White Elephants: 4 World Cup stadiums look for fans, games, events to pay $1.6 billion bill

  • Article by: STEPHEN WADE , Associated Press
  • Updated: July 10, 2014 - 4:25 PM

RIO DE JANEIRO — Once the World Cup and its traveling circus leaves town, four gleaming stadiums that cost $1.6 billion and hosted massive crowds will echo noisily as their owners struggle to find a use for them or even partially fill them.

In the western Brazilian city of Cuiaba, Chilean and Colombian fans produced sellouts at the Arena Pantanal of 40,000 at the World Cup. The next big game at the $260 million stadium is July 20 — Paysandu vs. Cuiaba for the championship of Brazil's Serie C, or the third division. Officials are hoping for 4,000 fans.

Similar letdowns await at least three other new stadiums built for the World Cup: in the capital Brasilia, the Amazon jungle city of Manaus, and in Natal on the northeastern coast.

None of them has a big-time team, which means no permanent tenants to fill the stands, pay the bills or service the debt. Those venues cost about $1.6 billion, lavish spending that could have been aimed at rundown schools, shabby hospitals and poor public transportation, instead going to white-elephant football stadiums.

Government auditors say the bill for the Brasilia stadium will reach $900 million, the most expensive football venue ever built after Wembley Stadium in London.

Brazil did not require all 12 stadiums used at the World Cup. FIFA demanded a minimum of eight, but organizers decided it would build four more than were needed, mostly to satisfy local politicians.

"The only thing worse than spending a bunch of money on a stadium, is spending a bunch of money on a stadium that no one uses," said Victor Matheson, a sports economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. "No academic economist thinks that spending money on sports facilities is a particularly good investment."

All four stadiums bill themselves as multi-functional venues that can also play host to social and cultural events, and conventions. They have websites advertising themselves and looking for occupants.

Mauricio Guimaraes, who heads World Cup projects in Cuiaba, said the stadium might host agricultural fairs, business events and "could provide an incentive for the area's third- and fourth-division teams to seek promotion."

In Natal, the stadium will hold a Serie B match next week between America and Bragantino that is expected to draw about 3,000.

The situation is similar in Manaus and Brasilia.

Jose Maria Marin, the president of the Brazilian Football Confederation, said several times that finding uses after the World Cup would "all depend on the creativity, the imagination of the owners and the operators of these stadiums."

History suggests the four are ill-advised outlays. But even if they are, it's a tiny expense for a country with a $2.5 trillion economy. If the World Cup pays off in international goodwill, more tourism and boosts the re-election chances in October of President Dilma Rousseff, politicians — if not economists — will conclude it's been worth it.

Recent World Cups and Olympics have left expensive relics.

The $600 million Cape Town stadium from the 2010 World Cup has hosted just seven football matches in four years. It was the postcard image of South Africa's Cup, built on the seashore and under Cape Town's famous Table Mountain. Officials argue it will pay off in time.

The future is worse for a stadium built in the northern city of Polokwane, which has no major sports team and no way of generating revenue.

The symbol of Beijing's 2008 Olympics, the Bird's Nest's stadium, sits as what Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes recently called "a mausoleum to honor wasted public money."

"We don't see a lot of clear evidence from an economic point of view that countries that host these big events have these great legacy effects," Matheson said. "Maybe a stadium can hold a Beyonce, or a Mick Jagger concert. But there are not 50,000 people who will pack in for many bands."

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