 million per city—will be raised privately or earned through corporate sponsorships. They also stand to benefit from Texas’s Major Events Reimbursement Program, which provides millions of dollars to defray the cost of events like the Super Bowl, Final Four, and All-Star games. In 2017, the state gave Houston $25.4 million to spend on hosting Super Bowl LI; private donors and corporate sponsors supplied the rest of the game’s $63 million total cost.
Global sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup are increasingly controversial because of their cost to local communities. Russia spent $12 billion to host the 2018 World Cup, and Qatar will spend around $200 billion to host the 2022 event, including building seven new stadiums. America won’t be spending anywhere near that amount, given that it won’t be building any new stadiums for the World Cup—although some host cities, including Dallas and Houston, plan to spend millions converting their fields from artificial turf to natural grass, in accordance with FIFA standards.
The Houston and Dallas bid committees say that hosting one of the world’s biggest events is worth the expense, especially if the United States makes a deep run in the tournament. The men’s national team made the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup, but has struggled in recent years, failing to even qualify for the 2018 tournament. (As a host nation, it will automatically qualify in 2026.) “It’s really important for the U.S. national team to play well,” Hunt said. “I think we’ll have a team good enough to potentially play in at least a semifinal.” For both cities, the World Cup would likely be among the biggest events in local history. But as important as the event is to the host cities, it’s potentially even more important to soccer, which, despite being by far the most popular sport in the world, still lags behind football, basketball, baseball, and hockey in the United States. “The U.S. market is so valuable to FIFA,” Hunt said. “It’s such a giant. And it’s still untapped.”