What went wrong? Baltimore leaders react to lost World Cup bid

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So confident were state and local officials that the Baltimore-Washington region would be selected as one of 11 American cities to host the 2026 World Cup that they gathered for dual watch parties and planned a celebratory video call afterward.

But when the list of names was read during an hourlong broadcast Thursday evening, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. — which had teamed up on a bid — were not among them. The announcement was deflating for promoters and city leaders alike, who had hoped the joint effort would be a winning combination to lure the international sporting event to the region.


By the next day, Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott cast it as another opportunity to prove the world wrong about Baltimore.

“What we’re going to do is what Baltimore always does,” Scott said Friday. “When people say that we’re not, we show them how wrong they were.”


Scott, who was among the attendees at an M&T Bank Stadium watch party, said being passed over by FIFA was a “disappointment” and “obviously” the wrong decision.

But the mayor said he was encouraged by the cooperation between Baltimore and Washington over the bid.

“What I take away from this is, with everyone working together, we can put aside all these other political, all these other differences, to go after the World Cup bid, then we can do it on everything else,” he said. “That’s the key.”

Earlier this year, Baltimore and Washington joined forces to vie for the games, a move each city felt could increase its chances of being selected. Washington had initially bid to host matches of its own; the combined effort sought to unite Washington’s status as the nation’s capital with the more attractive venue of M&T Bank Stadium, rather than FedEx Field in Landover, home of the NFL’s Washington Commanders. (Audi Field in Washington, home to the D.C. United pro soccer team, is considered too small to host World Cup games.)

Under the combined bid, matches would have taken place in Baltimore, while Washington hosted a fan festival on the National Mall to coincide with the nation’s 250th birthday.

Mike Kavanagh, left, and Simon Torres were part of a group at Abbey Burger Bistro in Fells Point that watched as the 2026 FIFA World Cup cities were announced.

Among the U.S. cities that applied, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Kansas City, Missouri, made the cut. Other North American sites were picked in Mexico and Canada.

Passed over in the U.S., along with Baltimore, were Cincinnati; Denver; Nashville, Tennessee, and Orlando, Florida.

Terry Hasseltine, executive director of the Maryland Sports Commission, oversaw Baltimore’s campaign for the games. He said his group organized the would-be celebratory call with confidence that — because of the merger of Baltimore’s stadium and infrastructure and the symbolism of the nation’s capital celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026 — it would be selected.


“I thought we were the right decision,” he said. “It’s a mystery right now.”

FIFA President Gianni Infantino on Thursday with FIFA Cup before a 2026 World Cup press conference in New York.

Al Hutchinson, CEO of Visit Baltimore, too, was at the watch party. He knew nothing was guaranteed, but was confident Baltimore would be selected, he said.

”I was shocked. I was at the announcement party when they did not say Baltimore as an East Coast destination,” Hutchinson said. “I was really just shocked.”

Emails to Dan Flynn and Amy Hopfinger, who are helping FIFA organize the 2026 games and were liaisons between the organization and Maryland officials working on the bid, were not returned.

Hutchinson and Scott were confident the FIFA delegation members enjoyed their time in Baltimore when they visited in September. FIFA officials were on hand for an NFL nail-biter at M&T Bank Stadium between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Ravens. They also toured the city.

“I don’t know. Maybe they felt a little bad for [Kansas City] Mayor [Quinton] Lucas because he was there and saw the Chiefs lose,” Scott said of the FIFA visitors.

Fans celebrate Thursday at KC Live! in Kansas City, Missouri, after it was announced Kansas City was chosen as a host city the 2026 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament.

Scott said he has no indication of what fell short in Baltimore’s bid.

Hasseltine said he hasn’t been told why FIFA didn’t pick the local bid.

In discussing possible factors, he brought up the region’s transportation systems, but only to specifically say he doesn’t know why they would have a negative effect and noting a lack of mass transit at several of the winning sites. He said that he believed, in fact, that the Baltimore-Washington bid included strong transportation options, such as MARC commuter rail between Baltimore and Washington and the location of Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

“I don’t know what other factors came to this result,” he said, “but congratulations to the other cities. They obviously check the box that we missed. Something else was at play.”

Scott said the selection of Boston, which will host games at Gillette Stadium, a 45-minute drive from downtown, signals Baltimore’s problem was not its transportation network, he said.

“If you’ve ever been to Foxborough, you know there’s no public transportation. If you’ve ever been to Arrowhead [Stadium in Kansas City], you know there’s no public transportation,” Scott said. “Obviously, it’s not that.”


Scott’s spokesman, James Bentley, said FIFA officials specifically commented during their visit that transportation would not be a problem for Baltimore’s bid.

Fans enter the Ravens' stadium from a light rail stop.

Restaurateur Alex Smith had a front-row seat to the planning of the Baltimore-Washington bid. His wife worked on the bid at Visit Baltimore, where he is on the board. Smith is CEO of Atlas Group, which has about 20 restaurants in the Baltimore area, and he estimated that nabbing a World Cup bid would have brought in a few million dollars to his restaurants alone in 2026.

“It’s basically the equivalent of five Super Bowls,” Smith said. “So, you’re basically talking about every single hotel room in the city booked out for a month straight.”

Smith said he had expected that New York and Miami would be locks to host World Cup games, but he didn’t think Philadelphia or particularly Boston could match Baltimore’s offerings.

Smith, like others, can’t say for sure why Baltimore came up short.

”It wasn’t for a lack of effort. These guys worked really, really hard. And they put out an unbelievable product to sell to FIFA,” Smith said. “ … It wasn’t that our team Baltimore wasn’t prepared and didn’t put out a first-class product to compete with these other cities. I think there’s an extra force at play here.”


Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford, who also attended Thursday’s watch party, called the FIFA decision “unfortunate,” but commended the work of the joint committee that lobbied for the games.

Rutherford pointed to the upcoming Charm City Match, featuring English Premier League clubs Arsenal and Everton, due to be held M&T Bank Stadium on July 19 as a “showcase” of Baltimore as an international sports destination. The English Premier League last played in Baltimore a decade ago, when Liverpool and Tottenham faced each other at the Ravens’ stadium.

Baltimore Sun reporter Sam Janesch contributed to this article.