Arts & Entertainment
At last glance, the Tennessee Titanswinners of 29 games in the past two seasons, Super Bowl favorites, model NFL teamwere battling mightily to get to .500.
The Nashville Predatorsyoung, shiny and ready to reach the playoffsdidn’t look much improved, either on the ice or at the gate.
The Nashville Soundsonce the town’s favorite pro sports sons and the last living reminder of a proud local baseball heritagewere threatening to bolt for the suburbs or, maybe, parts unknown.
The Nashville Katswho played in the past two Arena Football League championshipshad already departed.
Vanderbilt football, once the biggest gridiron game in town, was drawing smaller and smaller crowds.
All in all, many of the developments in the past year didn’t seem like progress to lots of Nashvillians. But in their own strange way they represented a natural progression, a sure sign that the Music City is maturing as a sports market. 2001 was, in fact, a year of impressive growth for Nashville sports.
Five years ago in Nashville, you couldn’t attend an event at the highest level of any professional sport except golf. Then, we went from zero to NHL to Super Bowl in the dizzying span of one short season.
The Predators moved into the new downtown arena we had built just to attract a new team such as theirs. Raucous audiences disproved any resident poo-poohers who had doubted whether hockey could thrive in a football-oriented Southern city, and going to Preds games became a civic event.
Then the Titans moved into Adelphia Coliseum, which we had built specifically to attract them, and took over the town. Within several months of receiving a new name, new uniforms and a new place to play, they had compiled one of the NFL’s best records, staged one of the most amazing last-second playoff victories the league had ever seen and played in one of the most memorable Super Bowls in history.
Fans began to sense a pattern. Build a venue. Get a team. Build a winner. Proceed directly to GO.
This year, that happy assumption has come due for reassessment.
Most cities wait years for a championship. Those possessing longer experience with professional sports franchises know that all honeymoons end. Perhaps Nashvillians convinced themselves they were somehow immune. Or maybe they were giddily caught up in the excitement of it all.
Now, the thrill may not be gone, but the marriage is definitely entering a different phase.
As a city, Nashville has been like the kid who desperately wanted a puppy, only to discover all the responsibilities that accompany dog ownership.
Whatever causes for their stunning demise are identified in the post-mortems, the Titans became just another mediocre NFL team (and, on some Sundays, a pretty bad one) in 2001. It was a painful reversal for fans who had anticipated a possible Super Bowl rematch with St. Louis.
Nor is there any assurance that next year’s record won’t be equally lackluster. That’s because the Titans once again will have to make more agonizing personnel decisionsperhaps $18 million worthto comply with the NFL’s salary cap.
While Adelphia Coliseum no longer confers an air of invincibility on the Titans, it’s still full when they play there. The decibel level has decreased a notch, however. Whether the attendance will do the same if the team doesn’t improve remains an open question.
Unquestionably, a little of the air has escaped from the Predators’ balloon. The team enjoys a loyal, enthusiastic following. As an expansion franchise, though, the Preds haven’t enjoyed the bandwagon experience that has benefited the Titans. After the second season, attending games at the Gaylord began to recede as the Latest Cool Thing. Some fans who had eagerly scooped up full-season tickets began opting for more digestible packages or simply stayed home.
The costs of the city’s sports-buying bonanza began to reach home in 2001, too. To some Nashvillians who originally had supported them, the sweetheart deals designed to lure the Titans and Predators were looking a little less flavorful. Concert revenues at the Gaylord Entertainment Center were failing to offset the costs of upkeep. At Adelphia, a poorly designed contract meant that the city had trouble even booking revenue-producing shows for the few dates when the city could legally use its own facility. Meanwhile, many homeowners grumbled as property taxes in Davidson County rose (again).
As the sports market matured, some clear losers began to emerge. The Kats, like so many other defunct Arena Football League teams, found the competition easier on the field than in a crowded marketplace. (A new team with the same name, this time owned by deep-pocketed Bud Adams, will replace them in a year or two.)
The AAA Sounds, without a glamorous new venue or the big-event lure of major-league sports, have seen their audiences steadily dwindle to the point that the team is no longer a sports mainstay but just pleasantly ephemeral summer diversion, like the neighborhood Sno-Cone truck. With the Sounds’ ownership unable or unwilling to pay back rent due to the city, it’s likely that Nashvillians will have to venture to Williamson County for professional baseball, if they can find it at all.
A positive addition to the landscape, a new superspeedway in Wilson County, has meant the inevitable demise of the old Nashville Speedway, where three generations of Winston Cup drivers from Darrell Waltrip to Casey Atwood spent part of their early careers. (Franklin businessman Dennis Grau assumed the final year of the lease.)
But the maturation of the sports environment may have hit hardest on a team that can’t moveVanderbilt. It’s a pattern that repeats in many large cities with college (especially private school) teams: Dallas, Houston, even L.A. In Nashville, fans with more choices on which to spread their finite ticket dollars have rendered Vandy unable to fill its football stadium. Even venerable Memorial Gym, where tickets for SEC men’s games once were scarcer than gay Church of Christ preachers, sells out much less often.
All of these developments leave Nashville at something of a sports crossroads. We’re not sure how much devotion casual fans will show if the Titans don’t rapidly rebound from this year’s woes, or if the young Predators demand yet another year of patience. We’re not sure about the future of our other sports, and we’re not sure whether Vanderbilt can become a major player again or will have to find its own smaller niche.
But we can be reasonably sure that the rush to the pro sports honeymoon is about over. We desperately wanted to join the club, to show we belonged. Now we’re paying the dues. As a city, we’re a little older and wiser, a little less loud and proud. It may not feel like it, but that’s progress.