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about 4 months ago

The Case for a World Cup Site at Penn State

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The World Cup, every four years, is the biggest sporting event in the world. In the 2010 edition of the tournament, the final game between Spain and the Netherlands (combined 2010 population: 63.42 million) had 909.6 million viewers, or approximately 13 percent of the world’s population at the time. This year’s tournament is already on pace to shatter that record, and massive audiences in the U.S. are a strong contributing factor. The following is purely speculative, sure, but a lot of the dominos for Qatar’s axing have already begun to fall.

For those unfamiliar with the situation, FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar over the likes of the U.S.A., Japan, South Korea, and Australia. It seemed shady at the time, and has grown all the more so since. Logistically, Qatar will have to build most of the stadiums, and will have to renovate and expand existing ones, in order for them to be used at the World Cup, as the largest stadium in the country holds just 40,000 people (or about 37 percent of Beaver Stadium’s capacity). The average temperature in Qatar in June and July ranges from a breezy 103 to a balmy 107 Fahrenheit. The heat is such a concern, in fact, that there have been talks about moving the World Cup to the winter.

Qatar, most importantly, has some serious issues with human rights abuses. Qatar does not practice full-blown Shari’a law, but rather a blend of modern civil law and the Islamic law. Qatar is far from more progressive on women’s rights, as in 2011 UNICEF reported that female testimony could be worth anywhere from half as much as a man’s to not being admitted at all. Human Rights Watch describes the situation in the small Middle Eastern nation as “problematic” and cites such things as abuse of migrant workers, who would be the World Cup stadiums’ main construction labor source, via the kafala system, which more or less acts as indentured servitude for these workers. Unsafe working conditions have contributed to the death of about 1,000 migrant workers. Then there is the alleged bribery of FIFA officials, resulting in the Australian government considering legal action to recoup the $40 million used in their ill-fated bid. Perhaps worst of all, you can get flogged from 40 to 100 times for alcohol consumption and illicit sexual acts in Qatar. With Sen. Bob Casey calling for Qatar’s host status to be removed, you can see how its host status may be falling apart both from a legal and logistical perspective.

So, where does Penn State come in?

Well, after ESPN’s Jorge Ramos tweeted that the U.S. had been put on blast about taking over the bid in a now-deleted post, the speculation has run rampant. SB Nation’s Ryan Rosenblatt detailed the chances of the bid coming to America recently. Deadspin posted a list of potential host sites for the theorized USA 2022. While Penn State wasn’t mentioned, fellow large college town Ann Arbor was. Many of the principle reasons for choosing those sites apply to University Park/State College as well. In 1994, there were nine different host sites in the US, and there would most likely be anywhere from 8-12 in a 2022 tournament, and sites like Beaver Stadium in less populated areas would probably be only used for a few games, like the Manaus stadium, and at best maybe a full group stage worth (six matches), but there are plenty of reasonable factors to consider in choosing Happy Valley to host part of the tournament.

Before I get into that, a disclaimer: I know the chances of this happening are slim-to-none, and this is all pure speculation, but it’s fun to consider. Beaver Stadium is used so infrequently, we’re used to big crowds, young people are the biggest audience for soccer in the U.S., and the site lines of Beaver Stadium make it ideal for use in soccer. So, sure, all of this is a stretch, and any speculation about Qatar even beginning to lose the World Cup needs to be taken with several large grains of salt. There are also plenty of other stadiums in larger, more accessible areas in the U.S. that would probably be happy to house tenants in the offseason, if only for a few matches. But while it may be nothing but a pipe dream at this point, sometimes you have dream a little bigger.

So, here are four major factors that must be considered, but are not all-inclusive, when talking about PSU as one of the potential host sites:

1. Stadium Capacity

Beaver Stadium holds 106,572 people. The only bigger stadiums on earth are Rungando May Day Stadium in North Korea (which probably isn’t a threat to host), Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata (Calcutta) India, and that stadium a few hours Northwest of us with that wide receiver who plays QB and the cornerback who likes getting balled on. By comparison, Rio’s Estádio do Maracanã, site of the World Cup final, holds 74,738 spectators. FIFA, being the money-grubbing disaster of an enterprise that it is, would surely lick its chops at the chance to sell an extra 30,000 tickets to any game, finals or otherwise. FIFA could say it was doing it so more fans could watch their team, and even though it’d be lying through its teeth, it would make that a possibility. Plus, Beaver Stadium wouldn’t need construction or renovations the way many World Cup sites do/would. That’s the biggest benefit of and best reason for moving the tournament to the U.S.: The infrastructure is already there.

The downsides aren’t quite so big here, but they exist. Beaver Stadium is capable of holding regionally and nationally televised games, but would it be able to support global media? We certainly have seen media swarms in State College, but nothing like the biggest sporting event on the planet. Additional considerations for being able to broadcast to that level might have to be made. Additionally, FIFA requires the field be between 70-80 yards for international play. College football fields are 53 1/3 yards wide, so unless the space that makes up the sidelines at Beaver Stadium would add another ~20 yards of space, some seats might need to be temporarily moved. We’d have plenty of time to plan the logistics for that, but it could be an issue. At least, unlike Ann Arbor, the field is real grass. Soccer players aren’t particularly big fans of turf. As former USMNT Captain Claudio Reyna put it, “I’d rather play on bumpy ground.” Finally, Beaver Stadium would probably need to apply for a liquor license to realistically host games, which Michigan was able to do when it hosted one of the NHL’s Stadium Series games.

2. Accommodations

The State College/University Park area certainly knows what it feels like to have a sudden rush of people infiltrate the town for a few days at a time, thanks to years of Fall Saturdays packing it to the brim. Because of the timing of the World Cup, the only people living in the areas would be residents, summer session students, and LEAP kids. This would open up a good amount of the on-campus housing to be rented out for the duration of the cup games (a full group stage or maybe even just a game or two). PSU would make extra money in the summer off of capacity they’re not using, and while staying in student housing may not sound ideal at first, consider the conditions of the average hostel in, say, Manaus. East Halls certainly doesn’t look too bad by comparison. Students who typically count three months of their rent (mid-May through mid-August) could sublet downtown apartments and apartment companies could take a portion of that money to allow this to happen. Much like FIFA, downtown State College real estate groups are mostly evil, so extra money will certainly not be something they’d object to. Residents, if they so choose, could rent out extra space on sites like Airbnb and Craigslist. This is to say nothing of a sort of Nittanyville for the World Cup that could happen in the tailgating parking lots and areas around the stadium. The bars and restaurants will see a massive boom in business and all the towns in the surrounding area would also see some of the overflow, similar to move in and football weekends. Bringing the World Cup to central PA would seemingly be a large, if one-time economic get for local businesses. 

There are obvious downsides to all of this, of course. Assuming the University wants or would open those facilities in the summer is far from likely, especially as it looks to continually upgrade housing. The downtown real estate people suddenly allowing an influx of tons of visitors who may or may not be citizens to come in and live in the housing that they’ve required applications and contracts for would certainly be a massive logistical hurdle, and would probably take some of that famous FIFA scuzz money to go through (nobody said this would be pretty). Even then, would they risk potential damages? Security firms would probably be hired for most buildings, and the State College Police and campus security would be working overtime for sure. Finding a balance between the will of these groups to take the possible downside with all of the upside that could come would be a daunting task, but money talks. It would be a very interesting point in local and state politics for sure.

3. Transportation

The joke I always tell people when they ask me where Penn State is located is “three hours from any other signs of civilization.” However, when you consider that they built a stadium in the impenetrable Amazon jungle fortress of Manaus, which is accessible just about exclusively by boat or plane, a few hours on I-80 or 322 suddenly doesn’t seem so remote. The traffic will be insane obviously, but that comes with the territory. The never-ending summer construction in Pennsylvania would probably have to be halted for a few weeks, because we all know there’ll be some other issue in need of fixing when Not Tom Corbett is running the show in 2022. MegaBus, Fullington, and Greyhound could certainly help shoulder the load as well. Ground transportation can handle a football weekend, so with some dedication to a logistical plan to not have the roads around central Pennsylvania be a parking lot, hopefully it can handle this. Thankfully, we have one of the best Supply Chain programs in the country. Get on it, PSU Loggies!

There are also the Amtrak stations in Lewistown, Altoona, and Huntingdon, which could help people get close enough where they can be bussed in to State College. These could prove vital in getting in people who don’t wish to drive from New York and the like.

Air travel is another story altogether. State College Airport (SCE) is obviously regional, and not particularly big. However, it handles business travelers and students flying home, usually, and you can get most anywhere from it, provided you’re okay with a connecting flight. It could be helpful in getting people in for sure, but the best use of it might just be bringing in teams and media and such, as over encumbering it with soccer fans would not be ideal. However, having an airport directly in town is definitely a plus and makes State College a better candidate than most smaller towns.

Because of the size and nature of the area, it would be simple to get fans to the stadium. It’s walking distance from about anywhere in the immediate area, so the people staying on campus and downtown would have it easy. Those further away could utilize a modified CATA bus schedule and other public or pay-per-ride transportation, much like a busy football weekend.

4. Fan Support

At this point, everyone knows that soccer is growing in the United States. However, there are still seemingly some concerns about how well-supported USA 2022 would be by the home side. Let me quiet those quickly. In 1994, the United States hosted the World Cup. At that time, the U.S. had no domestic league (though the groundwork for MLS was laid as a requirement to getting the tournament, it would not begin play until 1996), had just one player plying his trade in a top-tier league (Roy Wegerle at mid-table Premier League side Coventry City), had almost no exposure to international soccer in television, and still the games averaged nearly 69,000 fans, a very nice number to say the least. Now that the game has gone from cult following to growing at massive rates, has a huge built-in support base in the American Outlaws, who will hopefully be opening a chapter in State College soon, Penn State having pre-existing support for its Big Ten champion Men’s Soccer team and its Park Avenue Army supporters club, and with the 2022 side likely to include current youth players already with massive international sides like Julian Green at Bayern Munich, Gedion Zelalem at Arsenal, Junior Flores at Borussia Dortmund and maybe even 14-year old wunderkind Ben Lederman at Barcelona, support won’t be an issue. In fact, the more likely issue will be trying to find enough tickets for everyone.

Let’s hope FIFA does the right thing and takes the World Cup from Qatar. That’d be the first step to making this a reality.

Vamos Estados Unidos.

Noel Purcell believes that we will win. You can find him writing love letters to Jurgen Klinsmann on twitter @NamelessRanger.

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