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Why the race to host world sporting events has slowed to a halt

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The battle to host the most watched sporting event in the world was over before it even started. The men’s football World Cup will land in Riyadh in 2034, after a bid from Saudi Arabia arrived unopposed. Spain, Portugal and Morocco will jointly host the 2030 tournament after having seen off rival bids from, well, nobody. 

The host-by-appointment trend — which the International Olympic Committee adopted as policy in 2019 — has become increasingly mainstream in global sport. A joint UK-Irish bid for Euro 2028 strolled to victory in its one-horse race, leaving the bidding clear for Turkey and Italy to take on the 2032 edition. World Rugby handpicked the US to host the men’s and women’s rugby union World Cups, to be held in 2031 and 2033, respectively. 

It has not always been this way: competitions to host top sporting events were once fiercely fought. British royals, American presidents and French football stars would criss-cross the globe, glad-handing officials and talking up the lavish temples to physical prowess that would be built — at great expense for the taxpayer — should their country get the nod. 

But as the costs of winning have soared, the once noisy jamboree of lobbying has turned into something more like a papal conclave, in which officials make deals behind closed doors and present the outcome in a haze of obscuring white smoke. Saudi Arabia’s bid for 2034 followed a series of abrupt changes to the bidding process by governing body Fifa that knocked out any serious rivals before they had a chance to think.   

Andrew Zimbalist, author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, sees the move to turn an open bidding process into an internal appointment as a face-saving exercise for organisers looking to paper over diminishing interest in hosting. “The market conditions have softened”, he said. “They don’t get the kind of bids that they used to.”

Indeed, the very future of the Commonwealth Games is in serious doubt after the Australian state of Victoria cancelled its plan to stage the next edition and other potential hosts declined to step in. World Cups and summer Olympics are costly affairs, especially when infrastructure overhauls are needed. Rio de Janeiro spent more than $13bn hosting the 2016 Olympics and needed an $895mn government bailout to get it over the finish line. In 2006, Montreal taxpayers finally celebrated paying off the debt incurred from hosting the games three decades earlier.

Football tournaments have been hit with rising costs as organisers push to add more teams so they can sell extra matches to broadcasters. The 2026 World Cup will consist of 104 games in total, up from 64 in Qatar, as the number of participants jumps from 32 to 48. Uefa, European football’s governing body, has weighed doing something similar with the Euros. Most countries simply don’t have the facilities to house so many teams and their fans for weeks on end, let alone stage the matches as well. 

With liberal democracies less willing to foot the bill, governing bodies looked in recent years to autocratic regimes such as Russia, China, and Gulf states Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But Zimbalist argues that these decisions have created a feedback loop that further shrinks the pool of potential bidders. “Why would you want to join a club with Saudi Arabia?” he asks. “Why would you want to join a club with Putin’s Russia?”

Zimbalist’s radical solution is to pick permanent hosts that have all the facilities in place, ending white elephant building projects. Los Angeles, which will host the summer Olympics in 2028, managed to stage the games with a financial surplus back in 1984 and hopes to do so again by reining in spending. After all, who needs a new Olympic Village when the UCLA Campus sits empty in July? Why spend millions on a new kayaking centre in California when there’s a perfectly good one over in Oklahoma? 

Picking a host is the biggest decision most sporting bodies face, so tighter control makes commercial sense. But the shift to making these deals behind closed doors will do little to improve the reputation of an industry not exactly famed for its commitment to transparency and accountability.


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