Chasing New Revenue, FIFA Is Considering Major Move to U.S.
Looking to expand its global footprint beyond its cloistered headquarters next to a zoo on the outskirts of Zurich, soccer’s governing body, FIFA, is studying the feasibility of moving its financial engine, the commercial operation that produces billions of dollars in revenues for the organization, to the United States.
The possible move will be determined by technical factors including the suitability of locations on both coasts, the ease of acquiring work visas for overseas staff members and tax rules, according to an official with direct knowledge of the discussions who declined to speak publicly because a final determination had yet to be made. The operations involved represent a vital part of FIFA’s business: They oversee FIFA’s sale of sponsorships and broadcasting rights, which represent some of the most lucrative properties in global sports.
Since the election of Gianni Infantino as its president in 2016, FIFA been looking at extending its footprint beyond its glass-and-steel headquarters on the east side of Zurich. It has already opened an office in Paris, where most of its staff involved in development and relations with its 211 member associations will eventually be based.
Officials are hopeful that relocating its commercial business to a major American city would help FIFA attract and retain key staff members, amid concerns that its current home is proving a hurdle in attracting talent. Local regulations require FIFA to employ a fixed number of Swiss staff members.
FIFA’s interest in decoupling itself from Zurich is also — in part — an effort to improve its reputation and loosen its ties with its troubled recent past in Switzerland, the country that has been its home since 1932.
Several members of FIFA’s executive board were arrested in Zurich in 2015 as part of a sprawling United States Department of Justice investigation that revealed corrupt practices dating back at least two decades. That scandal led to the downfall of FIFA’s longtime president, Sepp Blatter, and most of the organization’s top leadership.
A move to the United States would have been unthinkable for FIFA in the immediate aftermath of the arrests, since it might have put the organization’s officials, operations and financial accounts within the reach of the U.S. authorities. (Some former FIFA executives, possibly fearing arrest, have not set foot in North America since the scandal.) But now staying in Switzerland comes with its own issues.
Infantino, who replaced Blatter as FIFA president a year after the raids, has faced a yearslong investigation into his relationship with Michael Lauber, Switzerland’s former attorney general. Lauber, who was forced out after revelations that he held private meetings with Infantino, was responsible for Swiss investigations stemming from the 2015 American indictment. Those inquiries have yielded few charges.
The failure of the Swiss authorities to act in the corruption case has frustrated elements of FIFA’s current leadership, who have privately expressed incredulity at the inaction given the amount of evidence obtained in searches of FIFA’s headquarters. At the same time, the investigation into Infantino led to a furious response, with FIFA’s assistant secretary general branding it “a little grotesque and unfair.”
FIFA’s effort to move parts of its operations away from Zurich is seen by insiders as necessary measures for an organization looking to move beyond working methods dating back several decades. The decision to relocate to Paris, for example, has offered officials in its development and member association departments easier access to Africa, a region over which FIFA has largely assumed complete control after a separate corruption scandal involving the president of the regional governing body on the continent.
“Our aim of making football truly global also means that FIFA itself needs to have a more balanced and global organizational set up,” Infantino said when the Paris office opened in June.
FIFA was established in Paris in 1904 but moved to Zurich in 1932 because of Switzerland’s location in the center of Europe, its political neutrality and because “it was accessible by train,” according to a timeline on FIFA’s website. In 2007, FIFA moved into its current headquarters building on a hill overlooking Zurich. The building, known as FIFA House, cost more than $200 million and has several subterranean levels, including the marble-floored, soundproof room where its governing council holds its meetings.
Officials at FIFA remain undecided about how much of a presence the organization would keep in Switzerland, which — thanks to light-touch government oversight and friendly tax arrangements — has grown into the location of choice for international sporting federations. Lausanne, the home of the International Olympic Committee, actively recruits such organizations and has labeled itself “the Silicon Valley of sports.”
Pushing for such significant changes is emblematic of FIFA under Infantino. A Swiss national, he has tried to institute major changes to the way both FIFA and soccer operate, with mixed results. He has enlarged the World Cup, an event responsible for more than 90 percent of FIFA’s revenues, to 48 teams from the current 32-nation format. But his efforts to force through other innovations and increase FIFA’s influence in club soccer have often fallen flat, and his current push to shift the World Cup from a quadrennial event to one staged every two years threatens a major fight with European soccer officials and even the International Olympic Committee.
Moving to the United States would offer FIFA the chance to build out its commercial operation in a country that its officials feel has yet to embrace soccer at a level matching the sport’s place in other parts of the world. The timing would also allow FIFA to exert greater control over preparations for the 2026 World Cup, the first edition of the expanded tournament; that tournament will be co-hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.
But being closer to Wall Street and major American companies, some top FIFA officials contend, would also offer the chance to significantly increase revenues as well as find partners to finance new events and invest in the growing popularity of women’s soccer.
As well as tapping into the potential commercial opportunities available in the world’s largest economy, being based in the United States also would offer FIFA another chance to show that it has moved on from its scandal-ridden past.
FIFA has in recent years tried to mend its relationship with the U.S. government, and officials have been in regular contact with the Department of Justice, which has continued its probe into corruption in world soccer. Some of the fruits of those improved ties were made clear last month when FIFA and its two regional confederations most implicated in the 2015 scandal were cleared to receive more than $200 million recovered from companies and individuals. The Justice Department said the money would have to be administered through FIFA.