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VOL. 45 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 19, 2021

Ready or not, sports is back in a big way

From SEC hoops to college football, spring flood ahead

By Tom Wood

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In less than three weeks, the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournament will be in full swing at Bridgestone Arena. Probably. Maybe.

The tournament format is set, television times have been announced and the Metro Public Health Department has been busy reviewing plans submitted by the SEC to stage its showcase event March 10-14.

No decision had been formally announced earlier this week, but optimism runs high the SEC Tournament will return with strict safety protocols in place a year after the 2020 tourney was canceled due to the swift-spreading COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re going to prepare in a healthy way, submit a health plan to the Metro Public Health Department in Nashville and Davidson County and be prepared to play a tournament,” says SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.

Approval would be welcome news for teams, fans, city officials and struggling Nashville businesses. If the tournament is held, expect limited attendance, testing, social distancing, masks required in the arena and other safety protocols.

“Hopefully we’re able to get this (SEC Tournament) off,” Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse says. “I mean, it’s just an exciting time. I know the fans are looking forward to it. I still don’t think you’re going to see full stands. There’s going to be some limitations to fan support, but hopefully, we will get a chance to get some of the faithful in there to support each team.”

Vols coach Rick Barnes, who will be in Nashville with his team Feb. 24 for an SEC regular-season game at Vanderbilt, stands with Stackhouse regarding a safety-first approach to the SEC tourney.

“One of the things that we realize now – as much as any – is how much the players want to play,” Barnes says. “But we’ve also never lost sight of the most important thing. It’s making sure that everybody’s healthy and safe and the environments are created like that.”

Beyond the SEC tourney, Nashville’s spring sports calendar is already blossoming –starting with the Nashville Predators, whose regular season continues through early May.

Vanderbilt and other college baseball teams were scheduled to open their seasons Feb. 19. The Commodores' opening series was pushed back to later in the weekend due to snow.

The Nashville Sounds, with new manager Rick Sweet, have begun spring training in Phoenix as the new Triple A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers in a revamped minor league system. Their season begins April 6.

While Vandy and UT’s football teams prepare for spring practice under new head coaches, Clark Lea for the Commodores and Josh Heupel with the Volunteers, the Ohio Valley Conference will play a seven-game league-only spring schedule beginning Feb. 21, followed by the FCS Division I playoffs.

The TSU opener against Jacksonville State has been pushed back to March 7 because of weather conditions. Tennessee Tech is still scheduled to host Austin Peay.

Then, following the April NFL Draft, the Titans will begin planning for training camp.

Jerry Stackhouse’s Commodores lost in the first round of last year’s SEC Tournament in what turned out to be the final game of the truncated event.

-- Photograph Provided By Vanderbilt Athletics

Nashville SC doesn’t yet know its schedule, but Major League Soccer season kicks off April 17. The Nashville Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon is slated to run April 24-25.

Auto racing returns in a major way this summer, and pro golf will be back.

Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., has referred to the SEC Tournament as “the first major event as we start to come out of the pandemic” and emphasizes vaccination is the key to a complete recovery.

“After limping through most of 2020, sports-wise, I’m very encouraged by what’s coming up, starting with the SEC Tournament,” Spyridon says. “And certainly, I think that coincides with more fans coming back into the stands. I’m more than encouraged – and all of it is tied to the vaccine.”

Adds Scott Ramsey, president and CEO of the Nashville Sports Council: “One of the things that we’ve been focused a lot on is really making sure we got that pipeline full of as many events … and we’re ready to hit that accelerator when we get some green lights from the standpoint of having some of the special events and activities around the events as well as filling up arenas and stadiums.”

Here is a look at issues facing the SEC tourney and other sports:

SEC tourney: Look back, forward

Stackhouse and Barnes have different perspectives of how the 2020 tournament ended. For Stackhouse, it was an opening night loss, falling to Arkansas 86-73. For Barnes, it was utter confusion the next morning when Tennessee and Alabama were about to play. Following decisions by the NBA, the NCAA and other conferences, the SEC tournament was shut down.

“Last year was just a surprise to everyone. It so happened that we played the last game. I joked (and) said if they would have found that out before we played, maybe I would have one less ‘L’ in the loss column,” Stackhouse says with a laugh.

“It was a very – I think, scary – unknown time for all of us because we weren’t quite sure what to make of the COVID,” Barnes notes. “I remember again going into the arena that day and strongly feeling that we shouldn’t be doing it because I just felt like there was just so much unknown. I think we did the right thing as a league at that time. I think that college basketball did the right thing at that point in time.”

After those initial shutdowns, sports and life eventually resumed under conditions that still exist today. But every sport has dealt with quarantines, shuffled schedules, contact tracing and shortened seasons.

“Playing basketball in the pandemic has its challenges, and we look forward to still having those challenges once the tournament rolls around this year,” Stackhouse say.

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes is hoping for a championship or at least a strong run for a higher NCAA Tournament seed when the Vols play in the SEC Tournament at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.

-- Photograph Provided By Ut Athletics

“Could some crazy things happen a week before the tournament where some team might not be able to participate? It could,” Barnes adds. “I like to think that we’re all gonna try to proceed with the kind of caution that we need to, but for anyone right now to think that we know it’s going to be smooth from here until the end, I think would be really naive to think that.”

Ramsey says the tournament will already be shy one team. Auburn self-imposed a postseason ban in November as part of an NCAA investigation of the program.

City officials, the SEC and representatives of the Nashville Predators, which operates the arena, recently conducted a site visit that Ramsey describes as “really good,” adding: “One thing we’ve learned throughout the year is that there’s just a lot of unknowns and uncertainties. And you try to deal with them as best you can.”

David Kells, Predators executive vice president of entertainment and venues, says there’s a chance some fans will be allowed into Bridgestone Arena for the tournament. The NHL team recently announced a single-game ticket plan for February home games.

“Our home games and the SEC Tournament take a lot of work and a lot of coordination with different groups to make sure this is a safe environment and to make sure people are acting right and in a responsible manner. But all that work pays off when people come in, sit down and get to cheer on their team,” Kells says.

Economic impact: A tough year

It has been estimated that Nashville has lost approximately $4.5 billion in visitor spending in the last year due to the pandemic, and Spyridon says it’s “tens of millions that we’ve lost just from the sports side. … (The tourney’s return is) important for the community, it’s important for the schools and it’s important for the conferences – both for normalcy and a financial standpoint.”

The SEC tourney draws fans from every school, especially Kentucky, with the “blue mist” taking over regardless of where the annual tournament is played.

“Historically, every restaurateur, bar owner and hotelier loved it when the SEC and Big Blue came to town,” Midtown Café owner Randy Rayburn says. “There might be only 10,000 people from Kentucky able to get tickets into the games but there are another 20,000 to 30,000 in town during the tournament.

“The real question will be how many fans will be allowed in the stands (this year) and thus how many people will actually come to town and be part of the tourism well for the hoteliers and the rest of the hospitality community, given the social distancing requirements.

“Anything will help at this time. Hotel occupancy (the week of Feb. 1) in the downtown and midtown-West End areas was 27% – which was dramatically lower than a year ago.”

Bridgestone Arena officials won’t have to worry about playoff dates if the Predators continue their early trajectory as a sub-.500 squad.

-- Photo By Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire

On lower Broadway near the arena, businesses are hit even harder.

Emily Ann Jones, general manager at Robert’s Western World, says gross revenue sales were down 92% for their businesses. Her husband, JesseLee Jones, lead singer of the Brazilbilly band, bought Ernest Tubb Record Shop and Midnight Jamboree across the street late last year.

“So absolutely, we took a huge hit last year,” Emily says, adding the honky-tonk plans to reopen seven days a week beginning March 1.

“That SEC Tournament is a huge, huge boost in sales. In fact, that’s the first week that we gear up to get out of the winter slump of our business. So it absolutely impacts the business in a very positive way when we have people in town.”

Two hotel industry leaders call the SEC tourney’s return vital to the city’s economic recovery.

“I knew at that time that this pandemic would wreak havoc within the hotel and travel community and there would be huge financial losses for the city of Nashville from hotel tax and visitor spending,” says Tom Boyer, general manager at Renaissance Nashville Hotel. “In many ways, the hosting of this tournament signifies a turning point for our city, as one year later we are able to host and enjoy visitors from around the country to enjoy NCAA basketball again.”

Greg Averbuch, the Summit Management founder and owner whose company operates the Moxy Hotel in Hillsboro Village, calls sports’ return “an important aspect of the overall travel and tourism for Nashville and economic development for Nashville. The progression of the health situation is first and foremost. And having fans present is also very important.”

When the tourney begins, look for Vanderbilt to join other SEC teams in a downtown hotel “bubble” atmosphere to avoid virus exposure.

“It’s a great thing, too, because these hotels are … they need the help for our team to come in and have the whole outfit,” Stackhouse says. “None of them are nowhere near capacity so I think it’d be a nice jolt to the to the city’s wealth when the tournament comes around.”

Predators: Pushing for playoffs

COVID-19 forced the NHL to shorten its season to 56 games, and some teams have been hit harder than others, with multiple players put on the protocol list and games postponed by outbreaks. The Predators had their Jan. 19 home game against the hard-hit Hurricanes rescheduled to March 2.

But Nashville has begun allowing fans to slowly return, and team executive Kells recalls the atmosphere at a game he recently worked.

“Everybody was happy to have some piece of normalcy back,” he says. “Though there were very few fans in attendance, about 1,000 or so, but everybody you saw was happy – happy to be back to work.

Parents and family members of players will be the only fans permitted to watch Vanderbilt baseball defend its national championship.

-- Photograph Provided By Vanderbilt Athletics

“People were happy to have a night out in an environment where they felt safe. The team was happy because they heard some more noise from fans in the stands. So it was a good thing all the way around.”

The Predators have a lot of work ahead if they want to make the playoffs this year, currently in seventh place in the Central Division. The top four teams in each division will make the 16-team Stanley Cup tournament.

Baseball: Sounds, VU in swing

These are anxious times for the Sounds because of both COVID-19 and Major League Baseball’s restructuring of what is no longer called the minor leagues. It’s now the Professional Development League, and the Sounds have signed a 10-year license with the Milwaukee Brewers.

The team reported to spring training Feb. 18, and the season starts April 6 – even though the Sounds didn’t yet have a schedule at press time.

“Typically, we would know our schedule years in advance, maybe not game times, but we at least set game dates a good year in advance so we can start planning,” Sounds GM Adam Nuse says. “(There is) a lot of transition, a lot of growing-pains to get this agreement in place with Major League Baseball. And COVID certainly isn’t helping to make it easier for us.”

Nuse adds that through working with Metro Health, the plan is to allow about 2,500 fans per game. Most will be season-tickets but individual game tickets will be available.

The Sounds will play in the 20-team Triple A-East League’s Southeast Division along with Memphis, Charlotte, Durham, Gwinnett, Georgia, and Jacksonville so a lot of new teams and rivalries could make for an exciting summer at First Horizon Park.

Meanwhile, fourth-ranked Vanderbilt and other local colleges will open the season Feb. 19, weather-permitting (far better than saying COVID-permitted).

Vandy is technically the defending national champion, having won the 2019 College World Series against Michigan with the 2020 season canceled. Florida is ranked No. 1 in 2021 preseason rankings and picked to win the SEC ahead of Vanderbilt.

Baseball America recently named four Commodores to its preseason All-America teams. Junior ace Kumar Rocker, named Most Outstanding Player at the 2019 CWS, and sophomore pitcher Jack Leiter were named to the first team, while sophomore Spencer Jones was a second-team selection as a utility player. Junior outfielder Isaiah Thomas was a third-team pick.

Vandy will limit attendance to parents and family members of players.

Soccer: Playoffs a goal again

The Major League Soccer season begins April 17, though team schedules have yet to be announced. Nashville SC, which made the playoffs in its inaugural COVID-interrupted season, is anxious to get going again at Nissan Stadium before moving into its own Nashville Fairgrounds stadium in 2022.

The Titans provided hope for Nashville-area businesses when they were able to allow a limited number of fans in the stands last season.

-- Photo By Jack Dempsey | Ap

“Our goals should always be to move forward,’’ team CEO Ian Ayre says. “To ensure we play exciting and entertaining soccer and to make our fans and our city proud. Last year and this year are different seasons than any before, so it’s hard to know what a normal season looks like right now.

“We will always want to be challenging for playoffs so that has to be our core objective, but we showed last year, that anything is possible and I for one am hugely excited about getting back to watching games and supporting NSC at Nissan stadium.”

Spring college football

Vanderbilt and Tennessee both have new head coaches and will use spring practice to get to know each other. Meanwhile, the OVC is playing a unique conference-only spring season that begins Sunday, Feb. 21. There are 10 other conferences playing similar seasons and there will be a 16-team FCS Division I championship beginning April 18.

Tennessee State hosts No. 12 Jacksonville State in the opener, and Tigers coach Rod Reed knows his team will have its hands full.

“They are going to be loaded. We know that, but they were loaded when we played (in 2019) and we let one get away down there at their place (falling 49-44),” Reed says. “So hopefully we can give them a game at our place. But we know that we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”

TSU will limit Hale Stadium attendance to 2,500 fans and enforce safety protocols. Season tickets are on sale.

At Vandy, Lea says he will use spring practice to begin putting his stamp on the beleaguered SEC program.

“The only thing we’re focused on is how we create this vision for the future and we are doing it not by dreaming it but actualizing it through our training,” says Lea, a Montgomery Bell Academy and Vanderbilt graduate who spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame.

“We want to be the best mentally and physically conditioned team in the country. So that’s our focal point right now. We control that. So everything that we do needs to have an element of mental conditioning and physical conditioning. We have to build the bonds of teammates among us so that when we face adversity, it’s not ‘every man is an island’ and we’re protective of ourselves and we’re not looking to redirect because things get hard.”

Wrapping up the rest

Auto racing: Nashville is suddenly at the center of the motor sports universe with its first NASCAR Cup race since 1984 taking place June 20, the Ally 400, at Nashville Superspeedway in Gladeville.

The Father’s Day weekend will also feature a truck race and Xfinity Series race. The grandstands hold 25,000 but temporary stands could be added if COVID restrictions have been lifted or improved by then.

Fairgrounds Speedway opens its 64th season April 17 and boasts two events that will be nationally televised, the May 8 ARCA Menards Series East Music City 200 and the July 16-17 Superstar Racing Experience (SRX) championship featuring Tony Stewart, Bill Elliott, Helio Castroneves and other greats.

August marks the debut of the IndyCar Series Music City Grand Prix, a unique street circuit race through downtown Nashville that features a drive over the Cumberland River via the Korean Veterans Memorial Bridge.

OVC men’s basketball: The OVC tournament is March 3-6 in Evansville, Indiana. Belmont is 22-1 overall and 16-0 in the OVC.

Golf: The PGA developmental Korn Ferry Tour, canceled last year, returns May 3-9 for the Simmons Bank Open for the Snedeker Foundation. The event is moving to The Grove in College Grove.

Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon: The marathon and half-marathon, scheduled for April 24-25 in Nashville, was postponed earlier this week. It is expected to run in the fall.

Titans: Catalyst to return

Finally, it would be shortsighted to overlook the impact the Tennessee Titans have had on the return of Nashville sports in general and the SEC Tournament in particular.

Despite setbacks, schedule juggling, and early season outbreaks that led to a reported $350,000 NFL fine for protocol violations, the Titans worked with the league and Metro Health in a full season, welcomed fans back to the stands and scrapped their way into the playoffs behind quarterback Ryan Tannehill and 2,000-yard running back Derrick Henry, the NFL Offensive Player of the Year.

“One of the best things that’s happened to (Nashville) was that the Titans were able to pull off a season (and) put some folks in the stands,” Sounds GM Nuse says.

“Because they did it so well, I think it opens up as some trust for the Health Department, knowing that there’s a lot of professionals .. that know how to put events on … safely. None of us are trying to break rules. We just want to kind of be in partnership and I think that partnership, it certainly went over with the Health Department.”

Adds hotelier Boyer: “With fans being allowed for the Titans games as well as the Nashville Predators, we hope the city and SEC will allow some fans to safely enjoy the games live and in person at Bridgestone arena, a first-class facility.”

Spyridon put it best.

“The Titans did everybody a big favor by how hard they worked on getting open, how aggressive they were on enforcement in applying the protocols, and the fact that it worked,” he says. “We didn’t have any spread. We didn’t have any major issues. And that gave everybody a little confidence in that the management and ownership of these teams care about doing it right.”

Soon, perhaps, it will be tipoff time for another SEC Tournament.

We can’t wait.

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