The head of Baltimore’s push to be a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup acknowledged “there are some benefits” to merging competing proposals from the city and Washington, D.C.
But Terry Hasseltine — executive director of the Maryland Sports Commission, which is coordinating the campaign — emphasized that move would have to be mandated by either FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, or U.S. Soccer, the national organization. He also reiterated that there is no discussion about such a possibility.
“Right now, we are currently two separate bid identities,” he said Thursday. “We represent each independently as it currently stands. We are waiting to hear whether that rumor is something that U.S. Soccer and FIFA would like us to consider. But until then, we will continue marching on as though we are two separate entities working for the rights to host the World Cup.”
Talk of a consolidated bid from Baltimore and Washington appeared to intensify after The Washington Post reported Wednesday that concerns about the ability of FedEx Field in Landover to host games have emerged. If the plans were combined, M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Ravens, would be the primary venue for games, while Washington would be the site for other events, according to the newspaper.
Hasseltine said a potential merger would accentuate the two cities’ strengths.
“The fact that we could merge the two synergies together would give FIFA and U.S. Soccer a much bigger portfolio to play with,” he said. “So there are some advantages merging the two. But that’s up to U.S. Soccer and FIFA. That’s not a Baltimore or D.C. decision. Whatever is in the best interest for the U.S. to host the World Cup that is inclusive of Baltimore or Washington or Baltimore and Washington, that is up to U.S. Soccer and FIFA.”
The United States has teamed with Canada and Mexico to try to become the first three-nation partnership to host a World Cup. FIFA could make an announcement on the 16 host cities across the three countries from a list of 23 between April 1 and May 1, according to Hasseltine. In addition to Baltimore and Washington, other U.S. cities under consideration include Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area.
FIFA declined to comment and referred inquiries to U.S. Soccer. Neither U.S. Soccer nor EventsDC, which is leading Washington’s effort, replied to requests for comment.
Delegations from FIFA and U.S. Soccer visited Baltimore on the Sept. 18-19 weekend. They watched the Ravens rally from an 11-point deficit in the second half to edge the Kansas City Chiefs, 36-35, in a nationally broadcast Sunday night game and then returned to M&T Bank Stadium the next day for a more technical visit, according to Roy Sommerhof, Ravens senior vice president of stadium operations.
Sommerhof, who led a three-year, $120 million project to upgrade M&T Bank Stadium that finished in 2019, said he heard positive reports from members of the delegations after they soaked in the enthusiasm of an announced 70,417 fans attending the game.
“I don’t believe there were too many other venues they visited during their fall tour that included an event, and I think that certainly helped our cause, to see what we’re capable of doing for an event and the energy that’s inside the building and outside the building,” he said. “They did walk through Ravens Walk on their way down to the stadium from the hotel, and they took that in. Then they obviously were in a number of different suites watching the game, and I know a number of them stayed until the bitter end. So it was as exciting for them as it certainly was for everyone else in the stadium.”
M&T Bank Stadium also has history on its side. The facility staged a pair of U.S. men’s national team matches in the quarterfinals of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) Gold Cup in 2013 and 2015 and a sold-out international friendly between Chelsea and AC Milan in 2009 and another friendly between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in 2012.
“It’s definitely a pro,” Hasseltine said. “They understand that football — as it is called everywhere else in the world — is very important to our future showcasing of the venue. So we feel very positive that what we’ve done in the past is a highlight. We also understand that what we want to do in the future is also a significant pro.”
Like many NFL stadiums projected as venues for World Cup games, the field at M&T Bank Stadium is narrower than FIFA’s standards. NFL fields are 53.3 yards wide and 120 yards long, while FIFA requires fields 72 yards wide and 115 yards long with additional room for security and commercial ventures.
Sommerhof, who is retiring at the end of March, said several proposed modifications to M&T Bank Stadium include altering the corners of the lower bowl to accommodate expanding the field, elevating the field by almost three meters to adjust to appropriate sightlines, and installing grass in certain sideline areas.
Hasseltine said Baltimore’s other asset is a consolidated footprint with training sites at Reedbird Park, UMBC, Loyola Maryland, Morgan State, Towson, Goucher and Stevenson, more than 25,000 hotel rooms within a 30-minute drive of the stadium, proximity to Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and the connectivity of Light Rail, MARC trains and Amtrak to and through Baltimore.
“The fact is FIFA really wants to make a footprint on a destination in the United States, and Baltimore is ripe for that footprint because we are the only city that is currently in the process of having a professional team in market,” he said. “People are working on that. … FIFA could come in and really make an impact on our market, and the legacy of FIFA being here would be showcased for many, many years to come whereas it might not make that same impact in other destinations.”
Baltimore’s bid has earned bipartisan support from Democratic Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and features ambassadors such as former Ravens great Ray Lewis, WNBA and former St. Frances star Angel McCoughtry and former U.S. national men’s team member Oguchi Onyewu.
For now, the team behind the city’s proposal is in a wait-and-see approach. Sommerhof said the ball is in FIFA’s side of the field.
“I think we’ve done everything I think we could do to show the people of FIFA that Baltimore is a good choice,” he said. “It’s just being patient and waiting for the decision. … We’re a little anxious, but at the same time, it’s out of our hands at this point. I think when they came for the football game and the day of meetings, I believe we put our best foot forward for that. So I think we’ve done all we could do.”