The Nashville Predators are on a road trip through hockey’s heartland. They played Vancouver on Tuesday and are visiting Calgary and Edmonton before heading down to Minnesota—the ‘State of Hockey’—for a Sunday night game. The Predators are a team from the southeastern U.S., where kids don’t exactly grow up skating on frozen ponds. But the Preds won’t be cowed by the atmosphere in the arenas up north. They’re accustomed to colorful, raucous crowds. Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena routinely sells out (35 of 41 regular season games in 2015-16), and the fans there have come to represent North America’s closest approximation to Dortmund’s yellow wall.
The Predators launched in 1998.
“Nashville had no history with major league hockey and I think if you talk to people that visited for the  All-Star Game, it blew people away,” said John Ingram, a member of one of the region’s most prominent business families. “Nashville is on an incredible trajectory from a growth point of view. If you use Wayne Gretzky’s analogy about not just looking at where the puck is but trying to keep track of where the puck is going, Nashville is a serious city. It’s a branded city. People know about it and love to visit it and I’d like to see if I can help bring this globally branded city to the global sport.”
It’s Music City. It’s the Athens of the South. But is Nashville a sports town? The Predators and NFL's Titans are well supported but relatively new. They’ve combined for just one championship appearance and aren’t national/global brands. And Vanderbilt University is in the SEC but is more well known for what happens in its classrooms. Ingram, however, is convinced pro soccer will work in Nashville, and he’s ready to make a significant investment in order to make it happen.
The capital of Tennessee anchors the country’s 29th-largest media market and 36th most-populous metropolitan area. That leaves it just a bit beyond a league targeting 28 teams (for now). But Ingram said Nashville “is growing right into the sweet spot that I think MLS is looking for.”
It fills in a pretty significant hole in the map between Atlanta and Columbus, and Ingram said Nashville ranks second among the 10 identified MLS expansion candidates in millennial and foreign-born population growth. There’s your MLS sweet spot. There were six Fortune 500 companies in the area as of 2015 and it has the fastest growing Gross Metropolitan Product outside Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas.
If Nashville isn’t considered a sports town now, Ingram believes it will be.
“I think it’s fair to say we’re an [expansion] underdog. We’re later to start this effort than some other cities, but I think we’ll have a really solid application,” Ingram told SI.com. “I think we’re going to make a real effort that’s going to have to be considered.”
Right now, it’s a group of one. But that’s probably enough. Ingram, 55, is the chairman of Ingram Industries, a privately held company with interests in book publishing, barge and river transport, and information technology. The company founded by Ingram’s father took in about $2.3 billion in revenue last year. The family, which includes John Ingram’s mother, two brothers and sister, is worth around $4.1 billion, according to Forbes.
“I love sports. It would be new and exciting for me and the city, and hopefully a legacy for my family, so I said, ‘Yes, what the heck?’ I think I’m the guy in Nashville who can pull this off and I’m going to go for it,” Ingram said when asked why he wanted to invest in soccer.
Ingram is on Vanderbilt’s board of trustees—he earned his MBA there— and said he would “be happy” to add minority partners. He committed to be the primary investor only last month.
“There are a number of other families and individuals around Nashville we’ve got some very strong interest from. I think that will take care of itself,” he said.
While leading the charge, Ingram also is part of a 28-member organizing committee of business leaders, executives and officials dedicated to bringing an MLS club to the city. It includes Titans president and CEO Steve Underwood and Predators president and CEO Sean Henry. Nashville SC, the USL expansion team slated to take the field next year, is run by former MLS executive Court Jeske. All those names will appeal at MLS HQ. Ingram doesn’t have a stake in the USL club, but he’s working closely with the new USL team’s ownership group, which includes organizing committee member David Dill. A partnership may be down the road.
There isn’t much of one at the moment, at least publicly. That’s a function of Ingram’s recent entry into the expansion race. In fact, Nashville SC still hasn’t finalized its stadium for 2018. But MLS is planning to announce only two teams—Nos. 25 and 26—this year. That leaves Ingram some time before he’s got to nail down the specifics, although he’ll have to provide some information to MLS by the January 31 application deadline. He intends to do so, while highlighting Nashville’s history of engineering successful public-private partnerships.
“We did it with the Titans. We did it with the Predators. We’ve done it with a major convention center. And I’m hopeful [a soccer stadium] will be the next great example of how the private and public can come together to do something really valuable for Nashville,” he said.
Ingram and his committee have a “stadium vision” calling for a 25,000-30,000 seat venue in the city’s “urban core.” There have been reports that the city’s Fairgrounds site, which includes concert and event space, a flea market and a speedway, is under consideration. A potential partnership with Vanderbilt that may or may not include its football team also has been discussed. Because of his board membership there, Ingram said he had to “let Vanderbilt run its own process about evaluating it and whether it makes sense to participate.”
He said there are “several sites being evaluated” and that additional details would be available in the next month or two. Ingram’s job will be to deliver the specifics that will whet MLS’s appetite.
Soccer and Sports Scene
There are only three metro areas in the U.S. that have at least two teams in the traditional four major sports leagues and smaller populations than Nashville (Milwaukee, New Orleans and Buffalo). But as Ingram said, he's convinced there’s room for soccer.
The U.S. national team has done well there. Its four games between 2006 and 2015 averaged 31,998 fans, which was enough to attract one of the Americans’ CONCACAF Gold Cup matches this summer. Mexico also has shown well. More than 40,000 filled the Titans’ Nissan Stadium for October’s friendly against New Zealand.
The city had a pro soccer presence in the 1990s that included a five-year stint in the second-tier A-League by the Nashville Metros. They made a run to the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals in 1998 that included a 3-1 win over MLS's Kansas City Wizards. The Metros dropped to the PDL and eventually folded in 2013. More recently, NPSL club Nashville FC has tapped into the city’s soccer interest. Taking the field in 2014 as a supporter-owned team, NFC wore the blue and yellow of the Nashville flag and drew around 2,000 fans for its first game. The club’s grassroots success proved attractive to Dill and his partners, who are taking the colors and branding (and they hope the culture) to the USL.
Nashville and the surrounding region is home to some 32,000 youth players at 61 clubs.
The Ingrams are very wealthy, which will appeal in the MLS board room—as will the fact that Nashville is the North American headquarters for Nissan and Bridgestone. The city itself is increasingly regarded as a hip, up-and-coming tourist destination for more than just country music fans, and MLS wouldn’t mind being associated with a place that’s young and on the rise.
The league wants a national footprint, and Nashville helps provide that even though it’s not a large TV market. It’s a growing city and an MLS team there would be the closest one for more than 12.5 million people across nine states. Prove soccer can make it big in the Southeast and you’ve gone a long way toward building the “soccer nation” that MLS Commissioner Don Garber frequently references.
Without a definitive stadium plan in place this month, Nashville stands no chance of being awarded one of the next two expansion teams. That leaves it to compete with a bunch of other markets for Nos. 27 and 28—many of which are larger. And unless Ingram can secure a stadium site and the public-private partnership he referenced, Nashville won’t have much of a shot at those either. As he said, they’re just getting started. But that means there’s a lot to do before Music City can be considered a soccer city, and that smaller market like Nashville will have to blow MLS away when the next round of teams is identified.
"Nashville SC is set to launch as a USL club essentially being run by former MLS executives. And we're encouraged by the community's support, at least so far behind that team and kind of the political and business leaders who have come out and expressed interest in being a possible MLS expansion team,” Garber said last month.
“We also look at, and folks that have been around expansion for many years will know, we very carefully strategically see and test markets, potential MLS markets, with international games and U.S. men's and women's games. We've been doing that for over a decade. And the national soccer market has come out in really strong support for the U.S. men's team, the U.S. women's team. And the Mexican national team had an unbelievable event that we did this year … We continue to be focused to the extent that it makes sense as it relates to the entire geographical roll out in the southeast. It is still a place where we don't have a lot of teams and Nashville sort of falls in that category. I will say, Nashville is very early into this. I think we met with them for the first time within the last few months. They're not nearly as advanced as many of the markets.”