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VOL. 46 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 23, 2022

Playoff expansion increases heat for domed stadium in Nashville

By Tom Wood

Updated 9:48AM
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Sam Wilcox, Metro’s deputy mayor for policy and innovation, addresses the Metro Sports Authority on the East Bank stadium project Sept. 15 at Bridgestone Arena.

-- Photo By Tom Wood |The Ledger

While Nashville city leaders continue to debate what the East Bank along the Cumberland River might someday look like, the city’s sports leaders think they have a clearer picture of what the future could hold if a new enclosed stadium is built.

The proposed $2.2 billion stadium – whether domed or with a retractable roof – opens the very real possibility that Nashville could play host to major sporting events previously thought unlikely, from a Super Bowl to a College Football Playoff game (maybe even the national championship game), from the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four to WWE’s WrestleMania.

As the mayor’s office continues negotiations with Tennessee Titans ownership over whether to renovate aging Nissan Stadium or build a new indoor facility that could also host concerts and conventions, those responsible for bringing top-tier sports events to the city are ready to roll if the visionary East Bank dream is realized.

University presidents announced Sept. 2, that the College Football Playoffs will expand from four teams to a dozen by 2026, perhaps as early as 2024 if details can be worked out.

If an enclosed stadium is built – and that’s still a very big “if” – to anchor the proposed East Bank revitalization project, look for Nashville to aggressively bid for sports’ biggest events.

“An enclosed stadium would take this city to the highest event level possible. We would certainly bid on all opportunities,” says Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp, who in May told the Ledger that Nashville is “a renovated or new stadium away from being able to host a (Super Bowl).”

Spyridon notes that Nashville’s reputation as a destination city will also make Nashville attractive to college officials if there’s an enclosed stadium. While college football is an outdoor sport, basketball is not.

“There are about 10 cities with domed stadiums, and all have hosted at least one of the country’s highest profile events,” Spyridon notes. “Our reputation for hosting major events is second to none; our convenient geographic location is second to none; and our hotels, restaurants, facilities and entertainment package are second to none.

“I would be more shocked if we were not successful (on those bids) than I would be surprised by the opportunity for overwhelming success,” Spyridon adds.

Ohio Valley Conference commissioner Beth DeBauche and Scott Ramsey, CEO and president of the TransPerfect Music City Bowl, also tout Nashville’s reputation as an elite destination city.

“Nashville is very well respected as a hosting city,” says DeBauche, who was named to the NCAA Board of Governors in June. “We’ve been told we’ve done such a wonderful job when we have hosted events for the NCAA in the past, be it the women’s Final Four, or first- and second-round (games) for the (men’s) NCAA Tournament.”

She noted the support of local universities, the Nashville Sports Council and strong civic leadership as the backbone to making those events happen. “These events were well received as a city and our geographic location kind of as an ‘it’ city…all serves us well,” DeBauche adds.

Ramsey, whose bowl game celebrates its 25th anniversary with a Dec. 31 matchup at Nissan Stadium between teams from the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten, says it’s too early to speculate if Nashville could someday host one of the College Football Playoff games.

“But the stadium certainly will open up a lot of opportunities for us to pursue major events and I think (they) would be very interested in Nashville and I think we could host most all of them very successfully,” Ramsey says.

Imagine UT Vols in a title game

Since a new East Bank stadium is still in the “what if” stage of negotiations, let’s peer into one possible future with the Tennessee Vols in the 2028 college football playoffs. Heck, let’s go all the way and put them playing for the national championship in Nashville.

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Impossible, you say? Not since Josh Heupel took over the program last year. In Heupel’s first season, Tennessee rebounded from a miserable 3-7 record in 2020 to finish at 7-6 after a 48-45 loss to Purdue in the Music City Bowl. UT began the 2022 season unranked but quickly vaulted to No. 11 in the AP poll and No. 12 in the AFCA Coaches Poll going into this week’s home game against Florida.

At SEC Media Days in Atlanta, Heupel spoke in general about what UT’s program could look like, saying he was “so excited about what’s going to happen here in the future, too.”

If you haven’t been keeping up, here’s how the 12-team playoffs will likely work:

The top four teams will get first-round byes while ranked teams 4-8 will host the bottom four playoff teams at campus sites. Then, cities will bid to host the seven remaining playoff games … four quarterfinals, the semifinals and the national championship.

Doug Mathews, a former Vanderbilt player and UT assistant coach who how hosts several radio talk shows in Nashville, and Nashville native Mark Dyer, who has served as a college sports executive with both Host Communications and IMG as well as NASCAR, agree Nashville will be in the mix to host those college playoff games once the final format is approved.

“The proposal that was put out there that in all likelihood will pass about the College Football Playoffs is there’s not going to be any bowl sites that have automatics,” Mathews says. “You’re going to have to bid for those, and Nashville can certainly get in the running for that.

“There’s certain requirements, kind of like (hosting) a Super Bowl. There’s certain requirements. You have to be able to fill so many seats available. And the big thing, of course, is – seating is big – but the big thing is being able to handle the crowd. Well, Nashville can do that. So absolutely the Music City Bowl itself could get involved.

“The bowls are just the playoff games, and the championship game stands alone,” Mathews continues. “So Nashville – and I’m sure they will – can get involved in both games, the playoff games and then the championship game itself.”

There are more than 36,000 hotel/motel rooms available with 2,100 due to open in 2022 and another 7,400 on the way, the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. reports. Between 45,000 and 50,000 hotel rooms are expected to be available in the Nashville area by the time a new stadium could open.

“So, absolutely, Nashville will be able to be right in the middle of that (bid process). Without question,” Mathews says.

“I think Nashville’s in great shape for the future of what’s going to happen in college sports. If the new domed stadium happens, you’re going to see Nashville as a strong competitor for the College Football Playoffs and in the Final Four mix,” says Dyer, who launched his Taymar Sales U ticket-operations company three years ago.

“They’ve got a good sports infrastructure because they’ve done the (Music City) bowl game. Again, the transformation of downtown. And so, all the ingredients are there in Nashville to be a player for both the Final Four and the College Football Playoffs, including hosting the national championship game. They’re going to get a Super Bowl in that new building, too, I’m sure,” Dyer adds.

Mathews says Nashville has another important ingredient to the recipe for attracting major college sports events, one 6 miles east of downtown and with initials that are sometimes an unofficial nickname for the city: BNA.

“One thing that really helps them, too, is (Nashville) International Airport,” he says. “People can get in and out of here real easily. So absolutely, if the city so chooses – and I would strongly suspect they will – they absolutely could (host a national championship).”

Dyer compares the proposed Nashville facility to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, a multipurpose facility with a retractable roof. Indianapolis has hosted the Final Four eight times and will do so again in 2026.

“(Nashville is) a super-attractive city,” Dyer says. “You’ve got great hotel density downtown that brought a good comparison to Indianapolis, which is a great place. It’s a little cold up there for the College Football Playoffs, but the great thing about Indianapolis to those in the sports industry at the Final Fours, the weather is usually a little better.

“Once you get out of your Uber at one of those downtown hotels, unless you go to some function a little bit outside of the downtown area, you never have to get in a vehicle again until you go back to the airport.

“And I think Nashville’s got the same dynamic going as you look down the road. Of course, I think Nashville is going to have a Major League Baseball team down the road. I don’t think there’s any question about it.

“I don’t know when. But if you look at where the city or cities are going and the population and how young the city of Nashville is, it’s got an incredible future all the way around.”

Mathews says Indianapolis will be a player to host the college football playoffs along with cities like Atlanta, Miami and Dallas.

“But Nashville can hang with all those,” he says. “It’s going to get down to how much money they’re willing to pay.”

And how big city leaders are willing to dream.

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