Opinion: World Cup runneth over into Kansas

Long before the Chiefs were cementing their dynasty last Sunday and Ted Lasso was bringing Kansan-infused witticisms to the TV-streaming world, the State of Kansas was unknowingly laying groundwork for another transformational event with a foot and a ball: FIFA’s World Cup soccer tournament in 2026.

In 1998, hosting “the largest event in human history” was unimaginable — until the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Bill Graves created the STAR bond program for big economic development and tourism projects. Sales tax generated in STAR bond districts pays off government bonds used to build the project. The key was to attract visitor-driven sales and income tax — a huge tenet of economic development’s best practices.

The Kansas Speedway and Legends shopping venue in Wyandotte County — the first STAR bond district — became the state’s No. 1 tourist destination, a cash cow for what was one of the poorest counties in the state, and home base to Major Leagues Soccer’s Sporting KC, Kansas’ first and only professional sports franchise. This was the impetus behind Kansas and the KC metro area out-kicking other big-time metropolises to be one of 16 North American host cities for the World Cup. The stint spans six games, including a prestigious quarter-final match elongating visitor stays.

But to invoke a coach Lasso-ism, the $30-ish million ask of Kansas taxpayers from KC-based organizers KC2026 made some “more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

KC2026’s ask represents about 19% of their budget for transportation, security and marketing operations. A Senate committee recently recommended $28 million on top of $10 million approved last year for Sporting KC stadium upgrades to support base camp for one of the 48 participating countries.

With all games being played at Arrowhead, Missouri-based businesses and governments stand to reap most of World Cup’s benefits, which is why the state of Missouri has been asked to more than double Kansas’ investment.

Will it be worth it for Kansas — especially for localities outside of the KC metro? It’s a fair question.

Supporters say it’s a chance for Kansas to put its best foot forward on an unthinkable scale, given the event draws nine to 10 times the viewership of the Super Bowl. For sheer eyeball magnitude, nothing comes close.

It’s a chance to build upon Kansas’ rising global footprint and goodwill; we export $14 billion of Kansas-based goods such as aircraft parts, beef, wheat and soy, and eight of our top 10 trade partners — Mexico, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Australia, Brazil and the U.K. — are virtual World Cup locks, bringing dignitaries and throngs of loyal fans.

Also, a projected $163 million return for Kansas exceeds the typical 80% return on investment for public incentives.

The World Cup should be viewed as another global and local export. Just like chilled beef and airplane engines, or a $4 billion Panasonic battery plant in De Soto and $1.9 billion computer chip plant in Burlington. They all import outside dollars that would not be here otherwise, converting into income and sales taxes for reinvestment throughout the state while lessening the tax burden on all Kansans.

That’s the thing about economic development. It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s cumulative. One thing leading to another bigger thing. Just as nobody in 1998 could have imagined this, we should believe the same in 2026.

— Bill Fiander teaches university courses in public administration and government. He is the former planning and development director for the City of Topeka.


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