MLS Avoids Nightmare Scenario as Nashville Resolves Stadium Issue

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Originally and quickly conceived as a call to arms, Thursday night’s panel discussion/rally featuring MLS commissioner Don Garber and Nashville SC owner John Ingram will be a celebration instead. A soccer stadium deal had been reached, then dramatically imperiled by new Nashville mayor John Cooper, then reached and announced again, finally, on Thursday morning.

Nashville SC will play its first two MLS seasons in the Titans’ Nissan Stadium and then at some point in 2022, move into a new, 30,000-seat venue located a couple miles south of downtown.

Although approved decisively by Nashville’s Metro Council in the fall of 2017, the Fairgrounds Nashville project was opposed by Cooper. The former councilman sought additional financial concessions from the club, as well as terms that might facilitate the redevelopment of the Fairgrounds’ race track. His ability to prevent the commencement of required infrastructure and demolition work at the site left everything in limbo.

Talks went on for months. Garber met with both Ingram and Cooper, and in recent weeks, NSC went on the offensive. There were public statements and open letters, a petition, considerable media coverage in Nashville and then, Thursday night’s event. Both sides were under pressure. Cooper, who took office last September, risked aiming for a bridge too far and scuttling the deal, thus undermining the Council and the city’s trustworthiness in future negotiations.

For Ingram and MLS, the crisis was becoming existential. There’s no way MLS would’ve approved NSC’s expansion bid without the new stadium. And according to the club, that expansion agreement gives MLS the leeway to revoke or move the franchise if construction doesn’t start by April.

Absent Thursday’s agreement, MLS might have faced a crossroads unlike any in its history. If either side walked away, then it risked opening a Pandora’s Box that would’ve looked more like the Ark of the Covenant. Go forward in Nashville without the stadium, and you’re stuck playing in a cavernous NFL venue in the country’s 28th-largest media market. And expansion team owners spending millions on new stadiums elsewhere would feel indignant, to say the least. Pulling the team from Nashville would be an enormous embarrassment, set an uncomfortable precedent, unleash a torrent of litigation and open up MLS to accusations that the league benefitted from NSC’s demise thanks to surging expansion fees.

Getting a deal done soon clearly was best for everybody. And so it happened. Ingram and NSC will pony up a bit more cash, amounting to an additional $19 million toward infrastructure and another $35 million in ticket tax revenue that now will go to the city. Ingram also agreed to leave sufficient space between the race track and future development planned for land adjacent to the stadium. In exchange, demolition work at the Fairgrounds will begin immediately.

“We are very happy to be moving forward with the stadium construction. The investment we are making is not just for our soccer team. It is an investment in the future of Nashville and the Fairgrounds,” Ingram said in a Thursday statement.

Said Cooper: “I’m grateful to Nashville Soccer Holdings and John Ingram for understanding our city’s financial realities and for partnering on a better solution for our city. I believe this is the best available implementation of the commitment Metro Council made to professional soccer.”

Everybody wins. The proverbial points are split. Nashville’s soccer fans get their stadium. Cooper can (and did) claim he made $54 million for the city. And Ingram, whose family is worth nearly $6 billion, can point to his 100% privately-financed facility with pride.

MLS, meanwhile, doesn’t have to redefine worst-case scenario. New York City FC may be closing in on a solution, but it’s still going to spend at least another couple seasons—its sixth and seventh—at Yankee Stadium. The search in New England goes on, and on, and on. And Inter Miami has a place to play, even if it isn’t in Miami. On Thursday night in Nashville, the league can celebrate avoiding a potential problem that could’ve made those issues seem quaint.