Should Bud Adams' history in Nashville be defined by football or careful use of public dollars? Or both? 

Master of an Ugly Game

Master of an Ugly Game

By one measure, Titans owner Kenneth Stanley "Bud" Adams Jr., who died Monday at the age of 90, was the NFL's most successful owner.

In 1960, he paid the $25,000 membership fee to add the Houston Oilers to the nascent American Football League. In the most recent franchise valuations by Forbes magazine, the Titans were valued at $1.06 billion.

That's a 24 percent annualized gain before inflation.

Adams will be praised for recognizing the potential of professional football, and for seeing first Houston and later Nashville as all-majuscule Major League Cities. And the story of turning 25 grand into more than a billion dollars is a good one. It will no doubt be repeated at business schools and will echo from the walls of harshly lit hotel ballrooms, its praises sung by professors behind lecterns and motivational gurus wearing headset mics.

Barely a mention will be made of Adams' extortion of Houston and his whoring of Nashville.

Professional football sustains itself on public money and sweetheart tax deals and free stadiums built on the backs of taxpayers. The NFL has been gorging at the public trough for so long it would embarrass swine, let alone bankers.

But if that's the game, Bud Adams was its finest player.

After Houston refused to spend public money to build the Oilers a new stadium to replace the Astrodome, Adams went shopping.

In Nashville, he found a willing dance partner — or maybe Nashville was just a taxi dancer. The city ponied up the dollars to build what is now LP Field, Adams backed up the trucks, and (eventually) the Oilers became the Titans.

The result is a stadium that was out of date by the time it was finished, one that is used fewer than 30 days a year. (The Predators' direct subsidy from the city is just as abhorrent as the free stadium, but at the very least they use that money to run Bridgestone Arena, which actually hosts 150 events a year.)

The result is also, of course, a professional football team, one that brings joy and agony to thousands of us. The arrival of the Titans, too, is being described as the catalyst that made Nashville the latest It City. It's hard to quantify the factors that led to the coastal publications' sudden obsession with Music City, but, sure, "arrival of professional sports" is just as good an arbitrary start point as anything else.

Perhaps, though, the praise-singers are right. Perhaps it was Adams who made Nashville an It City, so long as "It City" is defined as a place willing to extend the taxpayers' largesse to any prestige project that shows it any affection.

If nothing else, handing Adams the keys to what was then the largest civic project in Metro history demonstrated to his fellow billionaires that there was no need to expend their prodigious fortunes to relocate to Nashville, because Nashville was more than willing to pay them for the privilege.

For 15 years, the city has fueled Adams' cash cow. Adams himself, meanwhile, stayed at a very long arm's length — living in Houston, visiting Nashville only a handful of times a year to flip very expensive birds at opposing fans. He even bought season tickets to the Houston Texans team that replaced the Oilers.

Which raises the question — what now?

Ownership of the team passes down through the generations, with one of his grandsons largely regarded as the actual successor. The team's lease runs through 2028, and it's unlikely the team would move before that. Despite being used for hardly anything, LP Field is one of the most profitable stadiums in the NFL — largely because its deal with the city means it costs the Titans next to nothing to operate.

There are those who'll say it's unlikely the team would move at all. But Adams' family learned at the feet of their patriarch, a man who took chances and a man who took his team to the city most willing to pay for it. They learned from a man who moved a beloved team from a city he called home to a city for which he had no particular affection. And seemingly never developed any.

Bud Adams played the NFL's insidious publicly funded game better than anybody, and there's little doubt he taught his successors the playbook.

Requiescat in pace, Bud.

Caveat emptor, Nashville.



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