Sports success in any market is balancing act

Friday, January 24, 2020, Vol. 44, No. 4
By Tom Wood

William Byron does a burnout in the Burnouts on Broadway competition Dec. 4 during NASCAR Champion’s Week in Nashville.

-- Photo By Mark Humphrey | Ap Photo

Have we reached a tipping point, an oversaturation of professional sports entering the Nashville market?

Major League Soccer arrives Feb. 29 with Nashville SC joining the Tennessee Titans and Nashville Predators in top-tier leagues. Nashville is one of six cities most often mentioned for major league baseball expansion or possibly relocation. NASCAR moved its annual Champions Week awards banquet to Nashville in December and is discussing bringing a Cup Series race back to Nashville for the first time since 1984.

Nashville also will host Southeastern Conference men’s or women’s basketball tournaments through 2035, the SEC football media days in 2021 and the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 2022 after a 25-year absence. Nashville also is in the mix to host both a future NFL Draft and possibly a 2026 World Cup game.

“There certainly is a tipping point,’’ says Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. “We’re a market that can accommodate a little bit more than a normal city our size.

“The advantage Nashville has (over other cities) is because of our strong visitor industry. As a destination, we play much bigger with 16 million visitors a year.

“Having said that, you have to be careful. You want your existing franchises to be successful and stable. And you’ve got to have – my word, and not to be sexist because it could be male or female – but you have to have a sugar daddy owner.”

A deep-pocketed majority owner would be crucial to bringing major league baseball to Nashville, Spyridon says, using Nashville SC as an example.

“John Ingram is a great example,” Spyridon says of the Nashville SC majority owner. “When he came to the table, Nashville moved way up the list on MLS (expansion). If he hadn’t come in, we probably would have finished distant last.

“So I would say the same thing about baseball. When we have a known potential owner, our chances move up. But right now, it’s very much a long shot. But you also have to start somewhere.”

Here’s a look at where some of the ongoing efforts to enter Nashville’s sports market stand.


After two seasons in the United Soccer League, Nashville SC will be an expansion team in the top-tier Major Soccer League in 2020. The inaugural MLS season begins Feb. 29 against Atlanta United FC at Nissan Stadium.

The team will play for two seasons at the home of the Titans before a scheduled move into their own stadium. But demolition of existing buildings at the Nashville Fairgrounds, scheduled to begin in October, has not yet been signed off on by Mayor John Cooper as the city deals with a $41 million budget crisis.

Ian Ayre, Nashville SC’s chief executive officer, called the Titans “great partners” and says his focus is on the upcoming season. He says Nashville SC can make some noise in its inaugural season.

“Listen, there’s nobody in this building, and certainly from our ownership down, who thinks that we’re just going to take part. We have big ambitions. It’s impossible to say what the outcome will be; if we could predict that, we would all be very rich, I think,” Ayre adds with a laugh.

“But we’ve gone about the assembly of the team off the field and our team that will be on the field in a very methodical and thoughtful way. … We all feel we have enough (talent) to have a real go at this. And to say we’re coming to compete and not just take part. So we all feel good about that.”

Regarding the Titans, Ayre thanked the entire organization for its willingness to support and accommodate Nashville SC’s transition.

“I have to say that for me personally, by default for our club, we couldn’t wish for a better partner,” Ayre acknowledges. “Everybody’s been hugely supportive of us. Obviously, we’re going to be a lodger in their house for a couple of years. They’ve just been so accommodating and supportive, and it’s not easy for either, whether it’s MLS or NFL, to squeeze in two tough schedules across the year. But we’ve collaborated fantastically well.

“As somebody coming from overseas from another league, I’ve never seen the level of collaboration we’ve had from what you might observe as competitive sports franchises in the city. They’ve been the opposite. But I’ve learned in my time here that that’s the Nashville way. It’s all about working as one community and working together and helping each other.”

Meanwhile, Spyridon says Nashville has a legitimate shot to host a FIFA World Cup match in 2026 when the prestigious tournament will be played in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Nashville is one of 17 cities under consideration to host games in the U.S. All those cities will be visited by U.S. Soccer officials this year and 10 or 11 sites will be announced in 2021.

On Deck

Some notable Nashville sports events in 2020, not including Titans and Predators games.

Feb. 15: Boxing, IBF Super Middleweight championship: Caleb Plant vs. Vincent Feigenbutz at Bridgestone Arena

Feb. 29: Nashville SC makes its MLS debut vs. Atlanta United FC at Nissan Stadium

March 11-15: SEC men’s basketball tournament at Bridgestone Arena
April 7: Nashville Sounds season opener vs. Iowa, First Horizon Park

April 27-May 3: Nashville Golf Open Benefitting the Snedeker Foundation, Nashville Golf & Athletic Club

Oct. 7: U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game, Bridgestone Arena
Late December: Music City Bowl, SEC vs. Big Ten, teams TBD, Nissan Stadium

Looking Long-Range

2021: SEC football media days

2022: Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championship

2022: SEC women’s basketball tournament*

2026: World Cup Soccer**

*SEC men’s or women’s tourneys will be in Nashville through 2035

** USA/North America will host; venues TBA in 2021 and Nashville is one of 17 cities bidding to host games.

“I think if we talk about the trajectory, we hope that the next big opportunity is the World Cup,” Spyridon says. “If we could be selected as a host city, one of the 11 U.S. cities; we’re one of 17 right now, but, you know, hosting an event like the NFL Draft and then being recognized by the Sports Business Journal (as 2019’s best sports city) makes a statement that we don’t have to say, ‘We play like a bigger city.’

“Like we know they’re going to go to New York, Miami, Atlanta and Dallas – so how do we compete at that level? Well, we compete at that level by executing at a high level and doing it in a unique manner.

“And the things that we’ve done has opened peoples’ eyes and I’m – or we’re not – having to start at ground zero with a group like FIFA, saying ‘oh, no, we can’t.’ We can let other people do the talking for us now. And that’s way more valuable.”


“Nashville is a huge city,” says Ted Keith of the Sports Business Journal. “The one (effort) that I’m keeping an eye on, both for personal and professional reasons, is major league baseball.

“This is the longest baseball has ever gone without expansion since its first expansion round in the early 1960s. It’s just now been 22 years since baseball’s had an expansion team.

“Baseball’s revenues are over $10 billion a year. It’s a healthy, growing business and I think they’d like to reflect that by adding more teams. I think all professional leagues would.”

John Loar is managing director of Music City Baseball, the group that’s trying to bring a team to Nashville by expansion or relocation of a current team.

He has a team name (the Stars, a nod to the city’s old Negro League team) and renderings of what a family-sports-entertainment district might look like along the Cumberland River next to Nissan Stadium.

Loar says the long-term project is still in the early stages, but that an East Bank stadium would be privately funded “because there’s really no public money available,” Loar adds. “Those renderings are really just a vision of what’s possible.

“I mean, part of that objective is to help facilitate through a development the ability for us to privately develop a baseball stadium and potentially contribute to future improvements of a football stadium as part of a master plan, mixed-use development family sports entertainment district.”

Loar’s not putting all his eggs in an East Bank basket either.

“We’re looking at several locations in Davidson County. We’re also looking at alternatives in Rutherford County and Williamson County, as well,” Loar says. “I mean, I think it makes sense to create a sports and entertainment district on the East Bank.”

Nashville is considered a candidate for MLB expansion along with Charlotte, Las Vegas, Portland and a few other cities, and Loar notes it’s possible that franchises in Oakland and Tampa Bay could relocate to one of the cities.

Auto racing

There hasn’t been a NASCAR Cup race in Nashville since 1984, but that could change if Bristol Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith gets his way.

The Nashville Champions Week awards ceremonies were held here in December and will return for 2020 – and perhaps beyond, and discussions have taken place about upgrading the Fairgrounds track next to where the MLS stadium is to be built.

“It’s no secret that our organization is interested in working with the city of Nashville to restore Fairgrounds Speedway and in the process help deliver a truly complete renovation of the entire Fairgrounds campus,” says Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway.

“After a successful NASCAR Champion’s Week in Nashville last month, there is obviously a tremendous amount of buzz about the potential for NASCAR to return to the Fairgrounds Speedway. The drivers and fans love the idea of returning to one of racing’s most historic and beloved short tracks.

“We are hopeful that the city shares the same enthusiasm. We will continue working to help the city give the track a bright future.”


Nothing appears to be on the horizon for a PGA Tour stopover in Nashville at this point, though never say never. Former Vanderbilt star Brandt Snedeker, a nine-time PGA Tour winner, told The Tennessean last summer that Nashville would be a great fit for the PGA Tour.

In a recent conversation about sports business in Nashville, Mayor John Cooper reminisced about the days when Nashville hosted the LPGA Sara Lee Classic (1988-99; aka the Elextrolux in its final incarnation) and the men’s Bellsouth Senior Classic (1994-2003). Cooper also recalled with fondness the 1980 U.S. Women’s Open tournament at Richland Country Club. Amy Alcott was the winner.

“It still hurts me that we lost our Ladies’ U.S. Open course,” Cooper says about Richland Country Club’s 1988 move to its present location on Granny White Pike. “If we had that, just think what an incredible … and that’s a caution, too, that sometimes you have assets. I deeply worry about our racetrack and our speedway being that kind of opportunity that we lost. … It was all great.”