Our City is a weekly column dedicated to taking a wide-angled lens to the culture that surrounds Orlando City and Major League Soccer (and this week at least, the World Cup!).
This past week, U.S. Soccer, along with the federation’s colleagues in Mexico and Canada, launched a joint bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. This bid would see 60 matches played in the United States, with 10 games played in both Canada and Mexico. While 2026 is more than a few years away and the bid hasn’t been accepted yet, I don’t think it is too soon to launch Orlando back into contention for being one of the host cities.
Some of you might recall, Orlando has played host to the FIFA World Cup in 1994. The city was the site of four first-round games and one game from the Round of 16. Orlando’s selection as a host city in 1994 was seen as a coup then, but the games here were a huge success for the city and the fans. Just don’t ask what the players thought of having to play at noon in July to accommodate European television schedules.
The opportunity for Orlando to again take part in the biggest sporting event on Earth again should be seen as a no-brainer. Here’s why:
Renovated Citrus Bowl:
I’m sorry, I’ll never call it Camping World Stadium. The city completed a $175 million dollar renovation of the facility that was completed in 2014. Besides the World Cup, the stadium has hosted Orlando City, including two massive home-openers with over 62,000 in attendance. The Citrus Bowl was the site of nine Olympic soccer tournament games for both men and women during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. More recently, three Copa América Centenario group games were played there in 2016. Those are just the soccer events. The stadium also hosts college football bowl games, professional football, and — just recently — a WWE Wrestlemania event that packed the venue with over 75,000 fans.
When the NFL decided to move the Pro Bowl from the long-standing site in Hawai’i, the league saw Orlando as the perfect destination. The ACC, needing to find a site for the conference’s football championship game due to a boycott of North Carolina, saw Orlando as a fantastic site that would be ready to host the game in a pinch.
What all of this means is Orlando’s Citrus Bowl knows how to do big events. They have a proven track record of success in hosting massive events with a world-wide audience. Of course, other cities have great stadiums, so this isn’t the only thing that will give Orlando the bid.
Included in the city’s funding package for the stadium was money for a brand-new Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, the Amway Arena, and updates to other public use buildings around the city. Orlando City has built a beautiful new soccer stadium in the heart of downtown, but I don’t think I need to tell you about that. Orange County has a state-of-the-art (and simply massive) convention center as well. These buildings all serve to boost the city’s bid as they all can serve as social sites for the various secondary events that come along with hosting a massive event.
One challenge for any World Cup bid is transportation. Orlando has its fair share of traffic problems. New improvements to I-4 may or may not alleviate some traffic congestion. SunRail has established itself in the area and continues to expand. While in the downtown core, Lynx has done well to shorten the longer walks in the city with reliable bus service.
Traffic may be the Achilles heel of an Orlando bid, but I think most cities have some similar challenges.
Orlando does have one thing that most cities can’t boast about — we have the second-most hotel rooms in the country. According to 2016 numbers, we have over 121,000 rooms — second only to Las Vegas. The importance of this number cannot be overlooked. With teams playing in multiple locations and fans planning vacations around games, demand is always high during these events.
Those fans following teams will most likely be flying, and Orlando International Airport knows how to handle waves of travelers. Our airport was the 14th busiest in country in total passenger traffic. OIA (or MCO if you prefer) has gone through recent renovations and will also open a new Southern Terminal in 2019.
The “Orlando” Factor
Finally, there is the “Orlando Factor” that helps our City Beautiful compete on an international stage. People want to come to Orlando. Imagine a 2026 World Cup draw, as your team has struggled to qualify, only to be drawn into a group playing in Cleveland or Indianapolis. Sure, these are fine cities and I’m sure they would be sufficient hosts. But, imagine that same draw and you see your team’s World Cup first-round games will be played in Orlando. That’s the kind of draw you start planning a vacation around. Make it into town for a Friday game, and win, lose, or draw, you are heading to the theme parks or the beach to celebrate or commiserate with your fellow soccer fans from around the world. Orlando is the place that soccer fans want to come to, and already do in massive numbers.
Orlando played a brilliant host in 1994 and we’ve only gotten better since then. An established soccer culture, better infrastructure and amenities, a developing city culture — all in one destination city. Orlando would be a perfect choice for a host city in 2026!
So what do you think? Would you like to see the 2026 FIFA World Cup in Orlando? Are we a better a city now than we were in 1994? Do any other cities present a better bid in your eyes? I’d love to hear your thoughts either here in the comment section or reach out to me on Twitter: @KevinIsHistory.