The draw for FIFA’s 2022 Men’s World Cup took place in Doha, Qatar, and while the immediate chatter on Friday was about the individual games next November—mark your calendars for England vs. the U.S. the day after Thanksgiving—the sports business world is taking note of a different sort of matchup: the stark contrast between the 2022 Qatar World Cup and the 2026 version to be held in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
“We’re going from the smallest footprint (for a World Cup) to the biggest by far,” FIFA’s chief competitions and events officer Colin Smith said earlier this year.
Qatar will be a unique World Cup for ticket holders. Never in the contemporary history of the World Cup has the distance between the stadiums been so short. Out of the eight stadiums in the competition, all in the greater Doha region, the two most distant are only 35 miles apart. Qatari organizers claim the proximity between the stadiums will “contribute to providing a more comfortable experience for the fans,” which, according to FIFA, will number around 1.5 million. Fans able to get tickets can easily watch two games a day and, in some cases, perhaps squeeze in a third game.
Accommodations, especially affordable ones, could be a concern, though. The lack of available hotel rooms in a country slightly smaller than Connecticut has been addressed, organizers say, by adding cruise ships, including two from Mediterranean Shipping Company, and fan villages (tents).
The 2026 World Cup will be a different ball game. While the stadiums will be spread out, nobody knows yet where the venues will be. Four years out, organizers are yet to decide on host cities in the three-nation tournament—the first multinational World Cup ever. For the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, 12 host cities were unveiled five years ahead of time, and for Russia 2018, FIFA announced the host cities in 2012.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed 2026 site selections as the FIFA site inspection team insisted on visiting each candidate city. Since last September, they finished three rounds of visits. U.S. cities still in the running include Boston, Nashville, Atlanta, Orlando, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia, Miami, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Houston, San Francisco and Seattle.
Given that every U.S. candidate has an NFL stadium with more than 50,000 capacity, cities are expected to ramp up much more quickly than Qatar, where most of the eight stadiums were completed only recently.
Besides distance, the North American World Cup is adding another degree of difficulty: the size of the tournament itself. Qatar ’22 will be the last time the World Cup will be played among 32 teams. Next time around, the tournament draw will include 48 national squads. Organizing the qualifiers will be a monumental task, let alone coordinating the logistics of the group play once the draw is announced.
FIFA says the key will be ensuring teams are not crisscrossing the continent unnecessarily.