Today is the day: Nashville SC’s ownership group will go in front of the Major League Soccer Expansion Committee to make their argument for being one of two cities (if you ask me, it should be three, with Miami’s lack of progress pushing it back to the next round of expansion, at best) to earn a franchise in the league, likely for the 2019 season. These presentations will be discussed by the MLS Board of Governors and ownership of current MLS franchises before a final decision is announced at the end of the year.
Why should Nashville be one of the two cities chosen? Here’s what the team should be presenting.
While there has been shifting over time in whom would own the prospective MLS team, the league published the official groups making the bids. There’s little question that Nashville’s is among the strongest. It includes a whole lot of money, NFL ownership (and not of the “literal worst executive in professional sports, Jed York” variety), and lots of local ties. This is a strong financial bid, a strong sporting bid, and also one that won’t likely pack up and move (or fold shop) if the finances are risky in the first several years.
John Ingram – a local businessman and chairman of Ingram Industries, a firm with interests in book publishing, marine transportation, and distribution services. He’s a true local – his father, Orrin, is the founder of the company, and it’s based in Belle Meade – serving as a trustee at Vanderbilt and on the boards of Montgomery Bell Academy and Harpeth Hall School (because of course he is).
His sports involvement is relatively limited, with Nashville Soccer Holdings, Inc. his only known association. That’s the company he started as part of the effort to earn this MLS bid, so there’s no historical involvement beyond the purchasing of DMD Soccer, the previous owners of Nashville FC and Nashville SC.
Mark and Zygi Wilf – Owners of a real estate empire in New Jersey, though, uh, for better and for worse in the most predictable New Jersey ways. They’re ludicrously wealthy despite (partially because of) the shady business practices and resultant lawsuits. Their only connections to Nashville are through Vanderbilt. Mark is a Trustee at Vandy, and one of his sons is a graduate of the University. That’s a more tenuous connection to the area than the other ownership parties (though it helps explain how the Wilfs got involved in this particular project).
The Wilfs bring the majority of the sports ownership experience to the table here. They are two of the five members of a group that bought the Minnesota Vikings in 2005. That gives them ownership experience at the highest level in U.S. Sport, and they have proven that they’re involved in the day-to-day, as well, with Mark serving as president of the Vikings. There is some additional worry that they’re the type of folks who hold municipalities hostage for a new stadium (hello, Human Garbage Anthony Precourt – whose existence is evidence that this is actually a positive for MLS, and that Golems are real).
Frankly, if they weren’t the biggest piece of the monetary pie and the only ones with professional team ownership experience, their downsides might outweigh positives in their involvement. As it stands, you take the bad with the good.
Jay Turner and Family – Owners of MarketStreet Holdings (or Enterprises, or Equities – it’s got a lot of different names), a real estate development and management company based in the Gulch. Jay is the key piece here given that he’s the only one individually named, but the whole family (including cousin Cal Turner III, who I assume to be one of the unnamed members involved in the bid) initially got wealthy from their ownership Dollar General, founded by patriarch Cal Sr. Both J. Stephen Turner and Cal Turner Jr. are members emeritus of the Vandy Board of Trustees.
There’s no known sports ownership involvement from this party, other than their pursuit of an MLS franchise with Nashville Soccer Holdings. They’re in this through the money side of things, not the sporting one.
Aside from Sacramento (which has broken ground more in a “look, we’re ready” stunt than actually having a stadium under way), Nashville’s stadium plan stands out in the plan. It’s a private-public partnership, with the team’s ownership group expected to pay back a municipal loan, already has Metro Council approval and a site picked out, basically ready to break ground as soon as an MLS announcement is made.
Detroit’s stadium plan is by far the wort of the three: they’ve scrapped a soccer-specific stadium at the FailJail site (thanks to annoying red tape), and their bid will include Ford Field, an NFL stadium, as their venue. That alone is almost certainly disqualifying among this cohort.
Cincinnati’s plan is a little further along, but they’re still mulling a half-dozen different sites, and the community council at their preferred location in the Oakley neighborhood has voted against them. While the city (and potentially state, to make up a funding shortfall) have approved the necessary infrastructure improvements to build a stadium, that’s clearly well behind what is expected in Nashville.
Meanwhile, the Fairgrounds location is located in a location that could use the reinvestment, is close enough to Nashville’s population centers for Latino, Eastern European, and African populations (much of South Nashville, but particularly along Nolensville Pike), and most importantly, has the approval of local government and locals (aside from a few moronic NIMBYs) alike.
This is an area where Nashville can continue to separate itself from the other bids. The closest MLS teams are 245 miles away to the Southeast (Atlanta) and about 400 to the Northeast (Columbus (for now (I hate you, Anthony Precourt))). That’s close enough to establish rivalries, but far enough away that you’re activating an entirely new core base of fans: Cincinnati will infringe slightly on the fanbase of the Crew (as might a bit of Detroit, particularly the Toledo-area fans), Sacramento likely the same from the Earthquakes in the nearby Bay Area.
Meanwhile, except inasmuch as it means that Atlanta won’t be the team for the entire Deep South, Nashville’s fanbase is all its own, and waiting for a team to support. The entirety of Tennessee (especially if the franchise maintains its good relationship with Chattanooga FC), the majority of Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, parts of Louisiana and Arkansas: they may have USL, NASL, etc. teams they will continue to support, but Nashville is opening up a big market for the MLS. A larger market with less regional competition – and plenty of eyeballs already on soccer even before (and likely in anticipation of) a professional team’s opening kick… that’s pretty decent. Add in that Nashville is a tourist-oriented city already, and day trips for opposing fans (and let’s not kid ourselves, the excitement of visiting Broadway for opposing players) becomes yet another selling point.
The ownership group will assuredly also bring up the success of the Nashville Predators. Hockey is another sport not considered “Southern” in nature, but through the past two decades, has not only built up a very solid fanbase, but of course has developed the competitive ability to make the Stanley Cup Finals last year. The culture around the Preds is important, as well. They took plenty of elements from the Detroit Red Wings fanbase (thanks in part to the Ford glass plant) and inserted both Southern and local flair to make an entity all its own. In a sport like soccer that thrives on fan culture, that’s a huge selling point.
…all this brings me to Detroit City FC, which certainly has done some of the latter part of the soccer culture appropriation/adaptation that I expect will happen in Nashville (and expect the ownership to sell the league on). First of all, the team isn’t responsible for the behavior of the supporters, but the Northern Guard is bad and should be considered such. They actively cultivate antagonistic relationships with other teams, the Detroit MLS bid (their vociferous disapproval is going to be potentially harmful to their city’s bid, in fact), probably their own parents, Santa, etc. They can take it as a point of pride every time they get criticized (and indeed “everybody hates us” is something they are very, very proud of stating), but being proud of being bad isn’t the same as not being bad. English soccer has worked hard to get firms and hooligans out of their game. Instead, Detroit City FC has embraced it. That’s a negative for MLS looking at Detroit – and the Northern Guard wouldn’t have it any other way.
Will Nashville get a team?
If the ownership group is prepared – and there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t be – their bid stands far above both Detroit and Cincinnati. One could argue that if the USL team had been established a year earlier, they might be on par with or ahead of Sacramento, too. The bid practically sells itself, and it’s all in the presentation at this point.
If Nashville doesn’t end up with a team at the end of this process (and we should know the verdict in a couple weeks), it’s not because it was anything other than a great choice – it’s about proving that to the Expansion Committee.