Will the World Cup runneth over marginalized people?

Fans and passersby gathered under an easy-up in Pioneer Square to watch Argentina face off against — and lose to — underdog Croatia in the World Cup.

Occidental Park vendors set up shop on the outskirts of their brick-and-mortar establishments, offering ways to get coffee and treats without breaking the sightline to the screen where the teams battled on the second of three match days as they worked to advance to the knockout round.

This year, the early morning and afternoon matches in Russia are a spectacle to be enjoyed on a quick lunch break, or another thing to remember to record on your DVR. The free viewings in Occidental Park, near a concentration of homeless shelters, are also accessible to people without the means to watch on their own time or pay for the privilege in a bar or café.

2026? That may be another story now that three North American countries have won the bid.

City and county officials are throwing themselves onto the pitch, making a play to be one of 10 or 11 locations in the United States to host World Cup games in eight years’ time. The move may excite sports fans who love the Sounders and are still crying crocodile tears into their IPAs over the loss of the SuperSonics, but history suggests that local coffers and visibly poor people will be the ones to take a hit.

At the press conference, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine emphasized the positive impacts on the regional economy. The announcement was tweeted out by the Office of Economic Development, apparently without irony.

“We have world-class soccer fans, world-class facilities, and we’re a world-class city,” Durkan said. “It is an enormous opportunity for Seattle, our fans and our region’s economy. We’re ready to welcome teams and visitors from across the globe to the Emerald City in 2026.”

For Seattle? Maybe. For the fans? Definitely. For the economy? Probably not, at least not in the host city.

And for people experiencing homelessness? Unless the crisis is over in eight years — a hopeful but unlikely turn of events — they could be hurt in the short and long term.

Big costs, few benefits

Mega sporting events are a bit like royal weddings: big, expensive parties that people from around the world love to watch that saddle the taxpayer-funded host with hefty bills. They require money for infrastructure, security, sanitation and cleanup, and potentially upgrades to existing stadium facilities, mostly paid for by local governments.

Those governments hope to attract tourists and give them and locals something to spend their money on, egged on by rosy projections offered by the bid committees that suggest the events will be more of a benefit than a burden.

There is little evidence that happens.

Dennis Coates, an economics professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and former president of the North American Association of Sports Economists, tried to send up a red flag back in 2010 when the United States looked poised to bid on the 2018 or 2022 World Cup hosting job.

In a paper called “World Cup Economics: What Americans Need To Know About A World Cup Bid,” Coates leverages past scholarship to show the dark side of major sporting events.

The evidence “suggests the costs can be substantial and can alter the public finance of the host cities and countries for years to come,” Coates wrote. Contacted by email, Coates said that his analysis hasn’t changed in the past eight years, except that having three host countries instead of one means visitors — and their spending — will be split three ways.

The numbers don’t look great.

In the bid for the 1994 World Cup — the last time the United States hosted the event — organizers claimed the event would bring the U.S. economy $4 billion. But economists who looked at the figures after the fact found that rather than deliver $4 billion, the event sucked a collective $9.26 billion out of host cities’ economies.

To put it another way, the difference between what the bid estimated and what the event delivered was $712 million per host city.

That is a bad pay day, and a large opportunity cost for cities that may have other pressing needs, such as building affordable housing and solving a homelessness crisis.

Swept under the rug

Homeless people do not just suffer from a dream of housing deferred. They can become persona non grata in the towns that they call home, swept to the margins like so much trash so that visitors can have their fun in a sanitized city without the downer of visible poverty.

Atlanta, Georgia, hosted the Summer Olympics in 1996, bringing the world to the city’s door. They let homeless people out the back.

According to an article in The New York Times, the Atlanta Task Force on Homelessness documented 9,000 arrests between May 1995 and May 1996, prior to the event. That was four times higher than previous years.

The city passed new laws to criminalize life-sustaining activities and strictly enforced anti-panhandling and anti-loitering laws on the books. These kinds of ordinances, common in Washington, target people engaging in actions such as sitting or lying down that would be legal if they had four doors and a roof.

More recently, former Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco told his city in no uncertain terms that homeless people sleeping in certain areas would have to find somewhere else to be when football fans came to the city for Super Bowl 50 in 2016.

Santa Clara hosted the event, but it was San Francisco that got the pregame parties.

“Basically what happened was he ordered the clearing of the area where the Super Bowl party was going to take place,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness.

Officials offered people who often slept near the party location spots in the Navigation Center, a 24-hour, low-barrier shelter that served as a model for the one Seattle would establish in 2017. They also pushed people out of major corridors, and away from freeway off-ramps to give a “different image” of San Francisco to the visitors, Friedenbach said.

This formed a large tent community of almost 300 tents under Interstate 80 close to the border between the South of Market and Mission neighborhoods. The destabilization brought by the criminalization of homelessness and the sweeps was devastating, Friedenbach said.

“There are a lot of people who were trying to hold jobs and lost their jobs because of so much frequent moving,” she said. “A lot of property destruction and increased trauma because folks were already so destabilized and then further destabilized. It was really rough.”

The optics were rough, at least for Lee.

If San Francisco’s leadership didn’t plan for backlash against the sweeps, they also didn’t plan for local anger over the costs associated with bringing so many tourists to town. San Franciscans ended up holding the bag for $4.8 million, according to the Huffington Post.

Protests ensued.

“It was this demonstration of unfettered wealth while folks are living in severe destitution in the shadows of this very same wealth,” Friedenbach said. “It was very difficult for people to stomach that the city was spending all of this money on a party and violating human rights in the process.”

Eight years to plan

With planning and a bit of self-awareness, Seattle and King County don’t have to go down this road. They could find alternative sources of money, or even ask FIFA, the owner of the event, to cover some of the costs.

The concern over money and how best to use tax dollars doesn’t seem to extend to sports, however.

The announcement of Seattle and King County’s intention to become a World Cup host came two days after the City Council repealed a tax on the city’s largest businesses to fund affordable housing and homeless services.

Not to be outdone, Constantine proposed spending $180 million between now and 2043 on upkeep of the Mariners’ stadium. The baseball team is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.

Mega sporting events can bring the world together in profound ways and remain one of the few positive excuses for nationalism, one that isn’t necessarily steeped in hate and xenophobia (although some fan behaviors may be).

But history suggests that local governments should approach them with eyes wide open and keep the costs to their most vulnerable residents and the region’s economy front of mind.

Courtesy of Real Change / INSP.ngo

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