Why cities are becoming reluctant to host the World Cup and other big events

Getting ready to welcome millions of visitors – as Russia is now doing in Moscow, Sochi and other cities in advance of the 2018 World Cup soccer tournament – takes years of planning and lots of construction. It’s also expensive: Building 12 stadiums in 11 cities cost Russia an estimated US$11 billion.

When these big events are underway, they always seem worth the money and the trouble. Having worked at three World Expos, attended the Olympics twice and gone to a Tour de France and an Australian Open, I have personally experienced the palpable excitement they offer. But I have also done enough research to see that international extravaganzas don’t always benefit the locals in the long run.

I’m on a team at Michigan State University’s mega-event planning research group that identifies what works and what may prove disastrous.

Here’s what we’ve learned.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Local priorities

An overarching challenge we always see is that the organizations running big events and the public have different priorities. One side mainly cares about boosting its brand through the one-time spectacle’s success. The other wants to raise its profile and acquire new buildings, roads and other infrastructure that will improve the local quality of life in the long run – without breaking the bank.

In my view, both FIFA, the global governing body for soccer, and the International Olympic Committee, which organizes the Winter and Summer Games, need to reconsider their business models and start doing more to meet the needs of host cities. Metropolitan areas that successfully host these big events make them a means to an end: becoming better places to live.

Sometimes building what it takes to host a World Cup or other big events dovetails with a city’s ambitions. More often, the extensive preparations distort local priorities. Since the World Cup soccer tournament requires world-class stadiums that some host countries lack when they win the honor of hosting it, a construction frenzy ensues when a metropolitan area has the honor of hosting one.

That was certainly the case with Brazil’s 2014 and South Africa’s 2010 World Cups, when the host countries built several stadiums that soon proved unnecessary.

Likewise, the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro looked great on TV, but left behind many venues that quickly became a shambles following a process riddled with corruption that displaced thousands of people.