By Russell Vannozzi
Nashville has changed dramatically over the past few decades, and its sports landscape has been no exception. What was once mostly a college-sports city is now filled with plenty of professional sports options. The Nashville Sounds fill the summer calendar at the new First Tennessee Park, while the Tennessee Titans draw large crowds throughout the fall.
Perhaps the most surprising development is the success of the Nashville Predators. In the summer of 2007, it appeared Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie was taking the hockey team across the northern border. Those memories are long gone. As of Feb. 7, the Predators are averaging 17,145 fans per game, often selling out even weekday games.
Nashville’s latest sports obsession? Soccer. With a growing international population and the emergence of a deep-pocketed investor, the chances of the Music City landing a Major League Soccer franchise have grown exponentially. Twelve cities have bid for four expansion franchises, which will be announced over the course of the next few years.
An ownership group consisting of David Dill, Christopher Redhadge and Marcus Whitney, has already brought lower-level professional soccer to Nashville. Nashville Soccer Club will begin play next spring in the United Soccer League, generally considered to be the second tier of American soccer behind the MLS. If Nashville eventually won an MLS bid, the USL squad would make a logical feeder team.
So why exactly would the MLS be successful in Nashville? The simple answer is that the city is booming. According to The Tennessean, 100 people moved to Nashville per day in 2015. This influx has brought in all types of people from a variety of backgrounds. International friendlies at Nissan Stadium have drawn crowds of over 40,000 people, and Nashville will host Team USA and the Gold Cup in July.
Nashville’s bid is backed by some powerful individuals, including mayor Megan Barry, who traveled to New York last week to hand-deliver the bid paperwork to MLS officials. The bid has been funded by John Ingram, who is chairman of Ingram Industries and part of one of America’s richest families. Nashville businessmen Bill Hagerty and Will Alexander have headed the bid’s organizing committee.
The soccer craze began when the upstart Nashville Football Club (which has since become Nashville SC) garnered national attention for being a team owned by its fans. Members paid a yearly fee and were able to vote on team decisions, which helped Nashville FC build a loyal fan base. The semi-pro team played in the National Premier Soccer League for two seasons before Dill, Redhage and Whitney took over the team’s assets and turned the club into a minor league franchise last summer. Nashville FC’s success gave a small taste of the potential for pro soccer in Nashville.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle Nashville faces is getting an approved plan for a stadium. Several of the other 11 cities that are bidding for a team already have stadium or have a solid plan in place. Barry announced a proposal last week to build a stadium at the Fairgrounds, but that comes with potential issues. While the location would make some sense (being close to the rapidly growing, southern part of town), it would come with a price tag. Part of Barry’s plan is to also renovate the Fairgrounds and a racetrack that sits on the property. It’s unclear how much money Ingram would contribute versus how much of the burden would fall on taxpayers. The infrastructure around the property would also need to be altered to allow for game-day traffic and parking.
While stadium issues put Nashville behind the eight ball, there is still a decent chance that Nashville could snag one of the final two MLS bids (The city almost certainly will not be among the first two bids announced this year). Having Barry and Ingram on board gives the bid a much greater chance of success. The city has proven that it can support its professional teams, and large crowds have attended soccer exhibition games in the past. Time will tell if a Nashville MLS team comes to fruition, but Barry’s recent stadium proposal and trip to New York has sparked hope for Middle Tennessee soccer enthusiasts.