The 2026 FIFA World Cup will break new ground for the more than 90-year old tournament in several ways: The 2026 competition will be the first to feature 48 teams, up from 32. It will comprise 80 games, up from 64. And it will be the first World Cup ever jointly hosted by three nations, with matches spread across 16 venues in Canada, Mexico and the United States. Exactly where in these three countries is still being decided, with FIFA expected to make an announcement of the 2026 World Cup host cities in the first half of 2022.
But not just any stadium has what it takes to host an event of the World Cup’s scale, says Gary Birdsall, who along with Dale Koger leads PCL’s Sports Construction Division. Of the 17 venues currently being considered for the 2026 World Cup, Koger and Birdsall have worked on the construction of, or major renovations to, nine of them – including stadiums in 2022 host city Qatar. They have also helped design, build and renovate major venues for world-class sports around the world, including for past Olympics and previous World Cups.
Building a stadium that can host a sports spectacle takes several considerations before, during and after construction. Here is what Koger and Birdsall, experts with a combined 45-years of experience, say FIFA will look for in the next stadiums selected to host the World Cup.
If a stadium’s owner has ambitions of one day playing host to an international event, both Birdsall and Koger say it’s important that the stadium is constructed with the end goal in mind. FIFA’s requirements for World Cup host venues are detailed and extensive, covering everything from minimum seating capacity to field dimensions – few of which can be altered after construction.
“In some ways, building a stadium for FIFA can be easier than other buildings because there are already very strict specifications,” Koger says. “There can be a lot of variables that go into a stadium’s design, which can mean a lot of decisions and options for the team’s owner. But if you’re building a stadium for a FIFA event you practically get a ready-made blueprint with what you need to do to make it World Cup ready.”
The first thing to keep in mind is the size. The average American football field is 360 feet long by 160 feet wide. But to host a World Cup game, the field needs to be 360 feet long by 225 feet wide. Without careful planning during construction, an NFL stadium may not be converted to host a World Cup game at a later date.
“From a dimensional point of view, an NFL football stadium cannot host a FIFA event unless you do something specifically to the structure. For example, the corners of a soccer pitch are wider than a typical NFL stadium, so you have to purposefully design extra feet in the field if you ever intend to bid for a World Cup or even Olympic soccer game.”
While FIFA does allow for synthetic turf, Birdsall and Koger caution against it.
“FIFA does allow synthetic turf, but the players just hate it,” says Birdsall. “Some of the world class players would refuse to even play on it. They want natural turf.”
If growing natural turf is a challenge for a venue, Koger recommends bringing in “palletized” turf for the duration of the event.
Finally, the fan experience is critical when designing the stadium.
“Always think about where your sightlines are,” Koger says. “Fans want to be as close to the pitch as possible. This means adjusting the steepness of the seats around the stadium bowl so as many fans as possible have a great view, it’s something experienced sports architects are skilled at building into the initial stadium design.”
Hosting a World Cup game brings several unique logistical challenges known collectively in the stadium industry as overlay.
“Overlay is all of the ‘extras’ that have to be added for a televised, international game,” says Birdsall. “It’s the extra security for both athletes and patrons. It’s space for drug testing and media interviews. It’s catering. It’s how the broadcast cabling is run — it’s hard to imagine, unless you’ve seen it, just how much broadcast cabling you need for one of these games.”
Koger adds that part of overlay is accounting for room for broadcast media trucks – which can add acres to an event’s required space. “Every TV channel that wants to broadcast the game will have its own production truck, and that quickly takes up a lot of land. Consider that for a Monday Night Football game, there may be one extra broadcast truck. But for the World Cup, stations from countries all over the world are sending at least one broadcast team to your stadium.”
The stadium will also need to make room for sponsorship tents, additional seating for tens of thousands of fans, and members of the media.
“In a typical stadium you might have about 200 suites and only a few broadcast booths. As part of overlay, you’ll convert some of the suites into broadcast booths for the major networks coming from around the world,” Koger says. “But, keep in mind – that could reduce your number of sellable suites for a profit.”
Adding to the complexity of overlay is that most of the added infrastructure is only temporary.
“Overlay is a tremendous amount of temporary work that goes into the stadium and then gets taken apart when the games are over,” says Birdsall. “It’s a huge amount of coordination, and every time I’ve worked on a global event it’s a major complication that local officials have a hard time understanding and haven’t accounted for.”
Over their careers, Koger and Birdsall have helped to design, build and renovate dozens of major sports venues. Their experience stretches from the NBA to the NFL to the MLB to the Olympics to professional cricket and beyond.
That gives them insight into not only how these venues get put together but also their economic functions.
“Each building is a unique animal,” says Birdsall. “Whether it’s a new building or a major renovation, Dale and I like to take the project a level further than just construction – we work to understand the operations of the building, its revenue streams, and how to maximize every square inch of the building to monetize it.”
Koger believes that a project is set up for success or failure in the design phase.
“Owners should sit down with a contractor who understands how sports facilities operate and the different opportunities for revenue streams,” Koger says. “Being able to understand the cost drivers of stadiums, to manage owner expectations and align the design to the project’s budget is really the secret sauce in the stadium construction business.”
“That’s why I encourage sports owners to work with someone with experience in stadiums, and not just someone who has built hospitals or offices or other buildings,” he says.