The World Cup, the planet’s biggest single-sport event, is under way in South Africa and, as usual, capturing global attention. While the U.S. National Team is engaged in its never-ending quest for international respect within a sport that’s not as native here as other countries, Nashville is wrapped up in its own Cup competition.
As one of 18 potential host sites in the United States Soccer Federation’s bid for the 2018 or 2022 World Cup, the city would not only distinguish itself on the biggest sporting stage there is; it would also rake in more money — quicker — than any American city not on that list.
But two things have to happen before that. FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, would have to pick the U.S. as a host nation; and Nashville would have to make the final cut of host cities.
The first one seems like a given. The U.S. is a heavy favorite among soccer experts to land one of the two Cups.
There is a pattern to where FIFA sends the World Cup. With 2006 in Japan and South Korea, the current Cup in South Africa, and 2014’s event scheduled for Brazil, the trendy prediction in soccer circles is that the tournament heads back to Europe in 2018 and the U.S. in 2022.
The United States’ World Cup track record certainly deserves FIFA’s attention. The 1994 Cup, played in nine American cities (the tournament final was in Los Angeles), still holds the record for attendance: Overall it was 3.6 million, with an average of nearly 69,000 people per match.
The 1994 Cup also had a $4 billion economic impact on the country. And recognition of that colossal revenue has Nashville leaders working hard to get U.S. Soccer’s attention.
“The main thing right now is we need to have the U.S. be selected as one of the countries, and the FIFA people announce that in December,” said Mayor Karl Dean. “We’re going to be included in the U.S. package, but to be a site they have to get the bid.”
Butch Spyridon, the director of the Convention & Visitors Bureau and point man for Nashville’s bid, said U.S. Soccer is doing a good job courting FIFA.
“They have been working on a never-ending barrage of lobbying, leveraging and PR,” Spyridon said. “That includes getting all 18 cities to do various events and activities, increasing the number of signatures on the U.S. petition and getting celebrity endorsements.”
Over Labor Day weekend, U.S. Soccer and representatives from all 18 cities will meet with FIFA representatives in New York. Each city will make its pitch as part of the overall U.S. bid. Assuming the U.S. lands one of the World Cups and Nashville is a part, the city would likely host five matches: four in group play and one in the first round of the single-elimination tournament.
Nashville would also be in position for a major influx of foreign currency. And, of course, a jolt of American dollars.
The effect of 12 Super Bowls
What makes the World Cup the ultimate cash cow of sporting events are its duration and global appeal. Where a Super Bowl might bring American fans to a host city for a weekend, the Cup draws weeklong stays from across an international market. That involves spending money in Nashville hotels, restaurants, shops, entertainment venues, and so on — for the whole trip.
“International travelers that come would stay longer — their vacations are extended,” Spyridon said. “You’re going to get fans that come to the game, fans that come just to participate in the World Cup event, and fans that want to visit three to four cities as part of their World Cup vacation.”
According to an economic impact study commissioned by U.S. Soccer, each American host city would rake in $400 million to $600 million based on today’s dollar value. The study also said the World Cup would create between 5,000 and 8,000 temporary jobs in each host city.
Jeff Cohen, a principal at AECOM, the firm that conducted the study (as well as similar studies of the 1994 World Cup and multiple Olympics), said the overall dollar effect would be equivalent to a dozen Super Bowls.
Many Cup attendees come simply for the atmosphere of the world’s biggest sporting event, to watch the best soccer in bars with fans from across the globe. But with LP Field seating just under 69,000 (Spyridon expects seating to be added for a World Cup), five assured sellouts in a month adds throngs of ticket-holders to downtown.
In fact, LP Field was a boon to Nashville’s bid.
“In New York, when I was talking about Nashville, [U.S. Soccer] were focused on LP as an ideal location for a soccer match,” Dean explained. “It’s the right size and easily converted to a soccer stadium. It’s part of downtown but not directly downtown. You can support the auxiliary activities going on around the stadium for the World Cup. The park built around the river will be perfect [for supplementary World Cup activities].”
LP Field’s location in a lower-density area across the river from downtown would ease the World Cup additions. Spyridon said the field of activity outside of World Cup stadiums garners worldwide sponsorships. The Shelby Street pedestrian bridge would conveniently connect downtown hotels and venues with
Advancing Nashville’s chances meant Titans management had to agree to give LP Field over to FIFA during the Cup if Nashville is a host. This would allow FIFA to add seating and build a perimeter outside the stadium for fan events. FIFA’s requirements are in conflict with present arrangements among Metro government, the Metro Sports Authority and the Titans, but all parties said they are committed to making the necessary moves to secure the Cup.
“The Titans were an unbelievable partner in our efforts to submit a bid,” Spyridon said. “They have to essentially relinquish control to FIFA, but it was paramount to our bid.”
Nashville’s biggest event
It’s hard to conceptualize how big hosting World Cup matches would be in Nashville; it’s never even hosted a Super Bowl — let alone 12.
Nashville’s biggest event is the recently completed CMA Music Fest. This year’s fest ended Sunday. Last year’s festival was a record-setter, with 56,000 in attendance over four days.
“[The World Cup] has the potential to be double the size of the CMA Music Fest,” Spyridon said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us as a city.”
But nothing is in the bag yet. In December, if FIFA selects the United States as a 2018 or 2022 host, Nashville would still need to be chosen from the current list of 18 U.S. cities. Spyridon said the final number would be closer to 14.
Nashville is one of the smallest markets among competing cities, which include Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Houston, Dallas and Washington, D.C. Only Kansas City and Tampa have a smaller population. Dean hopes Nashville’s identity and hosting capabilities outweigh its size.
“We have a unique brand with Music City, which is recognized worldwide,” he said. “People have a very positive image of our city. We stack up with any city in terms of infrastructure for hosting a large event. We regularly hold Titans games and concerts that are regular sellouts. We hold events like the CMAs, where events occur all over downtown simultaneously, and we are able to handle it. We are built on a strong hospitality and tourist industry.”
Dean also said that by 2022, the Music City Center would have been open for five years, likely along with other downtown developments (e.g. new hotels).
But that doesn’t much matter if Nashville isn’t selected.
The United States’ petition, found at www.gousabid.com, also involves supporting individual cities. As of June 8, Nashville had 9,763 online signatures. That’s ahead only of Phoenix’s 4,725. For reference, Kansas City, with a smaller population, had accrued more than 20,000, while Seattle had more than 30,000 signatures.
There is no certainty of their impact in comparison with hosting capabilities, but Spyridon said he hopes to see the numbers increase.
“If you’re Nashville … or some of the mid-sized cities, I think it’s an important show of support,” Spyridon said of the petition. “We lost a month during the post-flood activity, but we’ve started to ramp that up. The next 30 to 60 days, it’s real critical.”
Efforts to increase awareness of the bid are forthcoming. Spyridon said the CVB and sports talk radio station WGFX-FM (“The Zone”) would broadcast the U.S.-England game on a screen at the courthouse during CMA Fest. On the same day, Dean was expected to officially announce Nashville’s World Cup bid.
The 2010 World Cup finals will be shown at LP Field for free.
Despite Nashville’s smaller stature, both Spyridon and Dean are optimistic after meetings with U.S. Soccer.
“Based off my experience in New York competing for part of the U.S. bid package, the way people reacted to what we had to say about LP Field and Nashville’s brand was really positive,” said Dean. “I left there feeling very positive about our chances. Everything we said was hitting home. It’s exactly what they were looking for.”