‘It’s about the size of your heart’: Why Kansas City could be a 2026 World Cup host

·7 min read

Smack in the middle of the Power & Light District is the open-air area known as KC Live!, which bills itself as the “The Heartbeat of Kansas City” and has very much pulsated that part to the outer world during any number of U.S. men’s and women’s soccer matches.

So on a gorgeous Thursday afternoon, it sure was an appropriate scene to try to bring the world to us with the ultimate event, one that could have unprecedented implications for the region. Which is why they made it the spot for a news conference-transitioning-into-a-Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que luncheon for the FIFA delegation on its site visit to evaluate Kansas City’s bid to be one of 11 U.S. cities (among 17 in consideration) selected to host 2026 World Cup games.

But the visit around the area hardly was happening in a vacuum or starting from scratch. It was the culmination of months and months of exhaustive and painstaking work by the bid committee led by director Katherine Fox and constant interaction with FIFA.

And then some, including time FIFA spent on this day visiting with numerous local dignitaries that included Mayor Quinton Lucas, Jackson County executive Frank White and bid committee members Clark Hunt, John Sherman, Cliff Illig and Chris and Angie Long — leaders of the Chiefs, Royals, Sporting KC and KC NWSL, respectively.

Long as the journey has been, though, this in many ways was the last chance to strike a bid-winning impression — one that Kansas City has ample reason to feel good about but simply can’t relax about as it awaits an answer in early 2022.

“It feels like the bow on the box,” Kansas City Sports Commission president Kathy Nelson said. “Like, this is our signature. Here’s what we are, and here’s our heart. We’re wearing our hearts on our sleeves today, and this is what our community can do.”

As we conjured visions of the prospective impact on Kansas City if it were to be part of the world’s biggest and most compelling sporting event, it was natural to think of “what our community can do” in the context of where we stood: nestled in an area that was a hollowed-out husk of the city before the visionary (and steep) move to build the Sprint Center (now the T-Mobile Center) spurred development that transformed downtown.

That in turn became an energizing epicenter of a soccer-crazed area and the foundation for this momentous opportunity, which one study shows could generate as much as $620 million in incremental economic revenue for a host city. It also could lure tens of thousands of people here from all over the globe and, in fact, make us visible in ways we’ve never been viewed before.

For some context on its scope and scale: If Patrick Mahomes became a global commodity and our face to the world after the Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV before an estimated 102.1 million viewers worldwide, consider that FIFA’s records show that a cumulative 3.572 billion watched the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

But upside that those elements might represent (and as hazily as they can be determined), the notion is endlessly enticing because of what it could do for us all before, during and after.

With a new airport by all indications on schedule to open in 2023 and a downtown ballpark in the next few years a very realistic possibility and an expanded streetcar system being built, this would be an exclamation point for a city on the move (even if you might want to avoid some parts of Main Street until the streetcar is done).

A winning World Cup bid would by necessity feature further transportation upgrades among other civic legacies with a chance to stimulate more growth and business.

Moreover, the bi-state nature of the bid, including support from the state of Kansas and such facilities as the gleaming Compass Minerals National Performance Center in Kansas City, Kansas, perhaps can set a tone for a future in which State Line Road is seen more as a connector than a divider — which Nelson perceives it to be for this bid.

Meanwhile, on a day that FIFA vice president Victor Montagliani reminded us that part of the World Cup is also simply about the stories we’ll remember forever, we were left to ponder not just what we might see on the pitch but who our gracious region can welcome — something the area also is well-poised to accommodate in the form of possible training base camps for multiple nations in the 48-team field.

Picture weeks of people from all walks of life around and among us … or at Fan Fest at Union Station or the World War I Museum or the south lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

(I’ve never had the privilege of covering a World Cup, but I’ve been blessed to cover 10 Olympic Games. And there is something deeply moving in the pride a nation and community take in embracing the world. Imagine that superimposed over Kansas City, a place where friendliness is a pillar.)

All of which is why Montagliani summed up the implications of hosting as carrying with it a “a very long tale in terms of a legacy unlike perhaps any other event that I know of.” Or as Illig, co-founder of Cerner, a principal investor in Sporting Kansas City and co-chair with Hunt of the bid committee, put it in a recent interview with The Star’s Sam Mellinger: “It’s almost impossible to anticipate” the impact.

It’s also almost impossible to know what the outcome will be for one of the smallest markets in contention and a place where public transportation and immediate local hotel space have loomed as question marks.

But it also might be understood that this is a dedicated, dynamic and innovative effort. And it would seem there is serious traction with our central location and zeal for soccer and sincere Midwest hospitality and the appeal of Arrowhead, albeit likely with some corner seats removed to be contoured to soccer and World Cup specifications.

It can’t hurt that Montagliani, also the president of CONCACAF, has previously experienced for himself the hospitality and “the investment of your community in other soccer events,” including Gold Cup matches at Children’s Mercy Park last summer.

Or that he took note of Hunt’s background through visionary father Lamar’s profound influence on soccer in America and efforts to bring the 1994 World Cup to the United States (and Clark Hunt’s own evident love of the game, reflected in attending what Hunt estimated was 65 different World Cup venues over the decades.)

And this part is open to interpretation, but Montagliani shared part of a conversation with Missouri Gov. Mike Parson that we found encouraging: When Parson asked what it would take for our bid to prevail, his answer was “ ‘You’ve just got to be what you are.’ ”

That sounded plenty promising … though his next sentence seemed less so: “‘At the end of the day, you can’t be what you’re not.’”

Still, his broader point was to not worry about your opponents and focus on yourself. And he certainly offered reassurance about our relatively small metropolitan area and location, which makes it the only bid city no more than a four-hour flight from any other potential World Cup city.

“The beauty about football is that it’s not about your size; it’s about the size of your heart,” he said. “And the reality is that Kansas City obviously has a stadium and is in a … region that is crazy about the game.”

Noting that the last World Cup in Russia had included “cities you never heard of,” he added, “A World Cup, you need everything. You need every size. And that’s the beauty about the World Cup: That it’s really for everybody.”

If so, like Nelson said, here’s our heart. It’s strong and true, and you can count on it if you should choose to accept it.

Editor’s note: U.S cities bidding for the 2026 World Cup include Los Angeles, New York/New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Kansas City, Boston, Denver, Houston, Baltimore, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Nashville, Seattle, San Francisco/Bay Area, Cincinnati, Miami, Orlando.

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