Providing stadium security and police escorts, arranging practice fields, holding fan festivals and covering permit fees would cost millions, but almost all the money would be reimbursed or recouped, according to a memo from Mayor Jenny Durkan's administration.
The biggest party on earth could visit Seattle in 2026, and the city now has an idea how much that would cost.
The price to host World Cup soccer games could top $10 million, according to very preliminary estimates.
Providing stadium security and police escorts, arranging practice fields, holding fan festivals and covering permit fees would eat up about $7.7 million for three games and about $10.5 million for five games, say the projections by Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office.
But taxpayers shouldn’t worry, according to the Durkan administration, which is assuming the city would be reimbursed for or recoup nearly all the money. Seattle could end up swallowing only $82,000 for three games or $136,000 for five games, and even those costs could be shared with local partners, the administration says.
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Seattle is one of 23 locations under consideration for the men’s tournament, which is set to take place at 16 sites in the United States, Mexico and Canada. The three North American countries saw their United 2026 bid selected in June by FIFA, the international soccer association that runs the World Cup.
The cities likely won’t be selected until 2020 at the earliest and Seattle is still working to set up a local organizing committee, so more work must be done. But the numbers attached to an Oct. 1 memo to the City Council are the Durkan administration’s best guess at this time. Questions about host responsibilities already have scared away leaders in a few cities.
“The United bid had the strong support of many partners,” including King County and the Port of Seattle, Durkan spokeswoman Stephanie Formas said in an email. “Mayor Durkan will continue to support the region’s efforts to host while ensuring that the city’s taxpayers know the specific costs and risks.”
The Durkan administration’s memo estimates Seattle would need to spend $1.32 million per game on stadium security, $48,000 per game on police escorts and $745,000 to make city practice fields available for a month (though Sounders and University of Washington fields would more likely be used). To come up with those projections, the administration looked at costs associated with recent big-time events in the city, such as the Upstream Music Festival and the Special Olympics.
The memo says FIFA would reimburse Seattle for the stadium, police and field costs. That expectation would appear to clash with World Cup 2026 bidding guidelines released last year, which said FIFA would ask the host governments to take responsibility for security costs.
The Durkan administration’s assumption is based on representations made by FIFA to the United 2026 bid committee and presented by the committee to potential host cities at a 2017 workshop, said Joe Mirabella, Seattle Office of Economic Development spokesman.
“The mayor has knowledge of a range of very complex contracts and projects, including the World Cup process, and will work to ensure the city and region benefit from hosting a major event,” Formas said.
Seattle would need to spend as much as $2.8 million on fan festivals but would raise funds with private events and sponsorships to recoup that money, according to the Durkan administration’s memo. The festivals are public viewing parties required by FIFA.
The winning United 2026 bid described Seattle Center and a new downtown waterfront park, which has been planned but not yet developed, as “two highly scenic, iconic, and easily accessible locations” for fan festivals.
The city would incur costs of about $27,000 per game for permit fees, and those dollars would not be reimbursable, according to the memo.
Some potential host cities, like Chicago, Minneapolis and Vancouver, B.C., dropped out of contention earlier this year due to concerns about taxpayer risks and costs associated with the World Cup.
Durkan and the Seattle City Council had no such qualms. In March, the mayor proposed and the council passed a resolution declaring the city would push ahead with a campaign to host games.
Though Councilmember Lisa Herbold voted for the resolution, she expressed concern at the time that the city had yet to study what hosting the World Cup would mean.
“I believe we put the cart before the horse and made commitments prior to identifying potential risks and liabilities,” Herbold said in a recent interview.
The Seattle Sounders and the nonprofit Seattle Sports Commission initially took the lead on the quest to host games in Seattle, submitting information to the United 2026 bid committee last year so that the city would be considered. Around that time, Seattle City Hall was in tumult, with Ed Murray resigning as mayor. Durkan won election and assumed office in November 2017.
The former U.S. attorney has a history with FIFA, which hired Durkan through her law firm in 2015 to help deal with corruption charges. U.S. authorities had accused top FIFA officials of taking bribes.
“The mayor and her previous firm, Quinn Emanuel, conducted an internal investigation” that led to the ousting of top executives, Formas said.
In withdrawing its candidacy to host games in March, a spokesman for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said FIFA “could not provide a basic level of certainty on some major unknowns that put our city and taxpayers at risk.”
Vancouver broke ranks with the bid committee after British Columbia officials said they were unable to obtain answers to questions about huge and unpredictable costs.
Minneapolis officials likewise said an inability to negotiate terms with FIFA “did not provide our partners and our community with sufficient protections from future liability and unforeseen changes in commitments.”
Those cities had some particular considerations. For example, Chicago reportedly might have had to build a dome over Soldier Field.
In June, Durkan and other local officials stressed that the Seattle area would not need major projects in order to accommodate the World Cup. The region has light-rail extensions and more hotel rooms scheduled to open, and the city hosted the Special Olympics in July. CenturyLink Field is large enough.
A study commissioned by the United 2026 bid committee said host cities could see $160 million to $620 million in extra economic activity.
“Mayor Durkan knows that Seattle is North America’s best soccer town and believes that World Cup is an enormous opportunity for our city, our fans, and our region’s economy — especially since our city does not have to build new infrastructure like a stadium,” Formas said.
Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist who specializes in sports events, said Seattle has been “a little irresponsible” in waiting this long to study World Cup costs.
“The big question is how many visitors the city will get from out of town,” he said. “The ticket revenue will go to FIFA. It won’t stay in Seattle.”
Zimbalist added, “FIFA activities will take over several city streets and FIFA does not allow its activities to be taxed.”
Seattle’s memo doesn’t account for potential costs related to security liability and tax breaks. FIFA expects host governments to assume liability for security incidents and to grant certain tax and labor-law exemptions.
Liability costs would be shared by the city with local partners and the federal government, Mirabella said.