By J Hutcherson (Jun 12, 2018) US Soccer Players - It's going to be quite the week for FIFA. On Wednesday, world soccer's governing body votes on a World Cup host for 2026. On Thursday, the 2018 World Cup begins at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium. It's FIFA's version of the prom where they've already named themselves king, queen, court, emcee, and DJ. This is their show, pushing past their crises, scandals, and choices. We're all invited to step right up to the soccer carnival and most of us won't hesitate.
That's the safe assumption for FIFA. The World Cup sells itself, in theory and in practice. Yet for some reason, FIFA focusing solely on that one thing is almost insulting, at least from their perspective. FIFA wanting more didn't start with the election of Gianni Infantino as president. They'd already made a grab for additional influence with the Club World Cup. They'd already rebranded youth championships as World Cups and turned them into televised events. They'd already programmed the warmup to the World Cup through the Confederations Cup.
No need for shocked looks that they're looking into taking the next step. Selling the rights to a revamped Club World Cup and a new Global Nations League is a hot button topic for UEFA because they control the Champions League and came up with the Nations League concept. This is as much a territorial fight as it is about money, given FIFA's questionable track record for tournaments that aren't the actual World Cup. FIFA's latest opportunity has someone else paying them. Whether or not enough people care about that expanded Club World Cup or a new Global Nations League isn't the primary issue. The money involved certainly is, with FIFA openly interested in accepting $25b to launch those two tournaments.
At the same time, we might end up with World Cup expansion starting in 2022 should Qatar agree to it. That's the other power play, offering more places in the final while eroding the pressure of qualifying. Any tournament has to balance the barrier to entry with how many games are on the schedule once teams qualify. The Copa America and Gold Cup are both expanding. The organizers will talk about opportunity, and that's fair enough across the board. Still, it's that balancing act where the organizers have to be very careful they haven't watered down the final product.
That's the other thing FIFA can rely on. Talking about soccer as a product rankles a lot of people. They don't want to focus on soccer as a business, especially when it comes to the one global championship that everybody agrees really is the global championship. It has to be more than that. Otherwise, why would anybody put up with all the extraneous stuff that comes along with showing interest in the World Cup?
As organizers, FIFA's perspective isn't the same. They're looking to maximize revenue. It's fair enough to ask why, but calling into account the purpose of national and international governing bodies can end up decidedly pollyannish. "For the Good of the Game" is a nice slogan, but no one should be naive enough to downplay or ignore the push for profit. FIFA talks then and now about stakeholders, and those stakeholders expect the biggest sporting event in the world to distribute revenue across the world. More revenue means more to distribute.
Which raises the bigger picture for acting in the good of the game. What if the good of the game is less rather than more? What if it's staying away from the breaking point where interest begins to wane? What if it's taking a realistic look at where the game is, where it could be, and judging that based on something other than the potential to make a whole lot of money?
That's not how sports business works, of course. We'll see sports across the world push past the breaking point, and then feign surprise when things change. It's no trick to predict famine in an era of excess. There's no such thing as too much if the audience is there.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Is FIFA overreaching?
- MLS in cities
- What does Europe want from the Champions League?
- MLS, MLB, the NHL, and the expansion game
(Logo courtesy of FIFA)