Twenty years ago, Robert Altman’s movie about Nashville held up a mirror to America. Civic-minded folks here got all balled up, thinking the rest of the country was thinking they were a town full of bucktoothed, jug-sucking goobs. Now, in startling corroboration of the truism that art imitates life and life imitates sports, our bid for pro status has set the same sordid dynamic in motion again.
The actors are different now, but the game is remarkably similar. The dreams of the aspiring country singer have now been projected onto the entire country music capital. Now it’s the city of Nashville that is trying to make it big in a business that tends to devour everything in its pursuit of profits. Like Altman’s hopeful country singer, we may even be required to perform a strip-tease along the way.
The city of Nashville, unlike Sueleen Gay in Altman’s movie, may yet find success and fulfillment. Meanwhile, as the relocation deal with the Houston Oilers edged closer to completion this week, outsiders snorted, calling Nashville a town so desperate for big-time sports status that we would pay any price, bear any burden and smooch any hiney to secure a pro franchise.
Although a few huffers in Houston still publicly held out doubts this week, Nashville’s footing seems so sure that even the Oilers’ conniving and slippery owner, K.S. “Bud” Adams, would be hard-pressed to pull the rug out now. Not that he should have any reason to want to.
In Houston, where he has fewer admirers than the Trotskyite Workers Party does, Adams has left no bridge unburned. In Nashville, there’s talk of building a new bridge to provide access to the new stadium to be built for Adams’ club. If this were a military negotiation, it would be described as unconditional surrender.
Unless you’re fortunate enough to be awarded an expansion team, this is how pro sports franchises are won these days: City meets team, city woos team with lavish incentives, city wins teamat least until team decides to shop around for more attractive offers. Then the little ritual begins afresh.
, Bredesen’s sports-hungry Nashville merely illuminates a larger trend. Just as California inexorably lured Dust Bowl migrants during the Great Depression, lucrative concessions lead sports franchises to pile everything onto the truck and move.
Team owners, unable to stamp out the principle of free agency among their players, have wholeheartedly encouraged the gamesmanship, playing one city off against another to ratchet up the bidding. In the same way that players’ salaries have escalated, owners’ demands upon their host cities have spiraled: Today’s obscenely lucrative deal soon becomes the standard expected by the rest of the gang.
If Owner A receives a $50 million bribeer, relocation feeto move his team, his colleagues clamor for even more from their suitors. If Owner B’s newly built stadium has 130 luxury boxes (from which she can pocket all of the revenue), no one will again settle for less.
Thus, Adams dallied with Jacksonville in hopes of squeezing Harris County into placating him with nearly $70 million in revenue-enhancing renovations to Houston’s Astrodome. The New Jersey Devils grumbled about heading for Nashville until the state stepped in to revise the team’s lease. The baseball Reds and the football Bengals, concluding that they could no longer bear the indignity of sharing the same venue, blackmailed Cincinnati into agreeing to demolish 25-year-old Riverfront Stadium and bankroll two new, single-sport stadiums next door.
In Dallas, Reunion Arena isn’t yet out of its teens, but the owners of the NBA Mavericks have convinced city fathers that the place is woefully antiquated (not enough skyboxes). The NHL Florida Panthersanother unhappy franchise now making googly eyes at Nashvillehas a similar complaint about a facility that’s practically new.
And, of course, if extortion fails, there’s always exodus. When St. Louis refused to whip out the checkbook, the NFL Cardinals flew off to Arizona. About $260 million and one new stadium later, the St. Louis Rams opened play and left Los Angeles without a team.
Even the best-established franchises are easily uprooted. The ties don’t bind. In the middle of the night, Baltimore’s beloved Colts sneaked off to Indianapolis. Now Cleveland’s even more beloved Browns are bolting for Baltimorea move that, to everyone but Baltimoreans, seems as unthinkable as the pope relocating the Holy See to Monte Carlo. Meanwhile, along Lake Erie, hopeful rumors swirl that the Bengals, whose owner has long ties to Cleveland, will move there and abandon Cincinnati.
Nashville aside, a more apt movie parallel might be offered by the carpetbaggers in Gone With the Wind: They had no regard for Miss Scahlett’s precious soil except as a means to increase their wealth. Similarly, fans of a city’s sports team invest their time, loyalty and emotions, while its owners invest only money. When those interests conflict, the money always wins. Moving was simply a business decisionnothing personalAdams and Browns owner Art Modell protest, sounding remarkably like another movie legend, Don Corleone.
This, meanwhile, is the big league into which Nashville is preparing to take its first wobbly step.
Having its first major sports franchise heralds a city’s arrival. Pro teams, the civic boosters claim, also bring economic benefitsalthough you’re likely to see them only in the impact studies commissioned by the boosters themselves.
The Oilers certainly could benefit Nashville. Thanks mostly to deftly executed choreography by Mayor Bredesenkowtowing to Adams here, crunching numbers for the Metro Council there, and even, miraculously, engaging the governor’s brainthe city could pull off the whole enterprise with a minimum of fiscal sacrifice (and no tax increase). In the process, Nashville would also get a redeveloped East Bank and an even more invigorated downtown, plus a team of our very own to love.
In time, pro footballNHL hockey won’t be too far behindmay contribute as much to our city’s quality of life as baseball has to Toronto and Denver. It may even become an inextricable part of our sense of local identity, just as the Cowboys have become identified with Dallas.
But big-league status also will bring big-league headaches. And heartaches. Along with the electricity that teams can bring to a city, there will also come the moment when Nashville will have to shell out new dollars to keep them. Otherwise, that gleaming new stadium may one day stand as an empty and expensive monument to civic pride. Or Nashvillians, as Houstonians are doing now, will come to curse the name of Bud Adams or his heirs. They may discover, as loyal fans in Cleveland have discovered, that the excitement generated by a winning franchise is only surpassed by the collective anguish of losing one.
Once the Oiler deal is concluded, and Bud brings his bad haircut and worse team to Nashville, almost any scenario is imaginableexcept one in which the city returns to the comparatively carefree days before it took on all the responsibilities, fiscal and otherwise, of holding onto its big-league status. Like prospective parents, Nashvillians may feel both delight and trepidation. They’re not sure how the baby will turn out, but they can be certain that things won’t be quite the same around the house anymore.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy
Florida 65, Vanderbilt 13
Tennessee 43, Kentucky 10
Auburn 20, Alabama 14
Arkansas 24, LSU 17
Clemson 31, South Carolina 21
Notre Dame 31, Air Force 22
Northwestern 17, Purdue 13
Penn State 21, Michigan 13
Kansas State 24, Colorado 20