Some Toronto councillors are raising questions about the city’s plans to host matches during the 2026 men’s World Cup after an agreement between Toronto and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment was made public.
A letter of intent between the two parties laid out the terms agreed for Toronto to host five World Cup games at BMO Field on the city’s waterfront, including terms some say are too favourable to MLSE.
The letter of intent was shared with Global News by the City of Toronto and originally reported by the Toronto Star.
The terms make MLSE the project manager for stadium upgrades, licensing and selling host city commercial rights and marketing the event.
The letter also lays out that MLSE will be made “whole” financially by the city to deliver the project, and also agrees to “fully indemnify and hold MLSE harmless” for various performance aspects, including failure to complete construction or delays.
Some councillors have raised concerns that that deal is favourable to MLSE — a massive local sports company that owns Toronto FC, the Toronto Argonauts, the Toronto Raptors and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Coun. Josh Matlow, who is running for mayor, said the agreement was “very concerning,” saying it could leave “taxpayers on the hook” for cost overruns.
Another councillor and mayoral candidate, Brad Bradford, said the World Cup was a “tremendous opportunity” for Toronto but that there was a lot of work to get ready.
He said the city needed to work with organizations like MLSE and added that costs would need to be shouldered by the federal and provincial governments too. Bradford called the agreement with MLSE “very typical.”
Coun. Alejandra Bravo said the letter and its terms raised questions that “demand answers.” Her colleague, Coun. Ausma Malik, echoed those thoughts, asking, “How it is possible that the city is on the hook in the way that it is?”
A spokesperson for MLSE said the company was the right fit for the project, because it is the day-to-day manager of BMO Field and helped to deliver the Pan Am Games.
“As the event manager, MLSE will not be paid for those services, instead only recouping operational costs incurred on behalf of the city to ensure the Stadium is ready and meets FIFA’s requirements for the event,” the spokesperson said.
The 2026 soccer matches would attract around 174,000 overnight visitors and book out 292,000 room nights, city staff have estimated. This would generate roughly $3.5 million in municipal accommodation tax revenue.
In a staff report that was considered by Toronto’s executive committee in July 2022, the capital and operating costs for hosting five World Cup games were reported to have increased from $290 million to $300 million.
City staff said they hope to see the federal and provincial governments share the cost of hosting, though no commitments have yet been made.
The 3.4 per cent increase since the last estimate in April is as a result of “recent escalation in inflation rates,” the report said.
Toronto, along with Vancouver, was selected as a Canadian host city for the 2026 World Cup at an event on June 16.
The agreements Toronto has signed as part of the bid process commit it to providing BMO Field as a venue and organizing a 34-day FIFA FanFest.
A spokesperson for the City of Toronto pointed to the fact MLSE would not profit from the World Cup matches it is set to help organize as justification for the deal some see as favourable.
“The partnership agreement between the City and MLSE limits MLSE’s ability to generate profit from the project while leveraging their strengths and putting public benefit at heart of the agreement,” they said.
“MLSE’s expertise and participation as the City’s agent in the management of the project is expected to greatly reduce any risks by resulting in a successful on-time and fiscally responsible project.”
Toronto’s 2026 World Cup hosting plan remains unfunded
Questions about how the event will be funded are still up in the air.
The City of Toronto is waiting for the Ford government to commit to funding the project, in a deal city staff had previously suggested would see costs split roughly three ways.
In 2022, city staff said they were “confident that suitable funding arrangements” can be made for the federal and provincial governments to absorb around two-thirds of that cost.
A Toronto staff report at the end of June 2022 said Ontario had expressed “support” for Toronto’s bid but had not made a specific financial commitment.
“The federal government has indicated that specific financial commitments will only be made once a national safety and security concept has been completed to inform the federal essential services component of the total event cost,” the report said.
An announcement, however, has not yet taken place.
A November 2022 email with a list of topics of discussion between former Toronto mayor John Tory and Premier Doug Ford included the World Cup as one of the key talking points between the two.
“World Cup — an update on status of process/hiring etc,” was listed as one of six points of discussion between the pair in the email obtained by Global News through a freedom of information request.
In a letter sent to the City of Toronto in August 2022, also obtained through a freedom of information request, Ontario’s minister of tourism, culture and sport dropped no hints about if — or how — the province will fund the event.
“The City of Toronto being selected as a host city for the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup is an opportunity to showcase the province and Toronto on the global stage,” Neil Lumsden wrote.
“Ontario will continue to work with Toronto, the Government of Canada, Canada Soccer and other partners to determine appropriate provincial involvement with the 2026 FIFA World Cup.”
A spokesperson for the province said officials were working to “carefully assess” the “requirements, opportunities, risks and impacts of supporting the event.”
“Ontario will undertake due diligence before making any commitments to the 2026 FIFA World Cup.”