I was asked to contribute to a piece in the Sunday Times Ireland. This is here, but it is behind a paywall.
Andrew Zimbalist also contributed and was quoted as saying that while promises of enduring positive impacts are not borne out by previous experiences, there are few downsides in this bid for Ireland. He says "assuming that only existing stadiums will be used and that no hospitality or transportation infrastructure will be required, then other than some disruption there will be few downsides".
Of course we need to be be careful that the pork barrel approach of many enterprising local politicians and grasping county boards of the GAA that see this as a chance to develop regional stadiums (for examples, see comments here about Semple Stadium in Thurles and Casement Park in Belfast).
The following is the basis of my contribution to the Sunday Times article.
I think the proposal for Ireland to join a bid with the UK countries is potentially quite positive. While the FIFA World Cup is a much bigger tournament than the rugby World Cup, for which Ireland recently unsuccessfully bid, Ireland would be a smaller element of a larger 2030 football world cup bid and so is much more sensible than trying to secure the entire rugby World Cup and the infrastructure and stadium development that would have entailed.
The 2030 World Cup will have an expanded 48 teams and 80 matches. The US-Canada-Mexico World Cup in 2026 will have 3 venues in Canada, 3 in Mexico, and 10 in the US. Ireland’s element of the proposal for the 2030 World Cup is likely to be limited to the Aviva Stadium and Croke Park, if it is made available by the GAA. None of the stadiums in the 2026 tournament is less than 45,000 capacity and the work that would be involved in upgrading the stadiums outside of Dublin would not be worthwhile.
With two stadiums in Dublin, one in Cardiff, and two or three in Glasgow/Edinburgh, this would leave England to provide 10 stadiums. This is not a big stretch based on the current stadium capacities of the Premier League clubs. Including Northern Ireland as a venue makes sense because of the narrative that can be built around a bid and linking it to the peace process, but the cost would be prohibitive. It would mean essentially building a new stadium in Northern Ireland that would remain mostly empty otherwise.
This means a bid would not require significant stadium investment. The infrastructure is already largely in place to move fans between host cities. Dublin is already very well serviced with flights to England and ferry travel can be scaled up relatively easily. The tournament would be far more compact than others, such as the 2026 world cup with venues across North America and Mexico. A UK-Ireland tournament would be more compact than the likely rival bids, with the exception of Morocco, the losing bid for 2026. The carbon footprint of a UK-Ireland tournament - with more European teams attending and smaller travel distances between venues (with less air travel) - would be lower than the competing bids. This would particularly be the case relative to a bid from Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
England seem to be reaching out to the other UK countries and Ireland to overcome the weaknesses in its disastrous bid for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The inclusion of the Irish, Welsh, and Scots may soften the attitudes towards the English in the global football community.
A lot of the issues with the rugby World Cup bid need to be addressed though. These involved the lack of transparency in the bid and the basis for the projected economic benefits. These cost-benefit analyses are notorious and can really be designed to provide whatever outcome is needed. There are some things to watch out for though. The first is on the benefits to tourism numbers. Tournaments like these of course bring in fans to watch the games. This has to be offset against the displacement of typical tourists who will avoid Ireland while the tournament is on – whether to avoid the disruption of sharing the space with football fans or because they cannot secure accommodation. There was a decrease in international visitors to the UK in the summer of 2012 despite the London Olympics. A boost to the tourism industry is possible where these fans stay for longer and spend more than typical tourists.
The supply of accommodation is relatively fixed. This means if the hotels are already at capacity without a tournament there is no boost to the sector from more visitors – they are simply replacing the ones that are “already there” – except through higher prices.
It is important that these factors are considered in the analysis that supports a bid. We need to avoid over-promising and generating unrealistic economic benefits from poor analysis.
There is less risk attached to this proposal from Ireland’s perspective, with more modest likely benefits. Perhaps the best approach for the FAI and the Irish government would be to avoid making heroic claims about legacy effects and massive tourism boosts and instead to acknowledge that this is about spending on short-term benefits of the feel good factor and having a “party”. If the Irish team manage to qualify then it would be a month to remember for everyone. This would be more honest.