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2026 World Cup an opportunity for Atlanta to shine

Atlanta media wait at Mercedes- Benz Stadium for the FIFA announcement of the 16 North American cities that will host the 2026 World Cup. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

By Maria Saporta

As dignitaries and members of the press gathered at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to celebrate the announcement that Atlanta would be one of 16 North American cities that would be hosting soccer matches for FIFA’s 2026 World Cup, longtime Georgia state Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus) shared a sentiment many of us old-timers were thinking.

“This reminds me of the Olympics announcement,” Smyre said of the day — Sept. 18, 1990 — when Atlanta was selected to be the site of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

There are defining moments in the life of every city. Hosting the Summer Olympic Games was one of them for Atlanta. Hosting the World Cup in 2026 will be another.

The announcement of Atlanta as a 2026 World Cup city garnered significant media attention. (Left to right) Darren Eales, president of Atlanta United; Dietmar Exler, COO of the AMB Sports and
Entertainment group; Katie Kirkpatrick, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber; Gov. Brian Kemp; Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens; Dan Corso, president of the Atlanta Sports Council; William Pate, CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau; and Carlos Bocanegra, vice president of Atlanta United. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Gov. Brian Kemp also compared the announcement to the 1996 Olympics, mentioning local leaders who led the effort — former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, Atlanta Olympics leader Billy Payne and then-Gov. Zell Miller. Kemp also mentioned the public-private partnerships that have led to the city’s successful “track record” of hosting major sporting events.

Two thoughts I’d like to share with you as I reflect on the FIFA announcement:

One — Atlanta has an opportunity to really seize the moment if FIFA selects the city to host the semifinal matches, and even more importantly if it selects the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) to be the home of the International Broadcast Center (IBC) for the World Cup. That would be the cherry on top. Getting the IBC would mean that for up to six weeks in the summer of 2026, Atlanta would be the center of attention as matches would be played in Canada, Mexico and the United States. FIFA is expected to announce its schedule and the IBC host city in about a year.

Two — as we led up to the Olympics, there was an unbridled energy to get our house in order — to make Atlanta and Georgia as polished as they could be when the world came to visit. The 2026 World Cup gives us the same opportunity to fix what needs fixing before company comes to town.

Business, civic and government leaders in Georgia, Atlanta and the region should galvanize to come up with an aspirational agenda on how to make our city as stellar as it can be. The World Cup can be a catalyst to improve our city for decades to come.

For starters, city and state leaders will be doing all they can to convince FIFA that Atlanta should host the semifinal matches and that it is the best home for the IBC.

MLS Cup

Exuberant Atlanta United fans cheer the soccer team to victory for the MLS Cup in 2018. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Darren Eales, president of the Atlanta United soccer team, is hopeful FIFA will follow the recommendations of the U.S. Soccer Federation, which recommended that Atlanta and Dallas host the semifinal matches. The speculation is that the opening match will be held in Los Angeles and that the final match will be held in the New York/New Jersey area. In all, 48 teams will participate in the 2026 World Cup, more teams than ever before.

“I think we are well-placed to get the semifinal match,” Eales said after the World Cup announcement on June 16.

Other dignitaries attending the celebratory announcement agreed.

“We want the semifinal matches,” said Katie Kirkpatrick, president and CEO of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, who said she would even love to see the final match played at Mercedez-Benz Stadium. “We are going to pitch ourselves for the best position possible.”

But the real prize would be getting the IBC.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said that if we got the “media headquarters,” announcers would say: “Live from Atlanta” during their global broadcasts.

“We can host them all — the press from around the world,” said Dickens, who outlined the city’s advantages — the proximity of the GWCC to the stadium, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, 14,000 hotel rooms, MARTA, a walkable hospitality zone and a passionate soccer community.

“FIFA has found out something that we’ve already known for a little while here in Atlanta — that Atlanta is a soccer town,” Dickens said.

Atlanta competing with Dallas to host the International Broadcast Center for the 2026 World Cup. (Dallas sent out a celebratory tweet after being selected as a host city.)

Interestingly enough, Atlanta’s competition for the IBC is Dallas, which has proposed hosting the media center at Fair Park, the home of the Texas State Fair, reminiscent of what used to be our own Lakewood Fairgrounds.

“We put an initial ask for the International Broadcast Center,” said Eales, who said Atlanta’s bid featured the airport, the proximity to downtown venues as well as Atlanta being in the Eastern time zone, an advantage Atlanta has over Dallas.

“It’s between us and Dallas,” Eales said. “They were the host for the IBC in 1994. They have that in their favor.”

Atlanta was not a soccer town in 1994, so it’s not surprising that it was not a 1994 World Cup city. Few Atlantans were thinking about the World Cup because it was too busy getting ready for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

But 30 years later, the World Cup dynamics in Atlanta have changed.

Dan Corso, president of the Atlanta Sports Council, called the World Cup “the world’s biggest sporting event.” Planning for the event, such as establishing a host committee, will begin after Qatar hosts the 2022 World Cup in November. The economic impact of hosting between four to six World Cup matches is estimated to be about $415 million.

So how can we leverage the World Cup to make Atlanta a world-class city?

Let’s dream a little — and then let’s figure out how we can make those dreams come true.

Because I’m fortunate enough to have this platform, let me offer some suggestions.

Northside Drive currently is visually unappealing and physically uninviting to pedestrians .(Photo by Maria Saporta.)

First, let’s transform Northside Drive in front of Mercedes-Benz Stadium as a world-class, pedestrian-friendly boulevard. That will take true public and private collaboration as well as a partnership between Atlanta and the Georgia Department of Transportation because Northside Drive is a state highway.

When asked if he would support improving Northside Drive, Gov. Kemp said: “I’m open to all roads in Atlanta being improved.”

Dickens responded that Northside Drive “definitely” needs better “pedestrian access and safety.”

The sad truth is that Northside Drive continues to serve as a moat between the historic  Westside communities and downtown Atlanta.

The entire Martin Luther King Jr. Drive corridor from the stadium to Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard needs to be reinvigorated by preserving the historic landmarks along the way — Gaines Hall, where W.E.B. Dubois was living when he wrote the book “The Soul of Black Folk,” the historic Paschal’s Restaurant and Motor Hotel, the homes of the late Grace Towns Hamilton — the first African-American woman to serve in the Georgia General Assembly — the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA building, the now-deteriorating Morris Brown Stadium, as well as other significant places along Sunset Avenue in Vine City.

Also, on our aspirational “to do” list should be a direct MARTA connection to the Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. We boast of having one of the best transit connections to our airport, but that’s only for domestic travel. Getting from the International Terminal to public transportation is a lengthy, uninviting process for our international travelers who would be most prone to use MARTA. We need to come up with an elegant, world-class solution to link the international terminal to MARTA.

All of those initiatives will require vision and partnerships from a multitude of public-private entities, and all of those would have lasting benefits well beyond the 2026 World Cup.

Note to readers: In the comment section below, please share your ideas of which aspirational initiatives we should work on between now and 2026. Let’s provide our community leaders with ideas — and then as a region, we can coalesce around priorities and work together to make them a reality.

Looking forward to hearing your ideas.

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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4 Comments

  1. John (Jack) Crowley June 21, 2022 10:33 am

    Maria, If my memory serves me, the South Commuter Rail Corridor toward Macon (in Phases) Plan Concept would have used the NS Rail corridor line through the former Hapeville Plant (now Porsche) which connects the International end of Hartsfield. Perhaps the less expensive BRT-MARTA solutions to Clayton County could be upgraded (back to the Rail option) for the longer haul AND the World Cup. The Domestic Terminal MARTA line and the Rail that links to the International Terminal area are linked at the Ft. McPherson area.Report

    Reply
  2. Angus M. June 22, 2022 9:13 am

    Stop panhandling. Aggressive pan-handlers drive thousands away from our city, It is the number one barrier to Atlanta becoming a world class city. People have first hand negative experiences and never come back and spread this sentiment by word of mouth. You can “clean up for company” for a few weeks but without addressing it permanently, Atlanta will remain a second class city internationally.Report

    Reply
  3. Maria, thanks as always for shining a light on the big issues of our day, the big events that have shaped Atlanta, and that continue to give Atlanta’s citizens AND its leaders the opportunity to actually make Atlanta the world-class city it set out to be and that led it to be an Olympic City in 1996.

    To your list of making Northside Drive a street for people, and to getting rail transit access to our airport’s international departures and arrivals, I would add a the following that would make Atlanta an international city when the World Cup arrives:

    1) Implement without delay the first section of BeltLine rail to Ponce City Market via the extension of the Downtown Streetcar.
    2) Get busy on the westside and southside with the 8.8 miles of BeltLine rail that can be built there, in accordance with the projects already in the More MARTA program adopted by the MARTA board in 2018.
    3) Re-vitalize the West side through Atlanta University Center and providing a connection at the World Congress Center, its hundreds of thousands of employees and convention-goers, and the mega-development at Centennial Yards. With an immediate jump start effort, the Streetcar West Extension to the BeltLine is also achievable in 4 years. This would make for a BeltLine to BeltLine rail loop that, coupled with the fixes to the existing downtown streetcar to make it efficient and get it out of traffic, will connect some of the City’s most important places where the people actually are and where they want to go.
    4) Rapidly develop the other three high-capacity transit projects in More MARTA, currently scheduled to be BRT- Summerhill, North Ave, and Northside Drive- a great pedestrian street is important and needed as the front door to both MBS and Vine City MARTA, but we must build the Northside Drive transit- whether BRT or streetcar at the same time, because a beautiful boulevard that doesn’t have the transit in it from the start falls short.

    The dillydallying on rail transit expansion is a failure of the MARTA Board of Directors to prioritize movement on these projects and the other rail programs in More MARTA and is not what a world-class city would do 5 years into a voter-driven mandate. Mayor Dickens, The City Council, and the public must demand that the MARTA Board be the solution or get out of the way. It IS possible to have trains running from Centennial Park to Ponce City Market BEFORE the World Cup crowd arrives. The FIFA World Cup attendees, athletes, and press will all go to the places BeltLine rail will serve on a train, but may never see them if driving or walking or a series of buses is the choice.

    As you point out, arrival on an international flight here isn’t a world-class experience. The Jackson International terminal at the eastern end of Hartsfield-Jackson has fallen short of passenger volume projections- long before the pandemic affected all air travel significantly.

    Why? Other international gateways have increased their passenger load more during the same period. Could it be the reason is that the word is out that Atlanta isn’t the preferred place to arrive on an international flight if you’re not prepared to walk endless corridors to get your bags, only to end up in a long line to hoist your bags onto a small shuttle bus that takes a 7-mile tour of the northern reaches of the airport property and then deposits you at the MARTA station that was your goal to begin with? Could it be that many (as a business traveler I include myself in this group) choose to make their international connections in other American airports so that they can arrive in the domestic terminal here and easily reach a train? While no new rail connection is feasible by 2026, re-establishing the domestic baggage re-check for Atlanta bound passengers, and restoring their ability to use the Plane Train just like connecting passengers and arriving domestic passengers do is a quick, feasible, and achievable fix before rail can be delivered to the east side of Hartsfield-Jackson.

    The rest of the world uses transit. As a first choice. Rich, poor, professional, vacationer, old, young, everyone of all types is used to having a train steps from their arrival, accessed through beautiful architecture and with clean speedy connections to the center city and its attractions. Once there they are able to connect to other transit lines- rail, streetcar, buses- and continue on their way to their final destination . Atlanta does not offer that experience. But with a few changes and some direct leadership from our new Mayor Andre Dickens, it could. There is still time, but none to waste.Report

    Reply
  4. Brian Sumlin June 28, 2022 11:03 am

    If i*m not mistaken according to 2021 when Secartary Buttejeg visited Atlanta, the tunnel under the airport is in progress of being expanded.. 2. Also the the concorse train was mentioned in the news as about to be upgraded and expanded Also. 3. Honestly the MoreMARTA program and legislation needs recalibration because the communities that the program serves there is a descrepancies in the program as MARTA evaluates in “real time” each transportation corridor. It’s too much for MARTA to handle this program. It should be the community that determines what type of systems they want to cater to our needs and part of our needs now is innovation. If we are catering and delivering international world class hospitality to our visitors, our city must adapt to creativity and have pride in our neighborhoods. It is estimated that revenues from each day a game is held is $400M in economic revenue so imagine the taxes that can contribute to the community and promised expectations of our effective transportation and housing systems. This is a opportunity to do it right and get more projects “shovel ready”. Revenues into the MoreMARTA program belong to the people the community and not MARTA.Report

    Reply

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