By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 21, 2020) US Soccer Players - Lawsuits, flea markets, asbestos, backroom deals, government double-crosses, a coveted racetrack, and even a mayor's extramarital affair. All that might sound like plot elements for the bygone TV soap "Nashville." It's actually just a snippet of the drama with the Music City's professional soccer club in its quest for a soccer-specific stadium. A question for Major League Soccer to ponder is whether its continued growth will feature more of this sort of struggle.
For those grown accustomed to Major League Soccer's steady drumbeat of expansion, the league's official welcome of Nashville SC just over two years ago probably seemed like business as usual. Granted, the sport had limited history in the city. Questions hung over the location of the planned permanent home for the new club, some four miles south of downtown at the Nashville Fairgrounds. However, billionaire ownership was on board in the form of the Ingram, Wilf, and Turner families. The city had the demographic outlook MLS covets. It marked another step in MLS's strategic advance into the proverbial heartland. A solid stadium deal was in place with mayor Megan Barry. Or so it seemed.
The month after MLS admitted Nashville, Barry's promising political career went up in smoke as she admitted having a lengthy affair with the police officer in charge of her security detail. Their relationship had involved overtime pay and other city funds, leading to felony theft charges that eventually forced her to resign. Then her vice-mayor and successor David Briley was soundly defeated at the polls by John Cooper, an outspoken critic of the soccer stadium deal during his time as a member of the city council, despite NSC owner John Ingram's six-figure contributions to Briley's campaign.
That would throw Nashville's MLS project into near-crippling doubt. Last year Cooper stalled on signing a lease with the club and beginning the scheduled demolition work on the stadium site. He cited a desire to improve the deal for taxpayers, even after Ingram made upwards of $54 million in concessions.
What Cooper said less about was his apparent desire to strike a deal to refurbish and renew the adjacent Fairgrounds Speedway. One of the nation's oldest racetracks, boosters hope it will someday host NASCAR events for the first time since the 1980s. It later came to light that 2.4 acres of land between the soccer site and the racetrack, dubbed parcel 8C, was the key. Cooper insisted that NSC scale back their mixed-use development plans for the spot to facilitate a future racetrack revitalization should that ever happen
Cynics who once expected Atlanta United to encounter Southern indifference to the beautiful game might see evidence of those old stereotypes here. Every day of delay cost NSC money while keeping its future in doubt. Earlier this winter Ingram, MLS commissioner Don Garber, and Nashville's fans went public with their frustrations on what they perceived to be the city going back on its word. Garber went so far as to declare that the city wouldn't have gotten an expansion slot in the first place without the original stadium deal. That raised the possibility, albeit extreme, of MLS walking away.
When the two sides finally reached a deal earlier this month, one that some observers framed as fundamentally similar to the one on the table for months, there was relief rather than joy. NSC CEO Ian Ayre, the former Liverpool FC executive recruited to build the club for MLS, compared the "difficult" process to downing a shot of Fireball whiskey. Soon reports emerged that the delays may keep the new venue, now completely privately funded, from being ready for opening day 2022 as planned.
Was all this worth it? Did the league rashly chase several dozen millions of dollars in public funds only for them to evaporate with a change of city leadership? Is the Nashville saga a preview of further bruising battles and tactics to come?
This isn't the first time a stadium search has left the league wandering in the desert. Projects in Salt Lake City, Washington, DC, the New York metro area, and even soccer-mad Portland, among others, involved contentious, dragged-out processes. Hunts for ideal permanent homes for Miami, New England, and NYCFC still rumble on as we speak. Perhaps even more strikingly, Garber & Co. have second-guessed established locations in the Chicago, Dallas, and Philadelphia areas, motivated by Atlanta's success story.
Few MLS observers need reminding about what happened with the attempt to move the Crew to Austin. Though the Crew stayed in Columbus with Austin FC added as an expansion team, neither the investor/operator nor the league came out of that affair with reputations enhanced.
MLS hasn't always had the leverage or outlook to play hardball in these situations. Perhaps that's changed for good. Conventions about how municipalities approach public support of stadium projects certainly are. The league's many success stories may have created an impression of swelling momentum and popularity with a rosy future. Nashville just showed what happens when that process runs into politics.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Taking stock of US Soccer as 2020 AGM unfolds
- Alums McBride, Stewart begin to sketch out their vision for USMNT
- New CBA consolidates MLSPA position as MLS’s engine, and conscience
- Preview: USMNT vs Costa Rica
Logo courtesy of Nashville SC