The state of sports in Nashville

Sunday, October 10, 2010 at 11:30pm

There was a time not long ago when sports entertainment in Nashville was confined to a few key places: historic Memorial Gymnasium for Vanderbilt basketball; Greer Stadium for minor league baseball; and Hale Stadium for Tennessee State University football. If your appetite was for professional sports, you looked elsewhere.

But by the mid-1990s, Nashvillians heard whispers about the possible relocation of the National Basketball Association’s Minnesota Timberwolves to Music City. While the move never happened, the idea that we could have a pro franchise was transformative.

In 1997, Nashville secured a deal to land a new National Hockey League franchise, becoming part of a trend in which Sun Belt cities were the new destinations for the historically northern sport. The Nashville Predators were born.

Around the same time, word came that Bud Adams, billionaire owner of the National Football League’s Houston Oilers, contacted then-Mayor Phil Bredesen about the possibility of a city-funded stadium deal to make Nashville the Oilers’ new home. Negotiations were under way. Adams got his stadium, and by 1999 Nashville had an NFL team playing on the east bank of the Cumberland River.

The emergence of professional sports in Nashville naturally coincided with a growth in sports facilities. The city plotted a new $150 million, 17,000-seat state-of-the-art arena, equipped for both hockey and basketball, at Fifth Avenue and Broadway downtown. The Tennessee Titans’ new home came in the form of a $290 million, 69,000-seat outdoor stadium that replaced industrial eyesores along the riverfront. In the college ranks, Belmont and Lipscomb universities built new basketball arenas in the past decade, and Vanderbilt recently opened a new baseball stadium, Hawkins Field.

All this amounted to a rejuvenated sports landscape in Nashville, underscored by new sporting events, many that were previously never on the city’s radar. That landscape is the subject of an interesting new study by Vanderbilt law school students in which they examine ways to build local sports at all levels.

Since 1998, Nashville has played host to the Music City Bowl, featuring a Southeastern Conference team each year against a representative from the Big Ten, Big East or Atlantic Coast conferences. Bridgestone Arena, under different names, has hosted SEC basketball tournaments — men’s and women’s — and first and second rounds of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. Belmont and Lipscomb have held Atlantic Sun basketball tournaments. In 2000, organizers held the first Country Music Marathon. Meanwhile, sports enthusiasts across the nation have turned on the television to watch pivotal playoff pro football and hockey take place in Nashville.

Most recently, buoyed by the under-construction $585 million Music City Center, Nashville landed the NCAA Women’s Division I Basketball Final Four for 2014. There’s also a possibility LP Field will play host to the FIFA World Cup in either 2018 or 2022.

The study

To evaluate what researchers dubbed the “State of Sports in Nashville,” law school students at Vanderbilt last month completed and released a comprehensive 57-page report that takes an inventory of Nashville’s sports landscape.

The project, conducted by the Vanderbilt Center for Nashville Studies, compares Music City’s sports approach to that of other comparable cities, including Atlanta, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Charlotte, N.C.

“We wanted to provide a benchmark,” said David Williams, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor of student affairs, who taught the sports law class and helped guide the report. “If you’re looking at sports in Nashville, you probably want to start at a place of, ‘Here’s where we are.’ We didn’t take a position of, ‘Who do we want to be?’ That’s really got be somebody else’s call.”

True, the study doesn’t conclude whether Nashville should seek to take its sports offerings to a new level — that is, bring in new sporting events, tournaments, championships, teams and so forth. But if city leaders do wish to capitalize on Nashville’s sports potential, then the reports concludes Metro should create more public-private funding mechanisms to support and sustain the growth of sports in the area generally. Williams said Nashville has already proven it can do that.

“How does a public entity — the city, the public, the state or even a university — and a private entity — a corporation, a foundation, whatever — work together toward some sort of goal?” Williams said. “One of the things you see in a lot of these other cities that have a lot of sports is some very, very strong private-public partnerships.”

A few cities could serve as models. Indianapolis, according to the report, is known as the “Amateur Sports Capital,” which it earned as a result of strong cooperation from the government and private sectors. There’s also Omaha, Neb., which annually hosts the NCAA College World Series. Omaha capitalized on a concentrated branding effort — “The Road to Omaha” — and made it center stage for college baseball.

“You can’t rely on the government doing it,” Williams said. “By the same token, you probably are not going to find someone or some entity that privately wants to do it on their own.”

More to come

Ron Samuels, president of Avenue Bank and former chair of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, called Vanderbilt’s report a great first step in the strategic planning process for Nashville’s sports potential. Samuels said the next phase should be to solicit community input to determine where the city wants to be 10 to 15 years from now. He likened the approach to the chamber’s Partnership 2020 plan, which outlines Nashville’s course in terms of economic development.

“We’re already recognized as a desirable place for sports,” Samuels said. “So, in a lot of ways, it sort of raises the questions: What are the next steps? Where do we go from here?

“Some cities have targeted and have three or four professional sports franchises in their city,” Samuels said. “Nashville’s probably not big enough to do that, but we certainly can be a significant player in collegiate athletic events and other amateur sports events.”

Scott Ramsey, president of the Nashville Sports Council, a nonprofit group that seeks to promote and attract professional and amateur sporting events, said the Vanderbilt study can provide a foundation on how Nashville’s sports landscape can progress in comparison with other cities.

Ramsey pointed out that a public-private partnership is precisely the model that has benefited Nashville in the past. To date, Ramsey said there are sporting events booked in Nashville all the way through 2019. They include the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2019; the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament in 2011 and 2012; the first and second round of the men’s NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament in 2012; and the women’s Final Four in 2014. In addition, the Music City Bowl’s contract runs through 2014.

“But you can’t plan for the future by sort of resting on the past,” Ramsey said. “I certainly think as we continue to look at more creative and aggressive ways to plan for the future — whether that’s financial, whether that’s facilities, whether that’s organizationally — partnerships, cooperative efforts are very beneficial. … The cities that have integrated sports as a successful economic engine and promotional platform have had great private-public partnerships. I think we’re no different.”

Asked what sporting event opportunities could be possible in Nashville’s future, Ramsey said it’s more complicated than simple projections.

“I don’t think we ever look at things and say, ‘Boy, there’s this, this, this and this,’ ” he said. “I continue to think we look at what we do well, what we host well, what time of year it works, what type of facilities are available, and then, quite frankly, it’s out there negotiating against other cities with organizations that bring events here.”

While growth is important, Ramsey said the city must also try to duplicate the recent successes, such as last year’s SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament, which featured sell-out crowds, packing the bars and restaurants on Broadway.

“Our reputation as a host city is very positive in the national landscape,” Ramsey said. “I don’t think you ever want to take a step back. You certainly want to make sure that the events you recruit, you have the resources available to stage them and host them successfully, or your reputation and your presence nationally really takes a step back. At the same time, you’ve got to push forward and always be creative about thinking about new opportunities, whatever those may be.”

17 Comments on this post:

By: Hotshoe17 on 10/11/10 at 6:47

Stan H.
No mention of Stock Car Races ........ Karl Dean must have writen the article?

By: 117_acres on 10/11/10 at 6:56

The hobby racing at the fairgrounds speedways is a sport to by "God"! I can't believe this here writer and study done forgot about the finest hobby racetrack in universe. I've done been all over I tell yea and ain't seen know better athletes in the world than out there at them fairgrounds speedways!

By: Doveplayer on 10/11/10 at 7:08

Oh go away 117_. Just because you don't enjoy races there doesn't mean others can't enjoy it. Fact is, Professional stock car racing has been there a LOT longer than NHL, NFL or minor league baseball.. If the city leaders had a few brain cells in 1984 we would still have our two Nextel Cup races per year and the millions of dollars that generates. Instead they sat on their hands and did nothing and lost all that money. Now they want to complain the track isn't as popular and doesn't make as much money. Don't blame it on the track. It's folks like YOU who have blinders on their eyes and can't see that Nashville has had professional sports here since the early 60's.
I would put out a dare to you to contact Tony Formosa Jr and ask him to take you for a few laps around the track there and see if he is a professional driver or not. For you, he'd probably do it for nothing. See if you can go 5 laps without crapping your pants. I doubt it. Like I said before, how bout we shut down your hobby too? I forgot, you never get out of the house to have a hobby. Your mommy won't let you.

HotShoe17 (nice handle BTW) You are correct. Young writers with no history of the area write things like this. All they know is what they've been told. What do you expect from a 20 something with no sports experience in the city?
Stay on 'em, bro. We'll win this fight yet.

By: joe41 on 10/11/10 at 8:22

I have never considered car racing as a sport but I do agree that it has the capability to bring in lots of fans a couple of times per year. I have witnessed first hand the Bristol phenomenon. But the Fairgrounds and the track in Wilson County are not big players in the car racing world. My question is what would it take to get to the next level?

By: localboy on 10/11/10 at 8:30

Nice history would seem the college tournament route is the path to follow...a new baseball park downtown could be marketed to go after the women's softball championships, for example.

By: localboy on 10/11/10 at 8:33

As soon as I wrote that comment, I realized you would need an air traffic controller to coordinate using such a ball field for tournaments at that time of year. Ah well, wishful thinking...

By: RTungsten on 10/11/10 at 10:05

If stock car racing is a sport, then anyone driving on I-65 near Rivergate is an athlete.

By: Doveplayer on 10/12/10 at 9:37

@Joe41, We had at one time big time racing here. The city leaders let it slip away by doing absolutely nothing to save it. Right now, we have the finest short track to be found anywhere, right in our backyard. Neither track here will ever see Nascar Cup racing so we are resigned to making the Fairgrounds the BEST short track in America. Short track racing is very big. If you had been in the area the weekend of Oct 1-2 you would have seen not just race cars and drivers, but fans from many states and not just our neighboring ones. This is a big sport in the mid west and even the northeast. The Fairgrounds track attracts the best drivers from all over the country and really, it always has. It needs more support from the city. This is NOT just a "hobby" track. It is far from it. Thanks for your interest in it!

@RTungsten. What constitutes a sport? If it is show on ESPN does that make it a sport? If so, then count bowling and billiards and poker as sports. Yes, racers are athletes. If you think all they do is sit and steer a car left all day, then think again. It requires strength, focus like no other sport does, stamina (there are NO time-out's in racing) and intelligence. Contact the track and take a ride with Tony Formosa Jr around the track in his specially prepared stock car then see if it's a sport or not. Sports Illustrated long ago said yes indeed, stock car racing IS a sport. Wide World of Sports covered it in the 60's and 70's, is that good enough for you?

By: 117_acres on 10/12/10 at 2:27

Is stock car racing an event during the Summer or Winter Olympics? I guess if race car drivers are athletes and racing is a sport then the same can be said for video games and the people that play them.

By: TITAN1 on 10/12/10 at 4:41

117_acres, you would cry like a little baby if you were driven around a track in a stock car. So, you think if it is not in the Olympics that it is not a sport? LOL! You dig your hole deeper with every post. It is so obvious that if you don't like it, nobody should like it.

By: Hotshoe17 on 10/12/10 at 7:56

Stan H.
Maybe 117_acres should strap himself in a Stock Car on a 90 plus degree day and race for 3 hours (Roughly the distance to New Orleans or Detroit) with no time outs and then see if he thinks it takes an athlete to do that?
Just because he is incapable of doing that, he doesn't like it. I can't fly the Space Shuttle, but I sure like to watch it.

By: dwight14 on 10/12/10 at 11:16

117 acres is really grasping at straws...evidently he doesnt watch racing or follow the sport at all..just the other weekend they were doing a story showing the g forces drivers go thru at 150 mph...also about the athlete part,it was confirmed that drivers in the cup series are not only ahletes but some of th not at stick and ball,or swimming,but endurance,strength and agility they rank above a LOT OF YOUR SO CALLED STICK AND BALL..BASEBALL PLAYERS WERE RANKED LOWER AT 117,do some research,then reload,then come back with some other excuse...also as far as eye hand co-ordination,drivers in cup,nationwide,irl and nhra out ranked most other athletes...they have to be strong,endure extremely long times of heavy g forces pulling at them without any type of breaks...they work out like any other athlete,more than some of the stick and ball sports people do...remember jerome bettis doing the ride in wallys world?..afterwards he didnt want any part of it..he said he would rather be hit by a 300 lb football player than to go thru that again...the list goes love to have been a driver..but i knew i could never withstand it long enough..oh maybe a few laps,but i didnt have the athletisim to do any good...and hey i played football and baseball in school...think again 117 acres..hey im sure tony will take you around the track like he does anyone else..sign up...then tell us if it was easy..and you will only be riding...

remember,the hardest thing to do in sports they say is to hit a baseball...i guess the eye hand co-ordination for that doesnt rank up there huh

By: dwight14 on 10/12/10 at 11:23

oh,i forgot...when i was fresh out of high school,i took a car around the local dirt track a couple times..the last time,i turned 18 laps running only 75-80 mph on the litle dirt track..really decent whipped me something awful....i didnt do it again..i knew better..i knew i would wind up tiring out and only being in the way making it too dangerous for everyone...ever try turning a car 180 degrees at 70 miles an hr,kicking up dirt waves just like a boat on water ? its not easy..thats why they call it wrestling the car..its hard,very hard work..and i was by myself...i can only imagine having 30 other cars with me out sir,it takes an athlete to handle those monsters...all that horsepower is something else to control...

By: dwight14 on 10/12/10 at 11:32

anyone know the 1st pro sport televised from nashville?or when? 1970 from the fairgrounds when the first race of the cup guys raced the 400..bobby isaac won it..on abc's wide world of sports special edition...SPECIAL EDITION. it was a huge event...the worlds highest banked and fastest short track...the banks were lowered after 2 yrs and have remained to this day how they are now...yep higher than bristol for those 2 yrs..nashville was one of the favorite stops on the circuit...too bad metro didnt know its butt from a hole in the ground...that track had the jump on bristol motor speedway which outdraws every football game ever..160,000 people...yeah great management metro..what a can be big again,but not that big..but it can bring in the people at least 5-8 times a yr for some big short track races...

By: jdinwoodbine on 10/13/10 at 1:16

1st off. Baseball has been played in Nashville since the Civil War so Racing is not the oldest sport in Nashville. Don't get me wrong I will miss the sounds of cars running that track at night. Right now lets get the new Baseball stadium for the Sounds and let time take care of everything else.

By: 117_acres on 10/13/10 at 3:08

I will agree that stock drivers are athletes if you all agree that men and women who drive eighteen wheelers "Big Rigs" are athletes as well. A trucker has to drive several hundred miles a and up to 10 hours a day everyday thus truckers must have the endurance to get the job done. Truckers also some times carry loads of merchandise worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Truckers have to be able to travel at high rates of speed with heavy loads behind them in all kinds of road conditions. Have you ever seen Ice Road Truckers? Truckers aren't able to drive 250 times around in a circle making only left hand turns, they have to be able to drive safe as to not kill the drivers and families traveling on the road with them. Yes, truckers should also be consider athletes if stock car drives are considered athletes. Lol....

By: 4gold on 2/26/11 at 9:09

I live in Green Hills and can hear the race cars at the fairgrounds blasting around the oval. I will be glad to see it go. I remember going to the track as a child seeing figure 8 races and demolition derbys. When they lost the Winston Cup tour that track was done. Time to move on. I think Nashville has all the spoiled brat professional athletes we can handle at our present population. I say stay pat for now. i could care less about minor league baseball too. NO more tax dollars. My property tax has grown times 5 already. NO MORE!

Go Dores, Preds, Titans! Go Nashville a great place to live!