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FIFA visits Denver as city bids to host 2026 World Cup games

Denver is one of 17 candidates across the country vying for a spot. Ten will be chosen.

DENVER — Denver packs Empower Field at Mile High for Broncos games every season. Now, the city is working to prove it’s ready to host the world's biggest soccer tournament. 

Members of soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, toured the Mile High City on Monday as they decide whether Denver will be on the list of cities hosting the 2026 World Cup in North America.

Denver is one of 17 candidates across the country vying for a spot. Ten will be chosen.

"When you look at our track record, it’s clear to me that it would be a real mistake for FIFA to pass us up," said marketing professor Darrin Duber-Smith, a senior lecturer at Metropolitan State University of Denver. "It would be a really good step for Denver to garner global recognition."

Duber-Smith said Denver has a lot going for it -- especially a track record of hosting major events, even just this year. 

"We’ve proven that we can turn on a dime," Duber-Smith said. "We got the [Major League Baseball] All-Star game here and within a couple of months we had a successful All-Star weekend."

The city also hosted the CONCACAF Nations League Final in June, which some saw as a dry run to see how Denver would do hosting a major soccer game. Now, the focus will be on showing off everything else Denver has to offer.

The games would be played at Empower Field at Mile High, which opened in 2001. Other cities on the list, like Los Angeles, Dallas, and Atlanta, have newer billion-dollar stadiums. Still, Duber-Smith said that’s one of Denver’s only challenges when it comes to the bid.

"A world-class city has a world-class transportation structure. It's got world-class lodging, food. It’s large enough to be able to accommodate hundreds of thousands of visitors. It’s got one of the busiest airports in the world every year. We have that, and definitely they’re looking at that," Duber-Smith said. 

FIFA will host the 2026 World Cup in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. It’s not clear yet exactly when FIFA will decide which American cities will get to host games.

When FIFA executives toured Denver, asking about everything from security to public transportation to hotel capacity, many of the potential plans they heard about come from how Denver handled the 2008 Democratic National Convention (DNC). 

There probably won’t be as many people at a World Cup protesting bombs and war as there were during the DNC, but they still have to prepare for big crowds. The same stadium that held Barack Obama’s acceptance speech would hold World Cup soccer. The team bidding for the tournament have already reached out to the people who organized the DNC, asking for their perspective.

"Oh yeah, there’s definitely a nexus between the two. Safety and security is one of the big ones," said Mike Dino, former CEO of the Denver Host Committee for the 2008 DNC. 

The playbook he helped create is being used again, this time for sports instead of politics.

"The big thing they ask is, can we get it done? Does the city of Denver have what it takes? Fortunately we do," said Dino. "Denver is definitely ready. I remember in 2000 we tried to make a play for the Democratic convention. I could say back then we weren’t ready. But we were ready in 2008 for the DNC and certainly for FIFA in 2026. We’re definitely ready."

There are some key differences of course between the DNC and the World Cup. Of course, people from around the world would fly in for the soccer tournament where the focus on the DNC was mainly here in the United States. 

The planning committee for the Denver World Cup bid estimates the city would have to invest between $40 million and $50 million in different projects around the city to get it ready for the tournament. Organizers say the money will come from private funding. 

Matthew Payne is the executive director of the Denver Sports Commission, bidding for the World Cup. Part of his pitch to FIFA is showing off that Denver successfully hosted the DNC.

"The DNC is a great example. A lot of cameras on that event, a lot of people involved," said Payne. "You’ve got this certain program that you put together to put something on of that magnitude. To have success like that, what it does is help you in the future to be able to replicate similar events like that."

A lot has changed in the 13 years since the DNC. But between sports and politics, a lot has also stayed the same.

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