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Friday, July 19, 2024

2026 World Cup final: The pros and cons of Texas’ AT&T and New Jersey’s MetLife

On Sunday from 3pm EST (8pm GMT, 1pm PT), the world will finally know the location of the 2026 World Cup final.

Will it be played in Texas or New Jersey? Or will Los Angeles’ So-Fi Stadium be the dark horse that tops both favorites?

The decision has been fiercely guarded. Officials in Texas and New Jersey declined to comment on reports last month that Dallas had secured the grand finale on Sunday, July 19, 2026. On Thursday, sources in host cities said FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, had yet to relay any information regarding venue selections. It seems they will find out with the rest of the world.

The AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, offer very different experiences for the showpiece event in men’s global soccer and the location of the final will dictate so much about where the group and knockout matches are held, too.

World Cup venues — as with the Olympics — are not allowed to use branded names as it is viewed as a type of ambush marketing, but we will use MetLife and AT&T for now as these are the names with which fans are most familiar.

With so much riding on landing the coveted fixture, here’s a closer look at the pros and cons of each venue…

Open air or covered?

MetLife Stadium and AT&T Stadium offer two very different stadium experiences.

The New Jersey venue opened in 2009. Though World Cup games have been played in the Meadowlands, those matches were hosted at Giants Stadium, which was torn down to make way for MetLife next door. MetLife successfully hosted the Copa America final between Chile and Argentina in 2016, a precursor to Messi Mania when tickets for a match were far more attainable than they likely will be this summer.

Messi’s Argentina were beaten 4-2 on penalties by Chile in 2016 (Xinhua/Qin Lang via Getty Images)

MetLife has a capacity of 82,500 and is an open-air stadium. It usually has a turf pitch for NFL matches but will be converted to grass for World Cup games to meet FIFA’s standards.

For this summer’s Copa America games, the stadium will utilize $400,000 (£313,000) in funds from the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA), which holds the land lease where MetLife stands, to turn the field over to grass, an agency spokesperson told The Athletic.

In September, the venue hit the headlines when Aaron Rodgers tore an Achilles tendon in his debut for the Jets just moments into their opening game, reigniting a debate on player safety.

AT&T Stadium also has a similar base capacity of 80,000 but can be expanded to host up to 105,000 with standing room. Final capacity for a World Cup game is likely to sit somewhere between those figures, according to Dan Hunt, chairman of Dallas’ World Cup bid and FC Dallas president.

“We’ll lose some seats at AT&T Stadium, but I envision it still being in the 90,000-seat range for World Cup matches there,” Hunt said in January. AT&T Stadium also features one of the largest video displays in the world, weighing 1.2 million pounds and measuring roughly 72 feet high and 160 feet wide.

The stadium’s retractable roof, though, is probably its most important accessory – especially when considering a final in Texas means players and supporters will face intense heat. The average temperature on July 19, 2023, in the Dallas Fort Worth region was 94F, according to the National Weather Service. In September, England’s Rachel Daly, who played for the Houston Dash, said the heat and humidity could make it “unsafe” for players in the summer.

The LED scoreboard hanging from the stadium’s roof during the 2023 Concacaf Gold Cup quarterfinal (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

If you ask The Athletic’s NFL writers, AT&T Stadium offers a far better stadium experience than MetLife, which has far fewer bells and whistles and offers less to do in the immediate surrounding area — unless you consider the American Dream mega-mall next door. AT&T is only likely to get better in Arlington, with $350million in renovations expected at the stadium in time for the World Cup, as reported by the Dallas Morning News.

All stadiums will likely have to undergo renovations before the tournament, especially to meet FIFA’s pitch requirements, which call for a wider field than NFL-regulated fields and essentially require that any turf pitches be converted to grass. But few may have access to the resources the Dallas Cowboys’ venue has with an owner like Jerry Jones, whose estimated net worth is $12.4billion, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index.

Jerry Jones

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in August 2023 (Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

The World Cup epicenter or the center of the western world?

Both stadiums are just a short drive from their Big City neighbors, Dallas and New York City.

Supporters of the New York/New Jersey bid have long argued New York City is the obvious choice because of the city’s global heritage, with landmarks like Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty nearby, as well as the city’s relative importance in the global market. New York City, which to some is still considered the financial capital of the world, offers fans a built-in tourist attraction and the final will take place just a few weeks after the country’s 250th celebration of July 4.

Dallas is much smaller than New York City, with a population of 1.3 million versus 8.5 million. With Dallas, though, fans also have other Texan cities to travel to in the Mid-Cities region from Fort Worth to Dallas, which Arlington sits between. It’s also near Houston, which hopes to host several World Cup matches, although Jerry World, what some call AT&T Stadium, can be considered its own attraction in the heart of Arlington’s entertainment district.

If you look at a map of the 16 host cities for 2026, Dallas is at the center of them all. New York is one of the cities furthest east – although it is arguably in the most important media market in the world.

Both cities are also a roughly three-hour flight from Miami, where FIFA’s headquarters in 2026 will be.

Getting there… and getting away

One of the biggest priorities for organizers has been preparing for avoidable transportation woes. Shuffling millions of people in and out of a region is no easy feat and local authorities have already started planning for ways to be best prepared.

If the assumption is that most fans will stay in Dallas or New York City and travel to games, like millions do every week for work in those areas, that means both cities need to set up a system that allows them to travel seamlessly. Though FIFA is tightlipped about what its agreements with host cities require, at past men’s World Cups, ticketed fans were offered free public transport to games. It’s safe to assume FIFA expects the same in 2026.

Both Dallas and New York City are accustomed to temporarily increasing transport options at AT&T and MetLife stadiums for major events. Officials in both regions have also publicly backed plans for more buses, with other major infrastructure projects ongoing at various levels. (Though, if you’ve ever followed along with a major transportation initiative, they can be expensive and delays are common.)

In Dallas, some basic transit plans include increasing the Trinity Railway Express rail service during the tournament at an improved CentrePort Station, which is eight miles from AT&T Stadium, and adding dedicated bus lanes on area highways, as reported by Fort Worth Report. That hinges on pending funding and transit needs may increase depending on what FIFA announces this weekend. In July, Globe Life Field will host the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, providing a test run for some of these World Cup-related plans.

In New Jersey, there are also calls for increased bus routes to the region, with officials in New Jersey racing to build a Transitway in time for the 2026 tournament. In July, the board of NJ Transit, the state’s public transportation system, approved $35million in spending to fully design a new corridor from Secaucus, where there is a regional transit hub called Secaucus Junction, to MetLife Stadium.

During large events at MetLife, a special train service connects Secaucus Junction with the Meadowlands Rail Station at the stadium. Though easy to use, the service hasn’t always been perfect. Locals may remember some high-profile transit flops: during the 2014 Super Bowl, for instance, thousands of fans were stranded for hours trying to get home from the big game. A similar mess happened in 2019 with WrestleMania.

Super Bowl

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

More recently, Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour went off without a hitch for three performances over one holiday weekend. That may have been because the tour took place on a weekend in the summer, when most people in the New York metro area flock either to Long Island or the Jersey Shore to avoid the city heat – and, potentially, the expected traffic.

Who is paying for it?

Hosting a World Cup is not cheap and tensions usually rise when it comes down to who will cover that bill. Organizers can tap into public funding, set up sponsorships, or rely on fundraising to get by. In the case of New Jersey and New York, this becomes even more complicated when deciphering whether one state is on the hook for more than the other.

In Texas, organizers have what’s called the Major Events Reimbursement Program, or MERP — a resource likened to a Texas Trust Fund that provides reimbursement for major events brought to the state. It’s an incentive program, its supporters say, that uses taxpayers’ dollars to cover the costs of hosting major events. In 2017, the fund covered $25.4million in costs associated with holding the Super Bowl in Houston. Chris Canetti, who is leading World Cup 2026 planning in Houston, said the fund is a “huge advantage” for cities in Texas.

“We all have significant financial risks that we’re taking in hosting these events and need to have a pathway for funding it,” Canetti told The Athletic. “To be able to say that we have this mechanism in place to be able to do it, I think was positive (in the bid process). We have huge costs that we have to cover through our contracts with FIFA and to know that we have this fund in place through this legislation that’s going to help us cover some of these costs is very helpful.”

World Cup

(Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

For MetLife Stadium, organizers can request funding distributed by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. The money is allocated from $7.5million in funding appropriated from the state budget “for international events, improvements and sporting attractions,” according to a resolution approving the spending. The agency also recently approved $1.65million in funding for hosting the NHL Stadium Series, an outdoor hockey tournament, at MetLife.

One potential benefit for New Jersey could also be the ability to work closely with other host cities along the East Coast. Meg Kane, the host city executive for Philadelphia 2026, told The Athletic that Philadelphia, New Jersey/New York, Boston and even Toronto have aligned to explore options around transportation, security and even cost sharing.

“We view ourselves as a working group because there are such similarities in terms of location, as well as some of the additional events that each of the cities is managing and balancing,” Kane said in January.

Opposite ends of the political spectrum

One topic that can’t be ignored is the varying political climates in New Jersey, New York and Texas. In short, two sides could not be more ideologically different or on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Texas is far more conservative, with NJ/NY on the far left.

In recent months, one of the biggest political tensions between New York and Texas has been the ongoing migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Political tensions hit a high when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, began bussing migrants to cities like New York, angering Democratic officials. By December and early January, about 1,000 migrants passed through New Jersey on their way to New York City to circumvent new city rules, as reported by New Jersey Monitor, prompting calls last week from Gov. Phil Murphy and other Democratic governors urging President Joe Biden to solve this “humanitarian crisis.”

There are also differences when it comes to gun reform, reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights. New Jersey has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. Texas is the largest state to ban nearly all abortions after the 2022 overturn of Roe v. Wade. There’s also the question of LGBTQ+ rights, with the Human Rights Campaign saying Texas is responsible for more than 20 percent of the more than 500 anti-LGTBQ+ bills last year across the country.

These issues may seem far removed from soccer, but human rights issues were widely debated and reported on during the 2022 men’s World Cup in Qatar and continue to be contentious topics as global investment in soccer continues to grow.

Will these issues be a deal breaker for FIFA? Most likely not, but they surely will become topics for debate if Dallas does secure the final – and with it, the eyes of the world.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: John Bradford)

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