CINCINNATI — Hamilton County Commissioners voted to authorize a revised contract with FIFA that keeps Cincinnati in the running as a host city for the 2026 World Cup. What that revised contract says is yet to be determined.
Commissioners Denise Driehaus and Stephanie Summerow-Dumas voted in favor of a resolution to allow County Administrator Jeff Aluotto to finalize a contract for modifications to Paul Brown Stadium by FIFA’s deadline tomorrow. Commissioner Alicia Reece abstained from the vote, saying there are still too many unanswered questions about how much the deal will cost the county.
Aluotto said the revised contract will add local organizers of the event as parties to the agreement, which will allow the county to limit its expenses – with local business leaders partnering on additional costs.
Aluotto said those costs will include $10 million for the installation of a grass field at Paul Brown Stadium and removal of corner seats to make room for a soccer pitch. But they also could include $2 million for the installation of synthetic turf if the Cincinnati Bengals want to remove the grass field after the World Cup.
In addition, the contract includes a list of 13 “renovation categories” that FIFA will require but the county is already planning to install as part of its annual capital plans.
Aluotto said the total cost of all improvements could end up in the $45-50 million range. He said FIFA has yet to approve “our language on how costs would be split between our capital plan and community partners,” but he didn’t expect significant changes to the document before it’s finalized.
The contract revisions - and a separate open letter in which business leaders promise to raise money for World Cup expenses - emerged Thursday after commissioners balked at voting for a contract they received over Memorial Day Weekend.
“It’s far from ideal,” said Rick Cole, a former mayor who helped bring the World Cup to Pasadena, California in 1994. “But it’s not the end of the world if the lawyers on the public side have been scrupulous.”
County spokeswoman Bridget Doherty said FIFA delivered a proposed contract to the county May 21, requesting that it be signed within 10 days. The county sought an extension, which FIFA granted until Friday. That gave the county time to deliver the document to commissioners May 28 and schedule a public discussion on May 31, she said.
Officials have known for months that Cincinnati's World Cup bid would require changes to Paul Brown Stadium and prod local governments to spend money on security, hotel upgrades and other improvements. But the details of those costs have been stubbornly vague.
“I have been asking since last year, when I got elected, for the bid package,” commissioner Alicia Reece said Tuesday. “We received this weekend, holiday weekend, late at night, over 250-something pages of now we get the requirements.”
Reece cited concerns about renovation costs for Paul Brown Stadium, including $4 million for natural-grass turf and $5.9 million to remove corner end zone seats and make room for a soccer pitch. She also questioned whether FIFA will have too much freedom to make costly changes after the deal is signed.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” she said. “They make changes, and we are obligated.”
The revisions detailed at Thursday's meetings proved enough to convince two commissioners to authorize Aluotto to work out the final language and sign the revised detail in time for FIFA's deadline.
“They always have the advantage over public entities,” said Cole, who left public office in 2020 and now runs the Congress for New Urbanism in Pasadena. “They hire the highest-powered lawyers. This is what they do all day every day.”
Cole said cities should be skeptical of cost estimates and benefit projections for World Cup events, including the University of Cincinnati’s May 27 report that projects $449.4 million in non-local visitor impact if Cincinnati hosts four World Cup matches in 2026.
"Cincinnati has to think through, ‘Is it an important part of who we are to welcome the world? And if it is, then this is part of that portfolio,” Cole said. “But if it’s just, you know, ‘Hey, it’s a quick chance to make $450 million that we wouldn’t otherwise get and all we have to do is spend $10 million,’ that’s a pretty naïve perspective. Because you’re probably not going to net $450 million really and even if you do it’s a one-time shot in the arm that doesn’t last. And second, it’ll probably cost you a lot more than $10 million when all the dust settles.”
Miami University Assistant Professor Adam Beissel said security costs are a significant factor that public entities should consider before committing to the World Cup. In Brazil, he said, organizers spent an average of $12.5 million per match on security.
“It’s easy to foresee how the cost associated with Cincinnati hosting three World Cup games might be in excess of $40 million dollars, based on just required infrastructure improvements and security costs alone,” he said.
Hamilton County Administrator Jeff Aluotto did not provide an estimate on security costs to commissioners Tuesday, but his presentation noted that FIFA will reimburse county staff costs of $347,193 on match days and $122,135 on non-match days. It will also pay $100,000 to rent the stadium on match days. Local business leaders have pledged to raise up to $50 million for legacy projects, fanfests and training facilities needed for the World Cup, he added.
Beissel has written papers on the competitive bidding process FIFA uses to find World Cup hosts. In the U.S this year, he said FIFA heightened competition by expanding the tournament and offering more cities a chance to host matches. FIFA’s commitment to announce host cities by June 16 is another good move that will prod cities into action.
“The arbitrary deadline … will create a scenario in which commissioners may end up giving guarantees to FIFA or making a decision that might not be in their inherent best interest,” said Beissel. “There will be net tourism gains. The question is, are those gains in excess of the cost required to host?”