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VOL. 46 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 13, 2022

Dome alone? No, it takes more to land Super Bowl

Nashville could check all boxes with a new, enclosed stadium

By Tom Wood

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Several years ago, city and state leaders discussing the future of the Nashville sports landscape during the 2020s had one key question: Could Nashville host a Super Bowl. The really short answer was “no” and for two very simple reasons: Not enough hotels and the lack of a stadium that could accommodate such a mammoth undertaking.

But that was then. And today, the answer to that same question by many of those same people is a resounding yes.

In recent months, the Tennessee Titans shifted away from plans to renovate 23-year-old, open-air Nissan Stadium and replace it with an enclosed stadium on the East Bank of the Cumberland River at an estimated to cost of $1.9 billion to $2.2 billion.

“I think we are a renovated or new stadium away from being able to host a (Super Bowl),” says Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. “We have certainly reached out to the NFL. We have expressed our strong level of interest.

“Their pattern of behavior is – as teams and cities have renovated or built new stadiums – they have tended to reward those markets with the second-largest sporting event in the world.”

The other big question about hotel rooms can be answered by simply looking across the Nashville skyline and counting all the cranes and buildings that are going up.

There are more than 36,000 hotel/motel rooms available, almost 2,100 due to open in 2022 and another 7,400 on the way, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. reports.

The NFL requires a minimum number of hotel rooms – 35% of stadium capacity – which Nashville already has. Seating capacity of 70,000, the NFL minimum for a Super Bowl, would require 24,500 rooms within one hour’s drive.

Some hosting requirements

• The host stadium must be in a market that hosts an NFL team and must have at least 70,000 seats

• There must be a minimum number of hotel spaces within one hour’s drive of the stadium equaling 35% of the stadium’s capacity. With 70,000 seats, that would be 24,500 rooms. Nashville has 36,816 rooms.

• Minimum of 35,000 parking spaces within 1 mile of the stadium.

• Space for the Gameday Experience, a large pregame entertainment area, within walking distance of the stadium.

• Space for the NFL Experience, the interactive football theme park operated the week before the Super Bowl.

• Exclusive access to three top-quality, 18-hole golf courses so the NFL can host a tournament on Super Bowl weekend.

• The use of two “top-quality” bowling alleys for a bowling tournament the Wednesday and/or Thursday before the Super Bowl.

• Practice space of equal and comparable quality for both teams within a 20-minute drive of the team hotels. The practice facilities must have one grass field and at least one field of the same surface as the host stadium.

“So, by the time the new domed stadium opens up, there’s a likelihood of somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 hotel rooms being in the immediate Nashville area,” says Randy Rayburn, a longtime Nashville restaurateur and civic leader.

A 2026 opening date is forecast in time for the start of the NFL season, and perhaps in time to host World Cup soccer matches that governing body FIFA has yet to award.

To be sure, many hurdles lie ahead, but the state Legislature recently passed a budget that includes $500 million toward a new stadium. Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk plans to invest a reported $700 million into the project.

“I think it’s fair to be talking about a private investment in that range,” team president and CEO Burke Nihill said during a recent interview on Nashville radio station 104.5-The Zone’s 3HL show.

“This is going to require an investment by her family that’s … I mean, it’s gonna require some pretty dramatic steps to put in that investment. We’re expecting a private investment that’s gonna be multiples of what a renovation investment would have looked like.”

And then, of course, there’s the question of how the city of Nashville will invest in the project. Mayor John Cooper has made it clear he doesn’t want general funds involved, and the Titans agree with that stance.

The Tennessee House and Senate also passed legislation that allows Nashville to increase its hotel-motel tax by 1% to fund the stadium, potentially generating more than $10 million annually. Metro Council passage also would be required.

“The name of the team is the Tennessee Titans, not the Nashville Titans, so I’m very encouraged that the state has really taken ownership of trying to ensure that the Titans have a new facility,” District 15 Metro Council member Jeff Syracuse says.

“And then it’s not solely on the backs of Nashville residents, but really on everybody in the state of Tennessee.”

What might an enclosed stadium and redevelopment look like on Nashville’s East Bank? The Titans offer this teaser, though they caution it’s just a concept at this point.

-- Rendering Provided

Here’s a deeper look at issues surrounding the stadium proposal and whether Nashville will someday host a Super Bowl.

An enclosed stadium

Even before the new stadium proposal has been approved, let alone built, fans are asking all sorts of questions:

• What will it look like?

• Will it be a domed stadium or have a retractable roof?

• Grass or artificial turf?

• Will Tennessee State continue to play home games at the new stadium?

• Will the 30-year PSLs fans purchased for the 1999 inaugural season roll over?

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, a lot of details to be solved,” Nihill adds, promising answers will come at the appropriate time.

“One way to make sure that we don’t get this right is to move too quickly. We will absolutely be transparent as we have answers on things. But this is … it’s complicated,” he points out. “We’re not gonna rush anything to meet a deadline. We’re gonna do it right.

“I think it was (legendary UCLA basketball coach) John Wooden who said, ‘Quick, but don’t hurry,’ and that’s kind of the attitude right now.”

The team has released a rendering of what the new stadium could look like but Kate Guerra, the team’s vice president of marketing and communications, emphasizes that it is a conceptual design “and should not be taken literally as what a new stadium would look like.”

The Titans have selected Kansas City-based MANICA to work on the conceptual planning stage, VenuesNow.com reports.

“A standard initial step in any potential stadium project is to bring on an architect to assist with conceptual planning,” the Titans say. “MANICA’s work will help us more fully understand key aspects of the project as we continue to explore the possibility of a new stadium. We look forward to working with their team in this discovery phase.”

Which doesn’t answer the dome versus retractable roof question. Spyridon uses both during his interview, while Scott Ramsey, CEO and president of the Music City Bowl, calls it “a covered facility” when asked how a new stadium might benefit the postseason bowl game.

“Certainly, from the bowl’s perspective, it would be an upgrade and a chance for us to really, in the next iteration of the College Football Playoffs once that ball gets set, to be as aggressive as we possibly can, given that we’ve got a covered facility that time of year,” Ramsey notes.

Nihill did answer the question of whether Tennessee State could continue to play its home games in the new stadium.

Titans stadium projections

Total Stadium Cost: $1.9B - $2.2B (current estimates, subject to additional research and inflationary costs)

1.7 million square feet

31-month build, projected to be completed in time for start of 2026 NFL season

Surrounding Campus Neighborhood (preliminary estimates)

4-5 million square feet of retail, office and residential buildings

•  Approximately $4B of construction costs

•  10-15-year buildout schedule in numerous phases

Potential economic impact

Stadium construction activity:

•  $58M of direct state sales tax

•  $27M of in direct state sales tax

•  $4B of locaI economic impact

•  11,000-plus jobs earning wages of $775M+

30-year period

•  $29.5B of local economic impact

•  19,000-plus jobs earning wages of $18B

Potential enclosed stadium events

•  An estimated additional 15 ticketed events per year, resulting in approximately $225M/year increase in direct spending compared to current stadium

•  Super Bowl, WrestleMania, NCAA Football Playoff, NCAA Final Four, NFL Combine. The 2022 Super Bowl (Los Angeles) was projected to create $477M in economic impact, and the 2020 Super Bowl (Miami) created $571M in economic impact.

Source: Tennessee Titans

“Our stadium is their stadium,” Nihill acknowledges. “We see some ways that a Tennessee State game can really be enhanced in a new venue over the current venue. So if they want to play games at a new stadium, they would absolutely have that opportunity.”

Titans push a better deal

In his recent radio interview, Titans executive Nihil discussed both the current and future agreements with the city.

“We’ve got a lease that was drafted in the mid-90s and the (original) lease is really unfavorable for the taxpayers of Davidson County,” he said.

“There’s some expenses that the Titans are required to pay, and then otherwise it’s the taxpayers. The Nashville Sports Authority is required to keep the stadium in NFL-standard condition. It’s part of the reason why for the last four or five years we’ve been very judicious about the investments that we’re making in the stadium, understanding that that’s something that is challenging to the city and its taxpayers.”

The team wants to be a good corporate citizen, Nihill adds, and do what’s best for the community.

“What we’ve been trying to do is find an elegant solution that flips that equation to end up with a lease that does the opposite of the current lease – that actually takes the taxpayers of Davidson County out of that position in the current lease and puts the Titans in that position where we ultimately are responsible for the go-forward maintenance and capital expenses and the rest of it.

“We’re trying to find a solution with the city. It’s a lot of work ahead. Like I said, very grateful for the state support but there’s a lot of work ahead with the city. We’re working with the city to try to find as many ways as possible to use things like sales tax from inside the stadium and other sources that are not general taxpayer sources for the lease and initial construction.”

That’s good news for Councilman Syracuse, who says he favors a new stadium if it doesn’t burden taxpayers and tries to look at the big picture of how it can benefit the city and not just the team.

Photo by Mark Humphrey | AP
Nashville made an impression on the NFL and the rest of the sporting world when it drew an estimated 600,000 fans for the 2019 NFL Draft.

“I have a sense that as long as it’s not put on the backs of Nashville Davidson County voters and there is a sizable return on this the way that the state and the Titans owners have structured this, so I’m pleased to support it.

“From my perspective though, it’s not just about the Titans stadium. This is about reimagining the East Bank and how a new Titans stadium fits in with that vision and in the surrounding development that’s going to happen.”

Syracuse says the state is “partnering” with the city to turn Fifth Street into a major East Nashville corridor that would be linked to a new bridge across the river and connecting to Fairfield Avenue.

“The exact location of the bridge is not set yet,” Syracuse notes. “We are applying for a federal grant to study that, but there is a potential for a new bridge that would mean the residents of the eastern side of the county would have an additional option for traffic flow into East Nashville.”

Seeing the big picture

That vision of a better city is shared by Nihill, who calls it a “generational” moment in time for the city.

“There’s some great opportunities for the future of the city if everyone comes together with a thoughtful solution,” Nihill continues. “So it’s much more than a stadium conversation.

“Oracle’s putting 1,000 jobs about a mile away from Nissan Stadium on the East Bank of the river. There’s just a real opportunity for the city and its citizens to come together and do something really special. I mean, generational if we get this right.”

The fireworks might need to be toned down, but Nashville would be able to add more non-sports stadium shows with a domed or covered stadium.

-- The Associated Press

He compared it to the choice that New Yorkers faced long ago when deciding to embrace rather than develop Central Park.

“And people (today) are still very happy that they had the thoughtfulness to do that,” Nihill says. “The East Bank as a whole – not just our stadium campus but the East Bank as a whole – is 300 acres. It’s on the riverfront, it’s adjacent to some of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Nashville, just across from downtown.

“So if you do this right, you have an opportunity to create something that doesn’t exist today, to use this blank canvas in a way that, 50 years from now, people are sitting on the East Bank of the river, using the riverfront (and) wondering, ‘how in the world did everybody have the thoughtfulness to get this so right?’”

Spyridon adds it’s all about sustaining the growth momentum the city has enjoyed the last three decades.

“As we all know, success breeds success,” Spyridon says. “We have an opportunity to sustain this momentum for quite some time if we’re smart, deliberate and even cautious.

“Not growth for growth’s sake, but smart growth. I’m a broken record in saying cities are either growing or dying. You don’t sit still. You can’t find any market that has sustained success without evolving (and) growing. I choose growth over retraction.

“But we have to take care of (concerns) – if it’s traffic, if it’s affordable housing – those are important issues. But managing our growth is critical.”

So, good for the city?

That was one of the questions posed to Vanderbilt professor John Koch, a senior lecturer and director of debate whose areas of interest are public memory and the intersection of political culture, rhetoric and sports.

“There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the new stadium project, so it is a bit hard to answer whether it will be good or bad for the city. A new stadium would certainly open a lot of doors for Nashville to continue to grow as a major U.S. city,” Koch says.

“There are competing studies about whether new stadiums generate revenue. Less controversial in the literature is the idea that most new revenue does not go back into the community. If we are to build a new stadium, and it is financed at the state or local level, citizens should insist that the investment pays dividends for the community, not just the owners and league.”

The opportunity to host a Super Bowl, Koch adds, is fine as long as the city’s other needs are boosted by the generated revenues.

“If we were to host a Super Bowl, that would certainly be the pinnacle of us marking our place in American popular culture, outside of being Music City. However, with many problems in Nashville, such as homelessness and infrastructure, we may question this investment in a new stadium that is only 20-some years old when we have other needs as a city,” Koch continues.

“Of course, perhaps tax revenue from new opportunities could offset the cost of this investment. In short, whether it is good or bad for the city is a matter of priorities and then if it does create new revenue, what priorities we then put that new revenue towards.’’

Other possibilities

Having an enclosed stadium would open Nashville to hosting year-round so many other major events – everything from collegiate playoff games, to a Final Four, to major concerts and things like WrestleMania.

Spyridon points to mid-2023 as a likely starting point for the 31-month construction phase and notes Nashville likely would not host a Super Bowl until 2028 or 2030.

“I would say we can make a strong case (to host a Super Bowl) if the domed stadium gets approved,” Spyridon says. “In our minds, certainly not … The NFL – let me be real clear – is very noncommittal. They won’t promise anything ahead of time. I don’t want to imply that.

“But if we build a domed stadium, there is no reason that we could not be considered a city for some kind of regular rotation to host the Super Bowl. It might be every 10 years or something. It wouldn’t be every two or three years, but a roof on that facility makes a statement about our ability.”

The league fell in love with Nashville when it hosted the annual three-day NFL Draft in 2019, drawing 600,000 fans from across the country downtown. By comparison, the recent draft in Las Vegas drew an estimated 300,000 fans. Las Vegas will host Super Bowl LVIII in 2024.

Spyridon says he would be “very aggressive” in pursuing events to keep the turnstiles spinning at a new stadium.

“You can rest assured that all of us would approach the SEC about their (football championship) game. We know it’s embedded in Atlanta, but that won’t stop us from asking,” he points out.

“College football playoffs, when they expand – and those expansion talks will take place in 2023 and ‘24 and then I think the contract runs through ‘26 – so we would be looking beyond that.

“Our timing and everybody’s else timing really lines up well if we stay on the current track that we’re on. It’s not a done deal. We know we have a lot of work to do and we’ll be talking over the next six to eight months about the benefits of a new stadium.”

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