Opinion

Canada is poised to repeat its Olympics mistakes with a 2026 FIFA World Cup bonanza

If pro leagues are excessively demanding in terms of publicly funded infrastructure, they don't come close to what the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) imposes on host cities for the World Cup.

This is more than buying a car when all you need is a bike — it's paying for a Lamborghini and using it once

If pro leagues are excessively demanding in terms of publicly funded infrastructure, they don't come close to what the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) imposes on host cities for the World Cup. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

From a 1980s baseball movie to the ears of every politician and city planner over the last several decades: If you build it, they will come.

It is taken as a given that spending public money to host international sporting events or secure professional sports franchises will somehow pay off in the end. That's why Canadian cities and provinces continue spending public money to build and renovate arenas for professional leagues and international competitions, despite consistently low returns, dubious claims of economic stimulus and antagonistic behaviour from leagues, including a near-constant threat of franchise relocation as a penalty for not kowtowing to league demands.

But if pro leagues are excessively demanding, they don't come close to what the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) imposes on host cities for the World Cup.

Canada will share hosting duties for the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and the United States, with 10 games to be played in three major Canadian cities. Montreal is expected to host between three and six of those games, all of which will likely be played at the city's Olympic Stadium.

Montreal Olympics

The 1976 Olympics left a complicated legacy: though the Games themselves were a success in terms of attendance and participation, the $1.5 billion bill took Quebec taxpayers 30 years to pay off, and the anticipated economic boom that was assumed to follow never occurred. Montreal gained a massive, futuristic city of sport and a new home for two of the city's professional franchises, but due to the self-contained nature of the complex, there was virtually no economic stimulus outside Olympic Park, even on game days.

Despite the fact that Olympic Stadium is maintained at a professional "ready-to-use" level, FIFA demands natural grass fields and open air stadiums for all World Cup matches, so more public money will be spent renovating the Big O.

Replacing the fixed roof with a retractable one is a project already underway at an estimated cost of $200-350 million to Quebec taxpayers. The City of Montreal estimates the additional cost of hosting several matches at around $150 million, and has further estimated the World Cup will generate $200 million in economic stimulus.

However, as Christopher Nardi of Agence QMI reported for TVA Nouvelles, FIFA imposes several other stringent demands on host cities that affect their ability to replenish their coffers. First and foremost, FIFA doesn't pay municipal taxes. It also demands that the host city refrain from promoting any other major sporting event in the year preceding the World Cup; that no major cultural events occur on the day of, after and before a game; that FIFA's commercial partners have free and unrestricted access to the entire site of the matches and that none of their competitors advertise anywhere close to said site.

FIFA also demands the city be made as attractive as possible and — astoundingly — reserves the right to rename official venues. 

How exactly will the city of Montreal and the province of Quebec recoup its "investment" of public money if the epicentre of this economic endeavour is an exclusive tax-free zone? (Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

This is an extreme imposition on a city with a summer calendar full with major sporting and cultural events, to say nothing of the fact that FIFA demands tax-free status for all commercial activity in and around the stadium, meaning it would likely exclude most local, taxpaying businesses from operating there or anywhere nearby.

How exactly will the city of Montreal and the province of Quebec recoup its "investment" of public money if the epicentre of this economic endeavour is an exclusive tax-free zone? And then there are security costs to consider. Assuming Montreal hosts four games, each will have to generate $50 million in indirect tourism and hospitality-related spending to reach the city's economic stimulus estimate. Not impossible, but is it likely?

What's curious here is that Mayor Valérie Plante's Projet Montréal administration was exceptionally critical of previous mayor Denis Coderre's insinuations he would use public money to resurrect a Major League Baseball franchise in the city, in addition to an ill-conceived electric car race (the Formula E) that was so resoundingly unpopular the Coderre administration's councillors ended up distributing free tickets door-to-door.

Taxpayer money for professional leagues

Montreal is hardly alone among Canadian cities in this respect: Quebec City's Centre Videotron cost taxpayers $370 million to construct, built primarily to attract a National Hockey League team that ultimately went to Las Vegas. 

The city of Calgary has been bullied by the owners of the Calgary Flames to cough up more cash for the Saddledome's replacement, a project dreamed up by the Flames' owners for the arbitrary reason that the Saddledome is apparently too old to be of any use. Despite offering to pay a third of the estimated $500 million construction cost, with a third covered by the Flames and the rest via ticket surcharge, Calgary's offer was rejected because a construction surcharge on tickets was deemed to be eating into the Flames' revenue. This is just another example of the exploitative nature of professional leagues and associations.

Not only do the Olympics — and events like it — demand the building of specialized new infrastructure, the cost of construction typically balloons to levels that would be unjustifiable otherwise.

But the bigger issue is still whether hosting a major international sporting event makes financial sense for the host city and province. Looking back at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, for example: some analysts have indicated that it had no discernible positive impact on tourism or economic performance of the city, and most if not all of the infrastructure projects associated with it (Canada Line, Vancouver Convention Centre, Sea-to-Sky highway etc.) would likely have cost far less had they not been built in association with the Olympics.

Not only do the Olympics — and events like it — demand the building of specialized new infrastructure, the cost of construction typically balloons to levels that would be unjustifiable otherwise. Ergo, not only do cities get infrastructure they might not have needed, but they pay extra for it; this is more than just buying a car when all you need is a bike, it's paying the full cost of a Lamborghini and using it once.

This is hardly demonstrative of either sensible economic policy or progressive city planning. 

"If you build it, they will come" might sound like a persuasive argument in favour of investing in professional sports, but we are not Iowa corn farmers considering cutting down our crops to build a baseball diamond for ghosts. We're talking about actual urban planning, not film slogans. 

Time and again, when we follow this mantra, we see that the fields are real, but the economic boom is nothing but a dream.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Taylor C. Noakes

Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist from Montreal.