Straight red: Denver eliminated from 2026 World Cup host city contention

W Cup 2026 Sites Denver Soccer
David Zalubowski/AP
An attendee wears a scarf at a news conference on the World Cup 2026 bid being offered by Denver during a tour of Empower Field at Mile High, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, in Denver.

This story was updated at 6:42 p.m.

There will be no soccer World Cup matches in Denver in 2026.

FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, announced Thursday that Denver’s bid to host games during the 2026 FIFA World Cup was unsuccessful. 

Denver was one of 16 U.S. cities vying to host games. Unsurprisingly, major coastal cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Seattle were also chosen. Because the 2026 World Cup is jointly hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico, international cities like Vancouver and Mexico City were also chosen. 

The World Cup won’t be too far from soccer fans in Colorado, however — Dallas, Houston and Kansas City will be the central U.S. cities representing the region in 2026.  

Rubbing salt into wounds, Denver lost out to Kansas City, a regional frenemy thanks to the Denver Broncos decades-long rivalry with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Denver was expected to host five to six games, likely in the early rounds, if picked. Now they will not.

Denver’s snub continues a pattern of Colorado being excluded from U.S.-hosted World Cups. Of the three World Cups hosted in the U.S., including two Women’s World Cups, none have featured Colorado cities as a host. 

State officials hosted FIFA last year to make the case why Denver should be chosen — they used the city’s transportation, accommodations, sustainability and Empower Field’s infrastructure as selling points — but several news outlets reported earlier this year that the bid was underwhelming. Behind the scenes, officials tried to raise money to entice FIFA to choose Denver, but in the end, it didn’t seem to be enough.

A member of the Denver Sports Commission told the Associated Press this week that Denver had raised — from private sources — about half the $40 million to $45 million needed to host the games.

The city officially unveiled its bid in October of 2021, with U.S. soccer legend and former Colorado Rapids goaltender Tim Howard joining Mayor Michael Hancock at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium. Bid committee members seemed optimistic. Denver could boast a world-class airport with easy transit access to downtown, a large stadium with Empower Field at Mile High, ample hotel capacity and plenty of tourist attractions. Plus, it’s strategically located in the middle of the country, in the Mountain Time Zone.

Denver is also one of the strongest soccer viewing markets in the country, ranking sixth in overall viewership for the most recent World Cup, according to the bid committee. A hundred thousand Colorado kids and adults participate in the sport.

And Denver has one other thing. An altitude of 5280 feet, a potential asset no other potential American bid city could match, one that aligned favorably for hosting teams that will also be playing at an even higher elevation, in Mexico City.

John Daley/CPR News
A crowd at Tom’s Watch Bar in Denver watches as FIFA announces host cities for the 2026 World Cup.

Organizers touted the benefits for Colorado of a successful bid. The bid committee hosted a watch party Thursday at Tom’s Watch Bar in McGregor Square adjacent to Coors Field as the host cities were announced.

“I'm so disappointed,” said Robin Fraser, who is head coach of the Colorado Rapids — the state’s Major League Soccer club. “And I feel like it would've been an ideal place, and I look at some of the other cities and I would say no disrespect to the other cities, but Denver is one of the greatest cities in this country, I think. And to not have the opportunity to have a World Cup come here, I think is incredibly disappointing.”

Fraser added that he was unsure why a place like Kansas City was chosen but Denver was not.

“I just think there's no comparison,” Fraser said. “I think if you look at cities in this region, Kansas City being one of them … it's actually mind boggling to me that Kansas City was chosen over Denver.”

Other bid cities and states lined up millions in private funding to secure World Cup games. But some also offered public money and tax breaks.

In contrast, Colorado lawmakers did not approve any funds or pass legislation as part of the efforts to lure the 2026 World Cup, nor did Gov. Jared Polis or Denver Mayor Michael Hancock push for that.

In the campaign to secure Kansas City’s bid, Missouri is among a group of states that pre-emptively passed a bill to exempt FIFA tickets from sales taxes, according to the AP. And governors in Georgia and Florida signed legislation dropping sales taxes on World Cup tickets.

Asked if Denver’s bid, without public money available, perhaps due to TABOR, the tax-limiting measure voters approved in the 1990s, was at a competitive disadvantage, Matthew Payne, executive director of the Denver Sports Commission, said “Yeah, I think it can play a factor.”

“We don't have the public fundraising and the participation there that maybe other destinations have,” he said. “But there wasn't a requirement to have your funding put into place for any of these cities.”

He said Denver’s bid had already reached about half of its fundraising goals and that he was confident it could have raised the rest privately.

The bid team estimated the cost of hosting would be in the $35 million to $45 million range — to cover a fan fest, security, transportation, game and training site modifications.

Bob Contiguglia, a Denver resident and the former president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, said he wasn’t sure how important a role public money played in the final decisions.

“It may, I don't know for sure, because I'm not FIFA,” he said. “The economics of the World Cup are important to FIFA and whether or not that played a role, I don’t know.”

Could the recently unsettled nature of the ownership of a key, arguably the key, Colorado sports enterprise, the Denver Broncos, have had an impact? Contigulia didn’t think so.

“I don't believe it had any influence,” he said.

Contiguglia is a member of Colorado Public Radio’s Board of Directors.

The potential economic impact for Denver was estimated by the committee at $360 million. That’s based on the global TV audience of 3.5 billion, increased tax revenue from tourism, foot traffic from 450,000 visitors spending money at local businesses and an enduring legacy and recognition as a World Cup host city.

Qatar is set to host this year’s iteration of the World Cup, which the U.S. Men’s National Team has qualified for. Matches begin in November.

This story is developing and will be updated.