How Kansas City became the 2026 World Cup’s most unlikely host city

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<span>Photograph: USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: USA Today Sports

Kansas City was hardly a sure bet to be named that day as one of the host cities for the 2026 World Cup, but Kathy Nelson was confident enough to arrange for one of those big-screen watch parties in the trendy Power & Light District downtown when Fifa confirmed the choices on 16 June.

Nelson, the president of the Kansas City Sports Commission, felt that the city, even though it is the 31st-largest metropolitan area in the US, had made a strong bid. But Fifa had leaked nothing. When Kansas City was picked, the crowd roared. She cried, a little.

“Seven years of work went into 10 seconds of elation,” Nelson told the Guardian recently at her office.

Although Nelson says this was more of a bid from the Midwest US, Kansas City will be the smallest of 11 American metro areas to host the World Cup. Kansas City beat out Phoenix, Denver, Orlando, Cincinnati and Nashville among others – making this a sports upset, of sorts.

“There is a natural chip on our shoulders for the fans and sports teams in general,” Jake Reid, the president of Sporting Kansas City, the city’s Major League Soccer franchise, told the Guardian. “They’re passionate, but there’s a bit of a David v Goliath feeling here.”

Even though, as the story goes, the late Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt was responsible for renaming the NFL’s championship the Super Bowl after seeing his kids play with a bouncy toy called a Super Ball, Kansas City has never played host to the big game itself.

Related: World Cup 2026: Host city reveal lays bare sprawling, money-spinning affair

The Chiefs won the Super Bowl two years ago, but it was their first NFL title in 50 years. Kansas City has had an NBA team, the Kings, and an NHL team, the Scouts, but neither was good enough to play for a championship before moving elsewhere in the 1970s.

The city’s big-league baseball team, the Royals, won the World Series in 1985 and 2015, but the club, which has won only one division title in the last 36 years, appears destined for its seventh straight losing season and yet another August fire sale of its best players.

What Kansas City did have, though, was location, smack-dab in the middle of the continental US, the so-called Heartland, no more than a four-hour flight to any other 2026 World Cup site. As Nelson said with a smile, “When you look at the map, oh, we stand out.”

But there was apparently much more. Kansas City really does love both kinds of football, American and association.

The bid was a big deal here, joined by hundreds and co-chaired by Sporting Kansas City owner Cliff Illig and Clark Hunt, Lamar’s son and the current Chiefs owner. Lamar Hunt, the soft-spoken Texas oilman who died in 2006, was passionate about soccer.

When Major League Soccer was formed in 1996, Hunt brought a team to Kansas City called the Wizards. The club was renamed Sporting Kansas City in 2011 and plays its home games before large crowds at a state-of-the-art 18,000-seat stadium.

When Hunt died, he owned MLS teams in Columbus and Dallas. The US Open Cup, the country’s largest domestic tournament, was named after Hunt in 1999.

When Hunt brought the Dallas Texans to Kansas City in 1963 and renamed them the Chiefs, he was influential in establishing the Kansas City area as a youth soccer hotbed. The Heartland Soccer Association, with 30,000 players, is the largest such association in the US.

FC Kansas City were among eight original members of the National Women’s Soccer League, winning two championships before folding in 2017. But the NWSL added an expansion team in 2021, now called the Current, who opened their own practice facility last year and will have the league’s first women’s soccer specific stadium, an 11,500-seat venue along the Missouri River.

“The beauty of football is that it’s not about your size, it’s about the size of your heart,” Victor Montagliani, a member of the Fifa council, said at a news conference after a tour of Kansas City last year. “The reality is, Kansas City obviously has a stadium and is in a city that is crazy about the game.”

The actual infrastructure itself is being shored up. A new terminal at Kansas City International Airport is to open next year, and highway and public-transportation projects underway in the city should make it easier for thousands of international guests to get around.

In the meantime, Kansas City and the Chiefs are to play host to the 2023 NFL draft. Kansas City has long been a college basketball capital: The Jayhawks, the NCAA champion, play in Lawrence, Kansas, 45 miles west of Kansas City, and the Big 12 Tournament is played at the 15-year-old T-Mobile Center in downtown Kansas City.

The announcement was not so much of a culmination as it was a green light to keep preparing. At least four World Cup matches – and perhaps five to seven – are to be played at Arrowhead Stadium, the city’s 76,000-seat NFL facility.

But many other details remain. A schedule, not to mention the full field and group pairings of the 48 participating countries, won’t be released until closer to 2026. So Nelson and Katherine Holland, who led the team that put together Kansas City’s bid, are not finished.

Almost immediately after the host cities were announced, attention swung, naturally, toward the economic benefit for each metropolitan region. Such a boon is difficult to measure, but it is safe to say that the World Cup will bring in millions of dollars to each host city.

“It will change Kansas City for the next four years, and beyond,” Holland told the Guardian. “You can never pay for that type of marketing exposure.”

Fifa will call most of the shots from here – establishing ticket prices and availability, for example. Many logistics of the most complicated tournament in sports, “the nuts and bolts,” as Holland called them, will need to be worked out after the 2022 World Cup is held in Qatar.

Seven of the top 10 metro areas in the US will be World Cup hosts – New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Miami – but Kansas City belongs, too. As Reid said, “We knew we had to differentiate ourselves.” And Kansas City did.

“I do not worry about filling Arrowhead,” Holland said.

When the bid committee had to find two local celebrities to provide a video message of congratulations for the selection show, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Modern Family star Eric Stonestreet stepped up. (Jason Sudeikis, the Ted Lasso star, was tied up.)

“Kansas City, we got the World Cup!” Mahomes said in his message. “The city is gonna show out in 2026. We can’t wait to welcome fans from across the globe to the heart of America and to the world’s loudest stadium. Let’s go!”

Nelson and Holland laughed when they told the story of hosting Fifa officials for a tour of the city and some of its facilities last October. The tour, of course, included lunch – and lunch, as it often does in Kansas City, included its world-famous barbecue, this time from Joe’s.

Barbecued meat is best enjoyed outside on a paper plate with beans, coleslaw and cold beer, but at this luncheon, the barbecue was served to the international visitors on china, with wine. Reflected was Kansas City’s past, and its near future. “It was beautiful,” Nelson said.