Meet the Member: “We have hosted more major sporting events than any other city in North America since 2004”
March 29, 2023
With memories of the Qatar World Cup fading into the rearview mirror, we turn our attention to the 2026 edition of the tournament. The tournament is hosted over three countries and 16 cities. We caught up with Chris Canetti, the man who led Houston’s successful bid to find out how preparations are going, why Houston and his thoughts on host cities being able to secure their own commercial partnerships.
So Chris to kick us off, take us through your professional journey in sport?
I graduated from college in 1992 as a Communications Major. I guess I had visions of working at ESPN, at least to be involved in sports because I loved it so much. I was a baseball player in college, then in 1993 Minor League Baseball moved to my hometown in New Haven, Connecticut. I thought Christmas had come early.
Unfortunately, they weren’t too keen to let a young guy with no real experience work with them. After a lot of persuasion they hired me as clubhouse manager. At the end of the season they let me move to become Head of Operations, a proper front office job which was really exciting. A few years later, aged 26 I became the General Manager of the team, I was the youngest GM in Minor League Baseball at the time and was in the position until I got headhunted by the New York Metro Stars, three years later.
To be completely honest, I wasn’t the biggest fan of soccer at the time, but the chance to move to New York was so appealing to me. At first I saw the job as simply a pathway into the New York market and the opportunities to work with the likes of the Yankees, the Mets or the Knicks. But I really fell in love with the sport and over the next five or six years I moved up to assistant general manager.
Then in 2006, Red Bull came in and bought the team and I was a victim of the changes they made. I found myself moving south to be Chief Operating Officer of the Houston Dynamo. I then progressed from COO to President and I was in that position until 2018 and from there I took on this role with the Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee.
Let’s have a look back at USA 94, what are your memories of the tournament? And as a non-football fan at the time did it make any impression on you?
I will be honest with you, I had very little awareness that the World Cup was going on in the summer of 1994. I was really busy with my Minor League Baseball position and that was taking up a lot of my time, but also I think was very similar to the experience of a lot of Americans at the time. But this time around we are really engaged, you only have to look at the viewing numbers of the game against England at the 2022 World Cup to see that.
Take us back to June when you found out you won the bid, what was that feeling like?
It was an amazing feeling and a crowning moment for my career personally. I know how badly the city wanted it and how much it meant to the city. It has been so exciting to play a role in this for the city of Houston and we really didn’t know until the moment it was announced. When they called our name out it was a real feeling of jubilation, excitement and real pride as well that the work we had done had come off.
In your opinion, why was Houston chosen as one of the host cities? It is actually the fourth largest city in America and punches a bit below his weight when it comes to cultural significance, so why do you think it was chosen?
I don’t think there was a specific thing we did better than any other city but we do so many different things well across the board. Like you say, Houston is the fourth largest city in America and the largest in Texas. We have incredible infrastructure here as it pertains to our stadiums, our airports, our training facilities, hotels, transportation network, we’ve got an incredible track record of hosting major sporting events.
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We have actually hosted more major sporting events than any other city in North America since 2004, and we have done them well and got a great reputation from that. We also have brilliant travel links, it is easy to get to Houston and then once you are here it is easy to travel to Mexico, Canada or anywhere in North America.
Take us through the bidding process then from when you came on board to the announcement in June?
As we said North America was awarded the bid in 2018 and I joined the bid committee in January of 2019. At that time I thought it was only going to be a two to two and a half year job, but Covid meant it dragged on a lot longer than that. It isn’t like anything I have been involved in before, even though I have worked in football for 19 years. I think as a city we put forward a good strategy and showed it is organised and ready to host an event of this magnitude.
As will be the case in a lot of the cities, NFL grounds are being used to host the matches. What changes to the stadium are going to have to be made to make it ready to host football?
Yes that is the case for a lot of the cities, we are in the really fortunate position that the NRG Stadium really doesn’t need much work done at all. It has been well kept over the years and has hosted several major football matches and tournaments, we’ve had the Manchester derby, El Classico and matches in the Copa America. The one thing we need to bring in is a grass pitch, it is currently an artificial pitch but we are going to start growing that a few months out from the tournament. Besides that there are other improvements that are going on to the stadium that are the pre-scheduled ones.
What was your reaction FIFA announced cities would be able to secure their own commercial partnerships for the first time?
It is a really interesting opportunity, but if we are going to be totally honest we have known that this was going to be happening for a little while. We knew it was going to be a piece of the puzzle in terms of how cities were able to fundraise the dollars that are necessary to cover the obligations that we have as host cities. We’re excited to be able to take advantage of it and use it to generate the revenue that we need to cover our costs.
This could easily mean cities competing for the same partners, what are you planning on doing to avoid that and if it is an issue what gives Houston the edge?
That certainly is a possibility and brands are only allowed to align with a maximum of two host cities. Look there’s a possibility that cities are going to be going for the same brands, but to be honest it doesn’t really concern me. A lot of the deals will be done with brands who have a large corporate presence within the city. So Houston is, for example, the energy capital of the world, we’re home to numerous major Fortune 500, Fortune 100 companies, these companies have been supportive of major sporting events that have come through Houston in the past Super Bowls, Final Fours etc. Next season we have the College Football Championship as well, which I know isn’t the biggest event in Europe but over here it really is.
We are fortunate in the sense that there’s a culture in this city that the major corporate partners want to support major events, they understand the value of what it means for our city and its future. We have ten of these spaces to fill, so with all of the above it isn’t something that is keeping me up at night.