As a football-loving Canadian, I was absolutely buzzing to see the North America bid win the 2026 World Cup. Really, the whole continent is buzzing and the work of hundreds, even thousands is vindicated by bringing us the tournament. The coordination, the chutzpah, the graft, and the planning. Oh, the planning.
But winning this honour is just a twinkle in the eye of what associations must go through to bring a major sporting event like the World Cup to a region, to a country and in this case to a burgeoning football superpower. The work is just getting started.
Our cities and towns across North America are more than just places where people live; they are organic spaces where the citizenry seek out experiences and activities, our footprints are planted on streets and parks across the landscape. Often, we are pushing children on swings, enjoying the ballet, or throwing our arms up at sporting events. It’s what civic architects would call a ‘healthy city’. And a healthy city is always looking to develop pastimes for people to thrive on.
This is why sport tourism is such an important factor in civic development, whether you are drawing tourism regionally through local sports or inviting global events into the city. And this is what I’d like to focus on: not the attracting or the delivery of the event, but the civic activation around the event. How can a city envelop itself in a World Cup?
The key to such events are, of course, the sponsorships. According to Statista.com, 2018 sponsorship spend in North America will be in excess of $17bn. “Spending on sponsorship globally is forecasted to increase to $62.8bn in 2018," says Calcio Finanza. This represents a jump of 4.2% over the previous year. The quick math suggests that North America accounts for close to one quarter of the world’s sponsorship spend. This is clearly seen when you experience the immersion around sport such as the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB. The emergence of soccer's MLS under commissioner Don Garber has seen that league make major strides after 1994 World Cup in the United States.
This sponsorship revenue is key to activating cities. Unfortunately, what often happens is that this money goes to major media contracts rather than to tactics that activate and promote the game at a more ‘local’ level. And herein lies a major opportunity.
We now know, very clearly, that these traditional marketing tactics focus on the product and the brands’ association within. They prove too often to be vanity projects that fail to deliver on the event organiser’s goal for the event.
The Fifa World Cup is about bringing the competition to places where there is an opportunity to grow the game. To share the magic of the beautiful game with new audiences while generating opportunity for participation. Taken directly from the Fifa mandates, key goals include “promoting health and education,” and countering “the decline of children practicing sport […] and the associated consequences of obesity, diabetes, chronic pain and psychological problems.”
A sports apparel sponsor creating a set of incredible adverts on the TV is not going to help reach those goals. Unfortunately, in many cases, the sponsor will develop activations based on their desires, not the needs and desires of the organisation. You might argue that this should be the sponsor's right; I’ll argue that the sponsor may not see this as a true sponsorship.
Of course, there are cases when a sponsor aligns with the goals of the event they are sponsoring, and they do this incredibly successfully. One example is Active Start Soccer Fests put on by Soccer Canada, where the goal is to “introduce the sport of soccer to youth through a fun-filled event for both children and their parents”. Perfect. This is for children under the age of 12 who we know have the propensity to fall away from the sport at 14, as is the case across most western nations. The fests are supported by major sponsors Allstate, Toyota, Teck and the Government of Canada. This simply ticks all the boxes: it achieves the goal of building the game; the sponsors are suited perfectly for the audience, and; it’s activated in communities across the country.
The country is hosting
After the champagne stops flowing, the countries hosting in North America will begin planning. And this will be some intense planning.
In Canada, there will be three host cities in 2026, Toronto, Montréal and Edmonton. To provide perspective for non-North American residents, Montréal is 3,586 km or a 38-hour drive from Edmonton. For our UK friends, that’s comparable to driving from Inverness to Brighton just short of four times.
I bring this up as we need to consider as a country how we can go beyond activating just the three host cities. We want to activate the whole country! This will be an incredible challenge for a country so vast and with cities so disparate. It’s the challenge I hope to see the likes of Soccer Canada take on. This may be the only World Cup in Canada in my lifetime, in the lifetime of many of the sponsors and organisers. In the simplest of terms, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would be a shame to go to waste.
With the right activation plan and the right sponsors who have a vision to grow the game in Canada, this could be a spectacular opportunity to reach those Fifa objectives and grow the game exponentially. We can push the success of the emerging Canadian Premier League, The MLS, whilst creating a long-term legacy of sport participation in Canada.
As noted at the start, Canada is a burgeoning football superpower. Let’s not miss the chance to make this a reality.
Patrick C. Kavanagh is director of brand experience at Alphabet Experiential