Nashville’s Mayor Has Altered the Deal

MLS is threatening to move out of Nashville before the city’s expansion soccer team plays its first game, because the new Mayor wants to bring back NASCAR.

News broke last night that stadium negotiations between MLS and the city of Nashville are at an impasse. Normally that is a sentence one reads before an expansion franchise is granted. This is happening two years after, and with Nashville S.C.’s first kick about a month away.

It is always a tricky task to glean details from angry press releases, but the dispute appears to be over usage of the Nashville Fairgrounds. The Fairgrounds is a known area to seasoned pro wrestling fans as the original home of TNA (now Impact) wrestling. It is a large, publicly-owned plot of land located about ten minutes south of the heart of downtown Nashville. (Like many in Los Angeles, the Worldwide Reader measures distances by drive time.) On that land sits a few old buildings, an old racetrack, and a ton of open space for parking.

The original deal was that Nashville S.C.’s principal owner, John Ingram, and MLS Commissioner Don Garber A) saw Nashville as a hip, desirable city for putting down soccer roots, and B) saw the Fairgrounds as a place to use adjacent housing/retail/commercial development to justify the cost of a 27,000 seat soccer stadium.

Nashville’s Mayor at the time, Megan Barry, supported the deal. The city would do some demolition at the Fairgrounds (along with other infrastructure work), and give favorable tax status (aka “kickbacks”, as the haters like to call it) to developments at the Fairgrounds site. Ingram & his partners would pay for the stadium and goose the surrounding development.

There was one small, seemingly unrelated issue in all of this: Mayor Barry was essentially treating her security escort, Nashville PD Sergeant Robert Forrest Jr., as a male prostitute at the time by having carnal relations with him while he collected overtime pay. She resigned in disgrace, and both her & Forrest had to plead guilty to Felony Theft.

Barry’s Vice Mayor, David Briley, succeeded her, and he was sympathetic to Nashville S.C.’s Fairgrounds plan. Unfortunately for soccer folk, he turned out to be a political loser. In 2019, he became the first incumbent Nashville Mayor in over 50 years to lose an election.

The man who beat Briley for Nashville’s Mayorship is John Cooper. Cooper ran on being “less ideological”, and apparently part of that ideology retrench includes not favoring soccer over stock car racing.

The Nashville Fairgrounds has a short track oval. It has space to expand the racetrack’s seating capacity beyond the current 13,000, and for the types of ancillary events that accompany NASCAR races. Speedway execs may imagine a 50,000 capacity race day stadium surrounded by various pop-up attractions, exhibits and eateries, all located in the South’s coolest city.

The MLS plan for the Fairgrounds would kill all of that. The soccer team would build a soccer stadium and have rights on ten acres of adjacent land, making the aforementioned vision of a festival-like NASCAR weekend nigh impossible. Cooper’s current offer is to stick with the plan of providing infrastructure help for Nashville’s construction of a soccer stadium at the Fairgrounds, but only if Nashville S.C. abandons development rights for the adjacent ten acres.

If the Worldwide Reader is reading the tea leaves correctly, Mayor Cooper’s preference is for Nashville S.C. to make the Tennessee Titans’ 69,000-seat NFL stadium their permanent home. The current MLS and NFL seasons have minimal overlap, and Titans stadium already has the parking and access needed to host 20,000-plus soccer fans. The Fairgrounds stadium plan requires Ingram to pay $25 million upfront, plus at least $9 million/year in debt service on the cost of construction. Ingram would need to sell a whole lot of suites and club seats to make such an endeavor worthwhile, if Nashville S.C. builds a soccer stadium at the Fairgrounds without an adjacent development.

Unfortunately for Garber and Ingram, they appear to want Nashville more than the Mayor wants them. There are only so many cities as hip as Nashville. Expanding to Raleigh or San Antonio is like expanding to Cincinnati: nice for soccer fans in that city, but a drag on the league’s national profile.

Compounding MLS’s conundrum is the precedent this could set. The current deal Commissioner Garber offers cities is this: either build us a stadium, or give us sweetheart development rights around the stadium (preferably both). MLS thought they had the latter in Nashville. Now they have neither. If Nashville S.C. sucks it up and stays in the city anyway, then what’s Milwaukee (or San Diego, or Tampa, or Boise) to think?

Ultimately, the Reader expects Nashville’s status to allow Mayor Cooper to have his cake and eat it too. The MLS team will stay, and a NASCAR deal will be made at the Fairgrounds. Just don’t expect John Cooper to be on Don Garber’s Christmas card list any time soon.

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