Updated: Dec 16, 2022
tl;dr: Special event, single-use stadiums are hardly sustainable
We are in the midst of the FIFA World Cup located in Qatar. This is the 22nd World Cup and it is probably the most controversial one yet, because of where it is being hosted. This is only the second time it has ever been held in Asia, and the first one to be played in the Middle East. Qatar has a population of fewer than 3 million, so when they won the bid, there was quite a bit of shock, as there are fewer people living in Qatar than there are fans coming to watch the event. There were alarms about the intense heat of the region, which is why the cup is being played now instead of in the summer. Climate change has only made the area even hotter, which has resulted in a large number of games being played at night.
We’re going to spend one more paragraph about the problems, so let’s cover the big issues, which are human rights related. Due to the tiny population, Qatar needed massive amounts of foreign labour to build all the stadiums and surrounding infrastructure that were required. Due to dangerous and illegal conditions, perhaps up to 6,500 migrant workers may have lost their lives. The other problem is Qatar’s ultra-conservative viewpoints on LGBTQIA+ issues, which makes it one of the least inclusive environments where you could play a game that should be accessible to everyone.
So, what on earth does this world cup have to do with sustainability? Well, there is actually a positive to come out of this controversial event, and that is the debut of the first temporary stadium ever to be used for a World Cup. Stadium 974, named after the Qatari phone area code and the number of shipping containers used to build it, is currently located in Ras Abu Aboud, Doha, Qatar. Its last game of this World Cup was the Brazilian butt-kicking of South Korea by the score of 4-1 on December 5. The plans are to dismantle the stadium soon. This will be about 13 months after hosting its first game in November 2021, when it hosted the FIFA Arab Cup. So far, it has been the location for 13 international soccer matches, and its future might be in Africa, or it could be off to Uruguay if the 2030 bid from Uruguay-Argentina-Chile is successful.
Qatar needed to build 7 new stadiums to host the World Cup and the costs of construction range from $360m USD for the Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium up to $847m USD for the Al Bayt Stadium. What makes the Al Bayt Stadium the most expensive? The answer is that retractable roofs tend to spike the cost of a stadium by quite a bit. The price tag of Stadium 974 is unknown, but what is known is that it is the only stadium that can be sold to another country or event, and that is why we are discussing it in a sustainability blog.
The FIFA World Cup is in the same league as the Olympics in size, scale, and cost. It is estimated that this current World Cup will cost the Qataris about $200-$300 billion dollars. Thankfully, that is on the extreme high end of spending, but massive events like this do incur massive costs. The Tokyo 2020/2021 Olympics cost $35 billion. The record for the most expensive Olympics at $51 billion goes to the Sochi Russia 2014 Winter Games. Billions are being spent on these events, and only the Los Angeles 1984 games have turned a profit in the modern era. One of the reasons why LA was slightly profitable was that a lot of the infrastructure already existed and LA didn’t have to start from scratch as Qatar did.
Fewer and fewer countries and cities are lining up to host these mega-events, and the economic lessons of the past decades prove that this is not a bad thing. One way that we can still have these amazing international sporting events is to lower the cost of producing them. Having stadiums that can be dismantled and reassembled somewhere else could do wonders for driving costs down. What is so interesting about Stadium 974 is that it can be the blueprint for future events and future design improvements can be centred around this new concept of mobility and modularity. Large stadiums sit empty for the bulk of their lifetimes. There isn’t that much more you can do with a stadium outside of concerts, and that doesn’t happen that often, either. When a certain seating configuration is used, the largest stadium in the world is the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea, seating 150,000 people. In the more common setup seating a paltry 114,000 people, it falls to second. The Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, India is 1st/2nd at 132,000. Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan sits in 3rd place, seating 107,601. When you go to the website for Michigan Stadium, www.thebigstadium.com, and go to their event page, it proudly states that Michigan Stadium has been consistently hosting the finest and most popular entertainment events in Ann Arbor. When you dig a little deeper, so far, the only events I can find at Michigan Stadium are the 7 home games for the University of Michigan. That’s it. No Taylor Swift concerts, nothing. This means that for the vast majority of the year, this place is not being utilized. Spending any amount of billions of dollars for structures that sit unused for most of the time is pretty silly if you really think about it. Surely there can be a better way of doing large sporting events. Stadium 974 isn’t the perfect solution, but it is the best one we have at the moment.
Ultimately, we need to do two things when it comes to stadiums. The first is to find a lot more uses for a stadium than just soccer or football games. When you look at not just the space of these gigantic structures, but also the parking lots around them and the other spaces that are related to their existence, it is not a very efficient use of land. Large stadiums tend to exist in crowded areas, which makes this inefficiency of usage all the more maddening. In heavily populated areas, potentially better uses for this valuable land could be carbon capture facilities or even community gardens that provide a benefit to all instead of some select few sports fans.
The second thing that needs to occur is that we need to spend less on the cost of construction on stadiums for short-term sporting events, because that money needs to be spent on more vitally pressing needs, like preventing the planet from becoming an uninhabitable wasteland. Just for a frame of reference on the $200-$300 billion price tag for this year’s World Cup, the FY2022 budget for the US Environmental Protection Agency was $9.6 billion. When people claim that the money just isn’t there to fund major initiatives, I have to shake my head because I could share so many more examples where we spend significant amounts of money to watch people do things like putting a ball into a hole from really far away (golf) or driving cars really fast. We seem to always have the funds when it comes to fun, but we cry poor when it comes to protecting our planet.
If we insist on spending our money on things like World Cups, then Stadium 974 needs to be replicated. It may not be beautiful, but the ability to reuse it repeatedly makes it attractive in my book. Because building massive structures for one-time use and then letting decay takes away a lot of the beauty of these events. No matter who hoists the ultimate gold medal or trophy at the end of the games, when we plan this way for World Cups and Olympics, we are all losers.