Toronto is two years away from hosting one of the biggest sports tournaments in the world — with an expected significant tourism boost, questions loom about how much it will cost taxpayers and what the city will actually bring in.
FIFA announced Sunday that Toronto was selected to host a total of six World Cup 2026 matches.
Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow said she was "thrilled" to hear that the city's been chosen for six games.
"With open arms, Toronto will welcome the world to experience the rich diversity and dynamism of our multicultural city," Chow said on Sunday.
Sharon Bollenbach, executive director of FIFA World Cup 2026 Toronto, said the city was expecting to host five matches but with an additional game added, it will have to go back to the drawing board to recalculate cost estimates, revenue opportunities and benefits.
"The big cherry on top is that we have the opening match for Canada on June 12," she said.
"The size and scope of this World Cup is going to be record-breaking, and what that means for Toronto is obviously more visitors, more interest in our city, and more global viewers."
While both Toronto and Vancouver are expected to see a significant uptick in tourism with a combined total of 13 matches, Moshe Lander, a senior lecturer in economics at Concordia University in Montreal, is cautioning to be wary of rosy projections.
When Toronto first pitched the games in 2018, a city report estimated the cost at between $30 million and $45 million. The expected boost to the economy also doesn't factor in the tourists who would already be filling up hotels and restaurants during the busy summer season, Lander said.
"They're already filled during the summer with tourists, and the hotels are already full and the bars and restaurants are already full," said Lander, who studies sports economics.
If soccer-loving tourists simply displace regular tourists, the economic benefit is substantially lower, he said.
Numbers don't tell full picture, expert says
There are certainly reasons to be skeptical of the projected numbers, said Marion Joppe, professor emeritus at the University of Guelph's School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management.
"You have to think in positives and negatives around events like this, whereas official numbers very often just give you the positives, right?"
She also said the tourism sector would already be in high demand during the summer, so the numbers don't tell the full picture.
The attention that the games bring can lead to a long-term increase in tourism, and a general boost to a region's profile. It's part of the reason Qatar spent what's thought to be well over $200 billion on hosting the last World Cup.
But Lander questions how much of a profile boost Toronto or Vancouver could actually get from hosting the games, given their multicultural global makeup and having already hosted major international sporting events.
"There is almost no way that people don't know what Toronto is, and Vancouver of course, is in a very similar situation," said Lander. "It's not even raising the profile of these cities in a way that maybe poorer countries, or lesser known countries would get a boost."
FIFA World Cup 2026 executive director Sharon Bollenbach said Toronto hosting the opening match for Canada on June 12 is the 'big cherry on top.' (Nav Rahi/CBC)
Joppe is also skeptical of how much it will boost Canada's profile, with the three-country format not helping.
"Yes, it'll do a little bit for Canada, but because it's being played in the three countries, it's marginal," she said. "Will it generate future tourism? Maybe; maybe not."
City to keep close eye on spending: Chow
The City of Toronto said the event is expected to create 3,585 jobs, draw more than 300,000 visitors, and that Canada should see a $1.2-billion boost to GDP from the Vancouver and Toronto games combined.
The economic boost includes $393 million in GDP for Toronto, and an additional $456 million for Ontario, the city said.
The projected benefits to Toronto were up almost 30 per cent from what the city said back in mid-2022.
However, the hit to taxpayers will also run high, with Toronto estimating in 2022 that costs would be about $300 million.
Chow said the city will be keeping a close eye on spending.
"I have former councillor budget chief David Soknacki looking at the books to make sure that every penny, every dollar is spent properly and the games are coming," Chow said Monday.
A report from Canada Soccer found the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 and the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup 2014 supported $493.6 million in economic activity for Canada, higher than the projections of $337 million.
The initial costs for both competitions totalled $216 million, generating $249 million in net GDP with $97.6 million in tax revenues supported across the country, according to the report.
Lander said similarly that given Toronto and Vancouver's existing infrastructure, they should come out ahead economically, but the taxpayer likely won't.
There is still room to boost perceptions of Canada, said Aarij Wasti, a partner at Gowling WLG in Toronto, who previously spent more than 14 years working on the Qatar World Cup.
"Canada has a very positive image and reputation but where it lacks is, it's not seen as cutting-edge, it's not seen as leading the way," said Wasti.
"Here is a genuine opportunity to position our country on an international stage ... to further grow tourism and tourism opportunities."
He said that Canada could look at the tournament as spending, or as an investment in the future, with the potential to build on these events with more as the sporting economy globally keeps growing.