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VOL. 44 | NO. 4 | Friday, January 24, 2020

Nashville is poised for its greatest sports decade ever

– if we can afford it

By Tom Wood

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The Twenties could be the greatest decade in Nashville sports history. Recently named 2019’s Sports City of the Year by Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal, Nashville is on a hot streak that includes the Titans going to the AFC Championship game and hosting an NFL Draft that brought a record 600,000 fans to Lower Broadway.

That follows the massive support for the Predators’ Stanley Cup Finals run two years ago that brought national attention.

There also is Nashville SC launching its inaugural MLS season next month, an effort to bring major league baseball to the city, a movement to lure NASCAR back to the Fairgrounds, a chance to host World Cup soccer, hosting of SEC basketball tournaments through 2035 and hosting the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 2022.

“As a longtime Nashvillian, it’s a little bit of a surprise to be the No. 1 sports city in America, but fantastic,” Nashville Mayor John Cooper says. “I really think it’s just a compliment to our people, great fans.

“When we’re called the No. 1 experience – it’s really the tourist/fan/person experience that people are commenting on. Where else would you rather go see a game?”

But that success comes at a price, and Nashville’s finances are strained with Cooper inheriting a $41 million budget gap.

An estimated 600,000 fans took over downtown in April for the NFL Draft, sending a message to the world that Nashville is capable of handling any event that might come our way.

-- Photo By Mark Humphrey | Ap Photo

“I think there’s broad agreement that we’ve got to build this great city,” says Cooper, who has yet to sign off on the Fairgrounds demolition that would get the MLS stadium project in gear. “I mean, a couple hundred years went into giving us this great platform so we can be this great city. But we’ve got to get it right. And we’ve got to get everybody benefiting.”

In Cooper’s court

Metro leaders say they are supportive of Cooper’s efforts to rein in the budget crisis before tackling sports venue issues, which will likely include a major Nissan Stadium renovation.

“I think the mayor inherited a dire budget situation,” says Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. “So, as he should, reeling in everything and being cautious and conservative, it’s important that we stabilize the city’s finances. He’s a pretty smart man, so if the right opportunity (for major league baseball) comes along, I’ve got to believe he would look at it.

Sports Business Journal 2019 Awards

  • Athlete of the Year: Serena Williams
  • Best Hire: Kevin Warren
  • Best Creative: NFL’s “The 100 Year Game”
  • Best Deal: Sinclair buys regional sports networks
  • Best Reboot: Los Angeles Clippers
  • Best Sports City: Nashville
  • Best Sports Content: The Sterling Affairs
  • Biggest Turning Point: California’s NIL Law (under the new law college athletes can hire state-licensed agents to negotiate business ventures and secure brand endorsements).

“But I also believe that’s a lesser priority right now while we get Nashville’s fiscal house in order.”

Monica Fawknotson, executive director of the Nashville Sports Authority, and members of the Metro Council know major renovations to Nissan Stadium will be needed this decade.

“The one thing the Titans have continued to say is that they are not looking for a brand-new stadium,” Fawknotson says. “But understand that in the coming years there will need to be some substantial improvements to Nissan Stadium. And that’s their position.

“We’ve not begun any detailed discussions with them or as a city, but we know that is down the road. We know we will be looking at the lease and just how we need to move forward in general.

Nissan Stadium, which opened in 1999, is due for major renovations. The Titans are not asking for a new stadium.

-- Shutterstock.Com

“We’re all going to need to be strategic about that,” she adds. “How do we continue to find the win-wins for the city and for the team. That will be an interesting conversation about just how we move forward.”

Jeff Syracuse, the District 15 councilman in Donelson, says the Metro Council is taking a guarded approach to funding sports projects for the time being.

“I don’t see any big-ticket items being even seriously considered until we can get our fundamentals straightened out with public safety and education,” Syracuse says, adding that he is optimistic Cooper will get the budget issues fixed in the next calendar year.

“I think the growth is there. The dollars are not there because our rate, our tax rate, is just not where it needs to be in order to bring in the revenue that we need. But we definitely have the tools available to us to fix our budget issues,” he says.

Tonya Hancock, who represents Madison’s District 9 in Metro Council, says she is all for Nashville’s sports success, but the city’s financial health comes first.

“I’m very proud of our sports teams,” Hancock says. “I’m supportive of them. I do think as contracts come due, we need to renegotiate with terms, keeping the city in mind.

“I know that sports are a for-profit industry, and we certainly want to see them succeed and do well but at the same time, we don’t want it to come out of the taxpayers’ pockets.

“I just think we need to be careful when we’re writing our contracts so that we’re sure that we’re not, you know, giving away the cow with the milk and making sure that when there are renovations that need to be done, such as the Titans’ stadium, that it’s written into the contract of where the money is going to come from and that it doesn’t always have to come from the city.”

Ian Ayre, Nashville SC’s CEO, says he is excited that Nashville was named 2019’s top sports city and unconcerned at this point about when construction will begin on his team’s soccer stadium.

“There’s so much civic pride here in Nashville that I think just that itself contributes to the sports love and passion of the city. So, no, I’m not surprised at all (about the SBJ award), to be honest,” Ayre adds.

“Right now, we’re just focused on two things. One is that we’re carrying on everything that we needed to carry on from a design and development point of view – which is still working. You go from various document stages – and that’s all from business as usual. Our ownership is engaged with the city about demolition. And, you know, we’ll see when that resolves itself.

“But, really, honestly, we’re certainly not behind in the sense of it going into an additional period (at Nissan Stadium) at this point in time.

“Our bigger focus is on Feb. 29 and beyond. What’s most important right now is that we channel much of our focus into kicking off the season and establishing ourselves in Major League Soccer. So that’s where all the focus is today.”

What about a Super Bowl?

Nissan Stadium also hosts the Music City Bowl, Country Music Association concerts and other events, and could be home to 2026 World Cup soccer games if it is one of 10 or 11 cities selected next year. North America won the bid to host the monthlong tournament, and games will be played in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

And there has been much speculation that Nashville could someday host a Super Bowl.

Spyridon, who anticipates the NFL Draft returning to Nashville at least once in the next decade, says a Super Bowl is not in Nashville’s future without those major renovations to Nissan Stadium.

“Right now, the key for the conversation is going to circle around the renovations to the existing stadium,” Spyridon explains. “They wouldn’t come, nor should they come, with the stadium like it is. It’s not comparable to the sites they go to.”

And while he doesn’t say a shiny new facility like Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium is in Nashville’s future, he doesn’t rule it out.

“It’s not in my wheelhouse right now, but what I have heard – I think it’s out there more publicly – is that the Titans would prefer a renovation than new,” Spyridon notes. “They like the natural grass, they like open air, but they also recognize that the stadium is nearing its shelf life. … I don’t want to imply that I know more than I know.”

But like most Nashvillians, he knows change is coming.

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