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Will Ontario fund Toronto’s World Cup plan? Inside the provincial deliberations

Toronto’s plans to host five games as part of the 2026 World Cup could be in jeopardy as provincial officials continue painstaking deliberations over whether or not to pitch in and help pay for the event, something the city expects them to do.

During increasingly detailed discussions about how to host five World Cup games at Toronto’s BMO Field in 2026, provincial staff have been relegated to the sidelines, according to sources and documents, because Ontario has failed to confirm any financial commitment to the event.

As recently as late spring, one insider with knowledge of the discussions said government staff and bureaucrats still had no idea which way the province would lean, leaving the door open to the Ford government refusing to pay for Toronto’s plan.

Meanwhile, internal emails and reports obtained by Global News through a freedom of information request suggest the province is seized with worry about the rising cost of hosting the international event.

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The documents also show the cost concerns — which appear to have held Doug Ford back from promising to help pay for the sporting event — leave the province with a rapidly-shrinking window to have any meaningful input on plans to host the $300-million-plus event.

According to documents obtained by Global News, Ontario’s reluctance to pay means the province can only play the role of “observers” in the unfolding multi-jurisdictional discussions.

Toronto expects Queen’s Park to pitch in

Toronto’s hopes of hosting five World Cup matches hinges on support from the provincial and federal governments, with city staff previously saying they were confident the costs could roughly be split three ways.

Initially, Queen’s Park strongly hinted it would support Toronto’s efforts to host World Cup matches and suggested the effort had the province’s financial backing.

In July 2021, then Minister of Sport and Culture Lisa MacLeod said the province was “110 per cent in support of FIFA coming in 2026 and will do everything to support the plan.”

MacLeod was removed from cabinet in 2022 and the assurances dried up during the Progressive Conservative’s second term in office.

By the Summer of 2022, Toronto staff indicated that while Ontario had expressed “support” for Toronto’s bid the province had not made a specific financial commitment.

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Since then, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and the provincial government in British Columbia have all agreed to cover their portion of the hosting costs; Queen’s Park continues to deliberate.

Concerns about cost

The spectre of the Pan American games, hosted by Toronto in 2015, appear to be one example concerning the province. A report from Ontario’s auditor general — published in 2016 and emailed between staff in Ford’s office as part of World Cup discussions — found the games went $342 million over budget.

A separate document sent between provincial staff drills into the details of how different elements of the project such as venue construction or accommodation for the Pan Am games cost more than planned. The information appears to inform World Cup discussions.

A provincial source said the feeling inside government was that there had previously been support for the World Cup but fears about rising costs meant the final decision was now unclear.

By November, Ford said he was worried about the rising price tag.

“Every day this cost keeps going up and up and up,” Ford said. “And I’m a big soccer fan — I love soccer — but let’s take a look at it, we’ll look at the finances and hopefully we will be able to come up with an answer sooner than later.”

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One briefing note sent by staff in Ford’s office ahead that speech outlined those concerns and pointed out “only five of the total 80 matches” for the World Cup would be played in Toronto.

“The City and Canada Soccer were originally seeking $76M each from the Province and Federal government, however costs are escalating rapidly, the most recent revised ask is for $92M,” the internal note warned.

Ontario the observer

While the province has been pondering the cost of the event, both Ottawa and Toronto have ploughed on without them.

One government document sent on Nov. 18 admits that Toronto, Vancouver and the federal government have “begun increasingly detailed discussions and negotiations in the past two months” and planned to have agreements ready to sign early in 2023.

“Without a mandate to negotiate, Ontario has sat only as observers to these discussions,” the note said.

The role of powerless bystander is one the province played throughout the fall of 2022.

“In September 2022 and October 2022 there were multi-day, in-person meetings among the government partners and Canada Soccer,” the briefing note explained.

“Unlike previous meetings, these were planning-based and focused on setting forth MPA negotiations between the parties. Ontario again attended as an observer, continuing to articulate that the province has not given a mandate to support the event.”

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Large portions of the briefing note released as part of the records disclosed to Global News were redacted with some pages citing advice to cabinet as the reason, suggesting the issue has been debated by Ford and his top ministers.

A spokesperson for the province’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport said that Ontario was “undertaking due diligence” before it made any commitment to the 2026 World Cup project.

“The Ontario government is working closely with Canada Soccer, the City of Toronto and the federal government to carefully assess the requirements, opportunities, risks and impacts of supporting the event in Ontario,” the spokesperson told Global News.

&copy 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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