LANE ONE: The 2026 World Cup is where FIFA is meeting the NFL, with enormous future implications

The FIFA World Cup trophy; what impact will be 2026 World Cup have on the National Football League?

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Under Swiss President Gianni Infantino, FIFA – the international football federation – has undertaken to grow the game even beyond its present status as the world’s most popular spectator sport. His touchphrase:

“Making football truly global, at every level, is the core task for FIFA to pursue over the coming years.”

While November’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar will be a spectacle and full of controversy – all World Cups are – it’s fascinating to see how the federation has looked to the future in selecting its U.S. venues for the mammoth 2026 World Cup.

This will be first edition of a 48-team World Cup, with the format not completely set at either 16 groups of three teams or 12 groups of four, to be played at 11 U.S. sites, three in Mexico and two in Canada. In any case, a lengthy application and review process finally concluded with the announcement on 16 June 2022 of the 16 sites that will host matches.

Did the U.S. selections feature the shiny new Major League Soccer stadiums which have popped up across the country, such as the elegant Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles (opened 2018), or Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minnesota (2019), or Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas (2021)?

Nope. Not a one.

Instead, FIFA chose 11 U.S. facilities which are primarily home to National Football League franchises, three of which also host MLS teams. The U.S. sites:

Atlanta: Mercedes Benz Stadium (75,000)
Dallas: AT&T Stadium (92,967)
East Rutherford: MetLife Stadium (87,157)
Foxborough: Gillette Stadium (70,000)
Houston: NRG Stadium (72,220)
Kansas City: Arrowhead Stadium (76,640)
Los Angeles: SoFi Stadium (70,240)
Miami: Hard Rock Stadium (67,518)
Philadelphia: Lincoln Financial Field (69,328)
Santa Clara: Levi’s Stadium (70,909)
Seattle: Lumen Field (69,000)

These stadia are big, two to four times bigger than the new MLS venues; the Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles seats 22,000, for example. But there is perhaps much more going on here.

Not only will these state-of-the-art NFL stadiums generate far more ticket and ancillary income for FIFA, which is serving as the direct organizer of the 2026 World Cup – a first for the federation – but it brings Association Football (FIFA) and American Football (NFL) closer than they have ever been.

And they are already close, as six of the owners of the NFL teams whose stadia will be used are already involved – or wanted to be – in soccer. Consider the soccer backgrounds of these NFL owners whose stadia will be used for the 2026 FIFA World Cup:

Atlanta: Falcons owner Arthur Blank owns Atlanta United F.C. of the MLS (which plays in a reduced-capacity Mercedes Benz Stadium).

Kansas City: Chiefs owner Clark Hunt was an original owner-investor in Major League Soccer and owns F.C. Dallas.

Los Angeles: Rams owner Stan Kroenke not only owns the Colorado Rapids of the MLS, but Arsenal of the English Premier League.

New England: Patriots owner Robert Kraft was the original and still owner of the New England Revolution (which plays in a reduced-capacity Gillette Stadium).

Seattle: Seahawks owner Jody Allen is a minority owner of the MLS’s Seattle Sounders (which plays in a reduced-capacity Lumen Field).

Let’s add in New York Jets co-owner Woody Johnson, the former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, who unsuccessfully bid for Chelsea F.C. of the English Premier League earlier this year.

That’s six of 11 NFL facilities in which the team owners are either owners, or wanted to be an owner of an MLS or English Premier League club.

That’s close. The other five NFL owners whose clubs play in host venues for 2026 are not known to own soccer clubs – Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, Janice McNair of the Houston Texans, Steve Ross of the Miami Dolphins, Jeffrey Lurie of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Denise DeBartolo York of the San Francisco 49ers – but is there any doubt that they will learn a lot more about soccer as 2026 approaches?

And the NFL owner meetings are already teeming with more soccer club owners:

● Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper also owns Charlotte F.C. of the MLS;

● Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam also own the Columbus Crew of the MLS;

● Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan also owns Fulham F.C., advanced to the English Premier League for 2022-23;

● Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf is a part-owner of the new Nashville Soccer Club, which began MLS play in 2020;

● Tampa Bay owners, the Glazer Family, own the fabled Manchester United club of the English Premier League.

The count is up to 11 of the 32 NFL owners with a direct tie (or intended tie) to soccer club ownership.

The future implications are clear: FIFA and the NFL’s owners will get to be even more familiar as the 2026 World Cup approaches. More opportunities for soccer in the U.S.? This appears sure.

But what about help in expanding the NFL’s impact – which it desires – in Europe and South America, the heartlands of soccer? A joint venture between the NFL and FIFA perhaps? Maybe introductions to tie-ins with some of Europe’s blue-blood football clubs?

These closer and closer ties between the most successful North American sports league and the world’s most impactful sports federation will be a sideline to the 2026 FIFA World Cup, the first to be played in three countries. But it’s worth watching to see the business impact of the world’s largest single-sport event on (or with) the owners of America’s flagship league. And there will be an impact.

Rich Perelman

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