The FIFA World Cup is the biggest single sporting event on the planet in terms of viewership. Figures from Kantar Media on behalf of FIFA estimated that the 2014 tournament in Brazil reached 3.2bn viewers over four weeks – with one billion tuning in to watch the final match between Argentina and Germany.
Hosting the World Cup is, therefore, one of the most sought-after honours in the football world, and shortly before this year’s competition kicks off in Russia, a decision will be reached as to which nation or group of nations will host the World Cup in 2026.
On the table for 2026, there are two serious bids with a contrasting set of pros and cons: a joint-super-bid made up of USA, Canada and Mexico versus the solo act of Morocco. In this article, we’ll examine why this decision is tougher than it may seem to the untrained eye and the role technology may play in how we watch World Cup 2026, wherever it may be.
Romance or finance?
World Cup bidding is a complex game, but while scepticism understandably exists in light of previous instances of alleged bribery and corruption, the decision is largely democratic. All 211 football associations affiliated with FIFA have one vote regardless of size or budget.
So, as well as making a bid which is commercially lucrative for FIFA and football, bidding nations must convince as many countries as possible to vote for their right to host the tournament.
FIFA generates approximately 90 per cent of its revenue from the sale of television, marketing, hospitality and licensing rights for the FIFA World Cup. From a global perspective, you could say that the World Cup funds world football.
This money is used to finance other international tournaments, and FIFA states that almost 72% of expenditure flows back into football development in the form of financial support, development programmes and funding competitions.
So, while World Cup bids can be based on romantic sentiments, such as Uruguay hosting a centenary 2030 tournament in conjunction with Argentina and Paraguay having held the first ever competition in 1930, the bid has to be commercially and financially lucrative.
Furthermore, given the recently announced decision to expand the 2026 World Cup to 48 teams from the current 32, bidding hosts need to have the infrastructure and facilities in place to host 40 national teams as well as the travelling circus which surrounds such a widely broadcast event.
With this context in mind, it may be surprising to some people that there is even an argument over whether the 2026 World Cup should be held in North America (USA, Canada and Mexico) or Morocco.
David versus Goliath?
From an infrastructure and sporting facilities perspective, the North American bid is made up of three absolute super-powers. The proposed 23 host cities boast enough world-class sports stadiums to host two or three tournaments in one summer.
The commercial benefits of a North American World Cup are also mouth-watering. Football is Mexico’s number one national sport, and while “soccer” is still a fast-growing alternative rather than an established cornerstone of a US-Canadian sports diet, its potential market value is colossal.
Stats from a recent Gallup survey show that soccer, the USA’s fastest-growing sport in terms of popularity, is likely to soon surpass baseball as the nation’s third favourite sport behind American football and basketball. Meanwhile, Canadian Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs such as Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact are indicative of the growing enthusiasm for soccer across the board in North America.
As well as its sporting might, it would be remiss to overlook the lobbying power of the North American bid with President Trump attempting to exert pressure on USA’s political allies to support the bid via his personal Twitter feed.
The beauty of any classic David versus Goliath clash is that the underdog can emerge victorious and despite the apparent might of North America’s super-bid, Morocco has every chance of upsetting the apple cart.
The Morocco 2026 bid team has been eager to play up its geographical location as a key selection criteria. From a revenue generation perspective, Morocco’s central time zone means its live broadcasting potential is as close to truly global as possible. This potentially increases the value of broadcasting rights, which will be sold at primetime rates to European, African and Asian audiences without completely cannibalising interest from Oceanic and American interest.
Moreover, culturally Morocco represents an interesting set of demographics which FIFA is keen to tap into. As evidenced by FIFA’s decision to include more nations in the tournament itself and award the hosting of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar – the global organising body is keen to spread football fever to as many countries as possible, maximising its geographic appeal to broadcasters and sponsors.
Therefore, Morocco ticks quite a few important boxes. It is an African country with close cultural and historical links to parts of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Furthermore, while it has nowhere near the world-class stadia of North America to choose from, Morocco is well enough equipped to be prepared by 2026. It hosted the 2018 African Cup on Nations earlier this year and plans to spend $15.8bn on infrastructure if it is awarded the 2026 World Cup.
World at their feet
The concept of hosting a tournament generally leads to a conversation about the physical practicalities of the tournament. Are there enough stadiums and will they be full? Are the accommodation and training facilities up to scratch? Is it easy to travel between locations?
Undoubtedly, the allure of the World Cup is about the colours, cultures and romance of bringing the world together in the name of football, as well as the action itself. However, what may be overlooked is what another eight years of innovation in media and broadcasting technology will mean for the way these moments are consumed by the rest of the world.
The technological challenges presented by both bids are decidedly different. Morocco 2026, geographically, could not be better placed for live broadcasting the footballing showcase to the rest of the world.
In the event of victory, however, Morocco would need to invest in its broadcasting infrastructure, as well as partner up with organisations with the ability to deliver live content to global audiences in the richest formats available.
While Morocco has strong maritime connectivity according to UNCTAD, the challenges of broadcasting multiple events to the entire world may be an entirely different ball game by 2026. Tata Communications and F1 has already trialled 360-live broadcasting, so more immersive and data-hungry broadcasts could be the norm by the 2020s.
For North America, infrastructure is a nominal issue. The bigger question is about content strategy. Delivering a global event with a 20, 10, even 5-hour time difference means making some compromises as to the number of people who can realistically tune into the live broadcast. So, how are those who cannot view the live action catered for?
Given the changing media consumption habits of modern sports fans, it’s possible to see a future where a competition such as the FIFA World Cup is consumed on-demand rather than in the moment. While the live broadcast element is of paramount importance, the added-value content which tells the story in bite-size moments reaches more eyeballs and has a longer shelf life.
Michael Cole from the PGA European Tour has recently written about this topic from a golfing point of view. He discusses how it is imperative to use digital channels to hit the majority of fans who consume media around their own schedule as much as the minority people who will attend a golf tournament. The same logic can be applied to the World Cup as its audience should extend beyond fans who regularly sit down to watch football matches.
From a commercial perspective, could this mean TV and licensing rights are snapped up by companies like Facebook or Amazon Prime rather than TV and cable companies in future? Companies such as DAZN are already using a Netflix-style platform to deliver sports content to viewers across the world, which feels like a sure sign of things to come. The only thing we can really say with certainty is that the broadcast media landscape will have evolved exponentially by 2026.
The real winner is football
There are relative merits to both bids and I am confident that whichever emerges victorious, World Cup 2026 will be a spectacle which record numbers of football fans will tune into from across the world – whether it’s via live TV broadcasts, social media platforms or on-demand platforms.
If FIFA is serious in its aims of bringing football to every corner of the world, technology plays a crucial role in transcending borders, time-zones and licensing challenges, so that no fan is denied watching ‘the beautiful game’.
Read more about the changing world of broadcasting here.