Netherlands' Wesley Sneijder reacts following the World Cup final soccer match between the Netherlands and Spain at Soccer City in Johannesburg, South Africa on Sunday July 11, 2010. Spain won 1-0. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
The Netherlands' Wesley Sneijder holds his head in his hands after his team lost 1-0 to Spain in the World Cup final in Johannesburg on July 11, 2010. (AP/Luca Bruno)

On Tuesday, Sepp Blatter resigned as chief of FIFA, the global governing body of soccer that has come under intense scrutiny after U.S. prosecutors alleged widespread corruption in the organization. Blatter stepped down after a key lieutenant was linked in reports to an alleged $10 million bribe intended to gain support for South Africa's 2010 World Cup bid.

The biggest question, though, is why any country is bidding for the World Cup at all. It appears to be a waste of resources.

According to some who have studied the value of international sporting events to a country's economy, it's remarkable that top government officials around the world go to such great lengths to host events that prove enormously expensive and don't deliver the benefits that organizers promise.

"It's not really a blessing to be granted the right to host things, so participating in this bribing game seems like even more of a waste than it would normally be," said Thomas Peeters of the Erasmus School of Economics in Rotterdam.


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Along with two other experts on the financial aspect of international sports, Peeters published a paper last year on the effect of the World Cup on South Africa's economy. They concluded that the increase in tourism in South Africa wasn't worth the cost of building the stadiums for the tournament.

About 300,000 additional tourists traveled to South Africa in 2010, they found, but South Africa spent some $3.9 billion building new facilities. Most of those stadiums are no longer in use.

In order for the tournament to have been worthwhile, the tourists would have had to have spent an average of $13,000 each while they were in South Africa. That's unlikely, particularly since any money they spent on tickets for matches would have gone to FIFA, not the local economy.

"Bottom line is, any way you want to reasonably estimate this leads you to a very, very high number," Peeters said.

Boosters often argue that hosting an event such as the World Cup or the Olympics improves a country's reputation, which brings in more business. Economists have found some evidence for this argument, but simply placing a bid on a major tournament seems to do just as much as hosting one for a country's exporters.

The best approach might be to place a bid and then not to lobby for it in order to guarantee its failure, Peeters said. The attention surrounding the bid might lead to more international factory orders, while the country avoids having to pay to build more stadiums.

Another argument for major worldwide sporting events is that they can unify a city or a nation around a shared goal, creating the political support for spending money on roads, trains and other important projects. That's what you hear from supporters of Boston's bid to host the Olympics in 2024.

[Read more: Boston may need the Olympics to fix its problems, which is bad news for the rest of us.]

Peeters doesn't buy that logic, either. While he didn't study spending on infrastructure in South Africa ahead of the World Cup there, he says that building the stadiums is the largest expense involved in hosting such an event, and that the stadiums rarely get much use after the competition is over.

The United States doesn't need more massive stadiums, especially ones designed for sports that don't attract much of an audience outside of the Olympics. Developing countries like South Africa don't have a large enough economy to put the facilities to use.

Of course, it is difficult to put a price on the civic and national pride that comes along with hosting a tournament like the World Cup. Still, in a country where a quarter of the work force is out of a job and close to half the population is living on less than $58 a month, you've got to ask whether the $3.9 billion South Africa put into the World Cup was money well spent.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that some stadiums built for the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 have been demolished. There have been calls for stadiums to be demolished, especially the one in Cape Town, but so far, none have been torn down. This version has been corrected, and we regret the error.