What We Know About the Soccer Stadium Negotiations — and What We Don’t

With one month left until Nashville SC’s inaugural season starts, one giant question has dominated most fans’ minds: When will they break ground on the new stadium?

On Thursday, Nashville SC and Major League Soccer issued a joint statement on the lack of progress, saying four months of negotiations have stalled because of Mayor John Cooper. The team and league gave the city a week. Left unsaid was the fact that the issue probably goes to court after that.

More than a year after the Metro Council voted to replace the old sheds at The Fairgrounds Nashville, there’s still no signed lease for Nashville SC, and Cooper has refused to sign the demolition permits. The replacement expo center has been open for months.

Today, team owner John Ingram sent a letter to Cooper outlining his concerns and laying out what the team was willing to give up: $19 million more in infrastructure costs and $35 million in guarantees from ticket tax revenue. That’s in addition to $85 million more in stadium design and construction costs. (Read the full letter here.)

There should have been a deal by now. Information up to this point in the negotiations has been scarce, with only dribs and drabs leaking out — both sides worried about endangering whatever fragile progress might have been made so far. The club ripped the Band-Aid off that wound this week, however, putting public pressure on Cooper to wrap up the negotiations.

At times like this, these three phrases are useful: I know; I think; I feel.

A friend who reports on college football uses these gradations of knowledge when he talks about the often shadowy world of team-coach hiring and firing, where multiple parties may have only pieces of the whole story. Some information is certain (I know); some is accurate based on reporting but unconfirmed by the principals (I think); and some is ultimately an educated guess based on a number of data points (I feel).

So, let’s unpack this stadium stuff a bit.

I know Cooper is concerned about ballooning cost estimates for the infrastructure portion of the project. In the original deal, Metro agreed to put up $25 million for improvements to the area, but now that number might be closer to $50 million.

I think the sides have been close to an agreement for the past week or so. According to sources I’ve talked with, at least twice there was a framework in which the team would absorb some or all of the extra infrastructure costs. The 10 acres of land that the club would redevelop remained in the last version of a deal that was told to me. In the Friday letter, Ingram said that Cooper wanted it out.

I know the administration wants to be able to announce improvements to the speedway as part of an overall strategy for the fairgrounds — something that would cost $50-$60 million dollars and require a bill in the legislature enacting a ticket tax similar to the one approved for the soccer stadium. That bill was introduced last year and is sitting, waiting for a deal before it’s activated. This would require a long-term lease with a partner willing to pay for some of those improvements. Cooper alluded to this in his Thursday statement.

I feel that getting the speedway piece of a deal in place quickly — the track needs resurfacing, safety improvements need to be made, and premium seating options need to be in place to attract a NASCAR race — is a big ask, given the pressures of finishing the soccer stadium negotiations and the necessities of the public-private partnership with any track operator. 

I know Greg Hinote, former deputy mayor, was brought into the negotiations as a kind of mediator/facilitator, along with local attorney Larry Papel. Hinote has negotiated the past two Bridgestone leases between the Predators and the city (once on each side), and he supported Cooper in the election. 

I think someone like Hinote was necessary because of bad blood between Cooper and Ingram. Cooper did not spare Ingram when he criticized the deal while on the Metro Council, and Ingram and his allies put more than $100,000 into a PAC supporting Cooper’s mayoral election opponent, David Briley. 

I know that the administration sees this as an economic and community development issue.

I know the club sees this as a matter of the city living up to its word.

I think that Cooper and his team are concerned — with good reason — about the perception of the city after canceling a few already-agreed-upon deals and the recent blowup with Microsoft. (The software giant was looking at the city as a site to relocate around 500 jobs, but left town without making a series of scheduled site visits. Depending on whom you talk to, the company reps either left following a meeting with the state, or after meeting with the mayor.)

I know that the lengthened stadium timeline will cost the team money, and not just when it comes to the previously mentioned infrastructure dollars. The longer it takes to build the stadium, the longer the team will be playing at Nissan Stadium, which will cost them rent and give them little ability to generate revenue through sponsorships, signage and the like. 

I feel that some of the lag in season ticket sales can be linked to the uncertainty with the soccer stadium. Fans and others I’ve talked with are excited, but there is a bit of apprehension that Cooper would attempt to do as mayor what he couldn’t do in the council — that is, kill the stadium — in spite of saying publicly that the stadium was a settled matter.

I know that Stand Up Nashville, which worked hard to forge a community benefits agreement with the club over issues like fair pay for workers, is concerned about the current situation.

I think that the league is concerned about the lack of progress. The bid was extended contingent upon there being a stadium deal in place, and Nashville was able to leapfrog several other cities based on that deal. If there is no stadium, an extreme scenario could have MLS yanking the franchise. That’s very unlikely, but then again, Charlotte, N.C., just ponied up a $350 million expansion fee — $200 million more than Nashville paid just a couple of years ago. The financial incentives exist to move the club.

I know that if you compare this deal with other stadium deals around the country — I’m looking at you, new Braves stadium in Cobb County, Ga. — there is less public money here than almost anywhere else. The club is paying for almost all of the stadium and absorbing the cost overruns. If in any deal the club absorbs the infrastructure overruns, it would make them the exception among sports franchises. 

I know that if the Cooper administration torpedoes the stadium, there will be a lawsuit in which the city will be forced to tell a chancery court that, yes, the elected Metro government agreed to this stadium and voted several times for it, but no, the mayor wanted to do it a different way. 

I think that may be a poor legal strategy. It’s certainly a poor public relations strategy.

I don’t know that if another company had already spent a couple hundred million dollars (between the bid fees, expansion fee, staff, roster, etc.) and planned to spend several hundred million more on a giant public tax-producing building project, they would be treated the same way by the city.

I don’t know what any of this means for anyone else who wants to do business with Nashville.

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