Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project. Above: The controversial Arena da Amazônia, which required tonnes of stainless steel (shipped from Portugal), and cost the lives of three construction workers. Photograph courtesy of Jose Zamith de Oliveira Filho/Creative Commons.
The most visceral match of this World Cup, for me anyway, took place in the jungle, in a sweatbath of a city called Manaus, nine hundred miles up the Amazon River. Forty thousand people saw the can-do U.S. Men’s National Team allllmost beat Portugal and super-villain Cristiano Ronaldo in the brand-new Arena da Amazônia. Most of the American and Portugese fans there had flown in; some of the more adventurous ones presumably got there by boat; Manaus is almost impossible to reach by road. They all undoubtedly enjoyed one of the most memorable nights of their sporting lives. Goals were scored early and late, control of the game tipped to and fro, brilliant athletes flew across the grass. Fans chanted and swayed and roared and wept. Somewhere nearby, unseen by human eyes, a jaguar ate a monkey.
That stadium cost $300 million to build. Its World Cup is over. They played four matches there. Now it will be empty most days. Collectively, this World Cup’s twelve stadia cost $3.6 billion. This sort of athletic boondoggle was much criticized before the tournament. Perhaps you read about the massive protests that convulsed Brazil’s cities; there are many articles discussing the situation in devastating depth. The whole thing seems to have mostly been forgotten while people watch the futebol—they even mentioned this on ESPN recently—fading into a larger narrative about the corruption of sport along with the Putin Winter Olympics and the moral Superfund site that is college football. It’s real panem et circenses stuff.
You may be wondering why I’m discussing it in a forum like this. The reason is that $3.6 billion, and indeed the $11.3 billion that was supposed to be spent on public works as part of the World Cup, represents a massive opportunity to reimagine infrastructure, which Brazil has grandly thrown away. Sports arenas are funded and built for the public good, with public money, from the same source as roads and water treatment facilities. The important difference is that 40,000-seat soccer stadia are not actually important.
We are doing the exact same thing in this country. The very existence of the Reimagining Infrastructure project stems in large part from a lack of public investments in infrastructure—in the Tea Party era of spending hawks and government shutdowns, there is no stomach for a reprise of Eisenhower’s highways or Roosevelt’s dams, so solutions must be creative and affordable and community-based.
Except when it comes to football. There are thirty-one stadiums in the National Football League (the New York teams share one), and only two of them—two!—were even 75 percent privately funded. The rest were built by states and cities, and if you think that American stadia are any cheaper than the Arena da Amazônia, then you are mistaken. Minnesota is paying $506 million, which will pay for about half of the Vikings’ new stadium. It also represents half of that state’s budget deficit. I recommend Gregg Easterbrook’s devastating article in The Atlantic (from which I got most of these numbers), if you want to be thoroughly appalled. Just so you know, the NFL is a 501(c)6 nonprofit.
I would be remiss not to nod at college football stadiums, which are, at the highest levels, just about as nice as the NFL’s, but are operated by institutions of higher learning instead of professional leagues.
Why, you might ask, are people not furious about this? Why no Brazil-style protests? Well, NFL stadiums don’t all happen at once. States and cities decide to build new houses for their teams one by one, place by place, year by year—a bit like the crumbling of old infrastructure, and much harder to notice than a sporting explosion like the World Cup. The other problem is the unique appeal of glory. By the numbers, hosting the tournament is absurd. But countries fight to do it, tooth and nail and checkbook, every time.
Now, full disclosure: I love football and I love soccer. These sports thrill millions and millions of people and raise the heights of human achievement. They really do. What else can an eight-year-old boy, a 34-year-old man, and a 75-year-old lady share equally? Super Bowl XXXVI was one of the greatest moments of my life, and as a native of The Hague, the Netherlands winning the World Cup would (will?) be up there as well.
But. When we pay for these things with public money, we are directly prioritizing football over all the other public works projects that this nation needs. We have old levees and young stadiums—surely it should be the other way around. No one suffers from watching sports in a century-old stadium, but a century-old levee is a disaster waiting to happen. As environmental advocates seek funding for sustainable, efficient infrastructure, they should know that the money is there—$506 million could paint about 700,000 white roofs, buy 46 million compact fluorescent light bulbs, remove thousands of defunct dams. We just need different priorities, and quickly, before the United States is awarded the 2026 World Cup.
Note: There are many, many places to read about sporting infrastructure, but I need to credit Andi Thomas’s terrific article about the Manaus stadium in particular. It and other helpful links are below.
“Hunting White Elephants in Manaus,” by Andi Thomas
“Were the Billions Brazil Spent on World Cup Stadiums Worth It?” by Victor Matheson
“The Number: $5 Billion,” by Nick Traverse
“Brazil Prepares for World Cup as Criticism Mounts Over Cost,” by Jonathan Watts
Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on dam removal politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and will begin an Environmental Studies professorship at Wofford College this fall. In his academic work, he researches the ways people decide to restore and remake their environments.