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Q&A: Janis Burke on Houston 2026’s World Cup experience

Observer Programme images: FIFA

With the 2022 FIFA World Cup now in the rear view mirror, attention will turn to the next edition of the national team football tournament as the ‘United 2026’ concept comes to life.

The United 2026 bid landed the World Cup in June 2018, having seen off competition from Morocco, receiving 134 votes to the African nation’s 65. At that time, the United 2026 bid featured 23 stadia across 23 candidate host cities in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

This was eventually whittled down to a final 16 in June, with Houston and its NRG Stadium chosen as one of the 11 US representatives. Representatives from the Harris County – Houston Sports Authority (HCHSA) and the Houston 2026 World Cup Host Committee attended the Future Host City Observation Program during Qatar 2022, gaining a taste of what’s required to put on FIFA’s showpiece event.

HCHSA CEO, Janis Burke, and NRG Park assistant general manager, Leah Mastaglio, participated in the observation program to listen and learn from best practices. Burke and Mastaglio saw first-hand the logistical planning and operations behind hosting the world’s most popular sporting event, including transportation, ticketing, security, look of the city and more. They also visited venues, spectator experiences, training sites and the FIFA Fan Festival during their visit.

The HCHSA celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, having been formed on September 1, 1997 to help keep professional sports teams in Houston, build world-class stadiums, oversee the bond debt service for those stadiums, and become a landlord to sports team tenants. Once those things had been successfully accomplished, HCHSA eventually evolved into the sports marketing agency for the region.

Speaking to TheStadiumBusiness.com, Burke reported back on the visit to Qatar and the key learnings from the World Cup experience. And with another major football tournament being confirmed for the US last month, the 2024 Copa América, Burke discusses what is on the agenda moving forward.

TheStadiumBusiness.com: What were your main learnings from the Future Host City Observation Program in terms of World Cup stadium operations and the fan experience?  

Janis Burke: “Even though I had many takeaways, one thing that stood out for me was the balance between the fan experience and the practical side of event operations. For instance, the pitch is one of the most important elements of the entire event, but the opening ceremony elements that are exciting and thrilling for fans can also be hard on the grass.

“In Qatar they had a giant FIFA World Cup trophy that was wheeled out with fanfare and fireworks, but it had to eventually be eliminated because of the wear and tear on the grass. It’s a balancing act between what is great for the fan experience and what is essential for the operational needs of the event.”

TSB: From being on the ground in Qatar, what did you think local organisers did well, and what are the opportunities for improvement for United 2026? 

JB: “Qatar was a unique experience because all the stadiums were in close proximity to one another. I was able to see all eight stadiums and attend five matches. That is usually more difficult to do in larger countries where stadium locations are spread out. This will surely be the case in 2026, which is the first FIFA World Cup hosted by three countries. 

“The fan activation and city décor were off the charts good. Very impressive. An area that was challenging for Qatar was the lodging situation. The pandemic slowed down some of the construction projects that were planned and that put a strain on their ability to handle the room night demand.

“In the end, I believe it all worked out fine, but leading into the event there was a lot of angst for travellers trying to secure their tickets and secure a hotel room in order to get permission to enter the country.”

TSB: From being named as a host city in June, how has Houston 2026’s planning progressed since then?  

JB: “The community hasn’t stopped celebrating the win since it was announced.  Everyone is so excited that Houston was chosen as a host city and you can feel that energy wherever you go or whenever the subject comes up. 

“We’ve tried to use that momentum to get some of the fundraising needs behind us. Although there are still many unknowns, we are at a point where we feel comfortable to begin conversations with our local corporations. 

“We have also been using the event as a platform for talking about sports innovation, human rights, and sustainability issues. It has allowed us to bring various groups together that don’t normally sit around the same table to help identify areas where the community can be positively impacted through an event of this magnitude.”    

TSB: What is on the agenda for Houston 2026 in the coming year? 

JB: “We will continue to work on creating more opportunities for young people to play the game of soccer. Many of the soccer fields are located in the suburbs and only available to kids whose parents have the ability to pay so they can play. 

“Disparities currently exist in youth soccer, and with them barriers to participate. We want to close that gap and create more opportunities for kids who want to participate in the world’s most popular sport. We will be spending time this year and the coming years leading into 2026 World Cup to help change the landscape in our region for youth soccer.”

TSB: With the US landing the 2024 Copa América, what kind of opportunities will this open up ahead of the World Cup and will Houston/NRG Stadium be seeking to reprise its role after being a host venue for the 2016 Copa América Centenario?

JB: “We were thrilled to hear the Copa América announcement and hope to have a chance to participate in 2024. Houston has successfully hosted more international soccer events over the past decade than any other USA destination, including welcoming Copa América the last time around.  

“We have avid soccer fans and posted some very large attendance numbers for the Copa América matches played at NRG Stadium, which will also be the home to the 2026 FIFA World Cup event.”