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.
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.”