Toronto must think beyond the party when World Cup comes to town
With the recent selection of the joint Canada-USA-Mexico bid to host the 2026 FIFA men’s World Cup, it is a safe bet that Toronto will be hosting World Cup matches in the not too distant future. Toronto Mayor John Tory has described the opportunity as a “once-in-a-lifetime chance” to be part of the “greatest sporting event on Earth at a very limited cost.”
Without a doubt, hosting World Cup matches would bring a great party, and significant international media attention, to Toronto. However, assessing the opportunity and costs of hosting such an event requires that we think beyond the party.
As Toronto prepares to be a host city, it is vital that we develop an approach to planning and hosting that works to alleviate pre-existing challenges and inequalities, as opposed to exacerbating them.
The reality is that any price estimates — especially those claiming “very limited costs” — provided by supporters of mega-events such as the World Cup at this stage of the planning process invariably underestimate the actual costs of hosting. Final costs are likely to escalate to several times the initial estimates. Moreover, the figure currently being thrown around does not seem to include security costs associated with hosting; consider the cost of the 2015 PanAm Games to understand the significance of this missing detail. Security costs associated with the PanAm Games were at least $182 million for a much lower-profile event. The claim of “very limited costs” should be taken with more than a few grains of salt.
Beyond the direct financial costs of hosting the World Cup, hosting an event of this size exacerbates social inequalities within host cities. This occurs through a variety of mechanisms including increased policing — often of poor and racialized communities — uneven investment that sees public funds funnelled to wealthier areas and private construction firms, and restrictions on the activities of local businesses to protect the interests of FIFA sponsors. As well, an event of this scale could deepen the affordable housing crisis through accelerating gentrification — especially in neighbourhoods adjacent to the stadium. While the context is quite a bit different, the gentrification of the area surrounding Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracanã through a combination of intense policing, real estate speculation and the displacements of at least 700 families from the favelas nearest the stadium provides a window into the types of social consequences that hosting the World Cup can bring to a city.
We also must not ignore the opportunity costs — the money spent on hosting responsibilities is money not being allocated to some of the city’s most pressing needs in an era of significant budget gaps and a growing list of unfunded municipal commitments.
The track record for cities hosting World Cup matches exposes a long history of proponents of the games over-promising on economic impacts, while underestimating costs. Toronto is not immune to these realities. Toronto’s “Bread Not Circuses” coalition has consistently argued that the city’s quest to host mega-events has been shaped by a lack of transparency, anti-democratic planning processes, and misplaced urban priorities.
Campaigns such as the “World Class Cities for All,” launched in 2007 in Durban, South Africa, as that city prepared to host the 2010 World Cup, have worked to challenge host cities to think differently by explicitly designing investments and addressing issues of poverty and social inequity. That starts with providing seats at the decision-making table for representatives from a host city’s most vulnerable and marginalized groups. Vancouver’s use of community benefits agreements in the planning of the 2010 Winter Olympics Athlete’s Village is also a promising model to negotiate and ensure more equitable benefits from hosting World Cup matches. Negotiated by a coalition of community groups dedicated to revitalization of Vancouver’s inner-city without displacement, this agreement between the City of Vancouver and the developer created funds to support job creation for inner-city residents and procurement targeted to inner-city businesses.
It is not impossible to imagine Toronto using this opportunity to make investments that benefit all residents; however the decks are stacked against host cities who must sign host city agreements with FIFA that cover everything from tax-free status for FIFA to detailed security requirements to protections of FIFA affiliated corporate brands. These provisions are about the protection of FIFA and its profits — not about the benefits for host cities and their citizens. In other words, by design, Toronto will work to enrich FIFA’s coffers. It will be up to the city to make the World Cup works for Toronto. To do so, however, requires bold and visionary leadership that is all too often lacking in mega-event planning.
David Roberts is the acting director of the Urban Studies Program and an assistant professor in the teaching stream at the University of Toronto. His doctoral work focused on the planning for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.