Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Chicago Gets the World Cup Boot

For the second time in just over three months, the international sports community has delivered a flaming bag of dog poop to the people of Chicago. In October, the Windy City was left at the altar for the 2016 Olympics, as the IOC chose Rio over Chicago. While the first-round exit was stunning, the final result was not a shock. But today's news that Chicago will not be among the 18 potential host cities submitted as part of the United States' 2018/2022 World Cup bid came as a complete sucker punch.

Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area are the two most glaring omissions from a list of candidates that includes less-heralded soccer cities such as Kansas City, Nashville, Tampa and Baltimore. None of those cities can equal Chicago's experience hosting big soccer matches. None has an international airport that measures up to O'Hare or a vast public transit network to rival the CTA. And none matches the diverse ethnic neighborhoods that Chicago offers. So, to borrow a line from A Mighty Wind, "Wha' happened?"

Chicago's failed Olympic bid sure didn't help. U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said "I think there's a little Olympic fatigue. I think the Park District had a tough time wrestling with FIFA requirements in short order after the IOC decision." Gunil's quote implies the Chicago local bid group put forth a half-hearted effort. Did the underdogs pull together compelling bids while Chicago assumed its experience would make it a finalist lock? If so, it's a poor reflection on the city sports leaders.

Soldier Field was another knock against the Chicago bid and another black eye for the Park District, which oversaw renovations to the stadium. Despite an idyllic setting on the edge of downtown, at 61,000 seats the spaceship on Chicago's Lakefront has the NFL's smallest capacity. The average capacity of the 18 finalists is 78,000. And if you've ever been to a Bears game there, you know the layout is a logistical nightmare. I took the picture to the left at the Bears home finale against Minnesota. Those are the crowds heading to the restrooms at halftime. Imagine tossing 65,000 England and Argentina fans into that mosh pit.

Keeping Chicago and its smallish stadium on the sidelines offers a hint as to how the US will position its bid. We've got the biggest, baddest stadiums on the planet, and we'll sell a whole lot of tickets. In the past that American bravado has rubbed the rest of the world the wrong way. We'll find out on December 2 how it plays when the winning bids are announced.

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