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Nashville's Future MLS Team Has Two Billionaire Owners; Mayor Wants Taxpayers to Help Fund Stadium Anyway

Mayor Megan Barry used to oppose public subsidies for professional sports, but now she's a cheerleader.

Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire CGW/Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire/NewscomMichael Wade/Icon Sportswire CGW/Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire/NewscomWhen the Nashville Metro Council extended tax breaks to the Nashville Predators, a financially struggling pro hockey team, a councilwoman named Megan Barry was skeptical that the deal was in the public's best interest.

"Is Nashville a better place with the Predators?" she said on the council floor before voting against the proposal. "Probably. But I'm not voting on that question. I'm voting on whether further public subsidies for this particular for-profit enterprise represents good public policy. And I'm going to vote no."

But that was in 2008. Now that Barry is the mayor of Nashville, she's become the lead cheerleader for subsidizing a new Major League Soccer stadium.

"This is a tremendous benefit to our city and the community of Nashville," Barry told members the city council during a presentation on the proposal last week. "I think we are absolutely ready for this. Nashville is a soccer city."

Barry's proposal for a $225 million soccer-only stadium—which the Metro Council could vote on as soon as October 17, according to the Nashville Business Journal—would require the city to borrow $200 million. The team's owners would front $25 million. The city would be on the hook for $13 million in annual debt payments over the next 30 years; the team's owners would be obliged to pay $9 million annually, with new taxes on tickets and concessions at the stadium projected to make up the other $4 million each year.

If things don't go as planned—if, say, the team (or Major League Soccer as a whole) doesn't stick around for 30 years, or if ticket sales and concessions don't cover the expected debt payments—taxpayers could end up with a much bigger tab for the stadium.

And they might not get a say in the matter. The proposal is moving through city council at breakneck speed, in part to meet deadlines for the league's planned expansion in 2020. Nashville is reportedly one of the league's top choices for expansion.

Mark Cunningham of the Beacon Center, a free market think tank in Nashville, says the city shouldn't spend public money on a stadium unless voters approve it, like they did in a 1996 referendum that authorized $144 million to build a new stadium for the National Football League's Tennessee Titans.

"The taxpayers should decide. It's their money," says Cunningham. "We don't think public dollars should be spent on a private stadium like this, especially one that has millionaires and billionaires benefiting from it."

Beyond Barry's about-face on sports subsidies, two other elements of the stadium deal are worth exploring.

First, why can't the new soccer team share the Titans' Nissan Stadium? That would seem to make a lot of sense, since taxpayers already put up a bunch of money to build it and it's conveniently located close to downtown. The Titans generally play only eight home games a year. (A maximum of 12 home dates is possible if you count two preseason games and the potential for two home playoff games.) That leaves plenty of dates open for soccer games. Logistically, fitting a soccer field into a football stadium is easy—in fact, Nissan Stadium has regularly hosted the U.S. men's and women's national soccer teams for games, including World Cup qualifying matches. Teams from the English Premier League, widely regarded as the top soccer league in the world, have played there. It's also one of the stadiums proposed as a site for the 2026 World Cup.

If Nissan Stadium is good enough for world-class soccer teams, surely it's good enough for Major League Soccer.

Except it's not, for the simple reason that Major League Soccer has said so. The league says it will not consider any expansion-team bid that do not include a soccer-specific stadium as part of the plan. That doesn't make much sense outside of being a way to leverage support for more public stadiums.

The second thing that deserves more scrutiny is the ownership of the proposed Nashville team, which includes two billionaires. One of them is John Ingram, one of the heirs to an estimated $15 billion fortune, according to Bloomberg. The Ingram family helped bankroll Barry's 2015 mayoral campaign.

The other billionaire in the bid is Zygi Wilf, who Forbes estimates is worth $5.3 billion. This game is old hat for Wilf, who successfully swindled the taxpayers of Minneapolis out of nearly $500 million to build a new glass palace for his football team, the Minnesota Vikings. These are, clearly, not the type of people who should be receiving welfare from the taxpayers of Nashville.

For what it's worth, Barry acknowledges her flip-flop and says she would have supported the earlier stadium deal if she could vote for it today. Still, when it comes time to vote on the new deal, the current members of the Nashville Metro Council should consider reading Barry's own words back to her.

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  • GlenchristLaw||

    This is exactly the kind of analysis that libertarians should NOT be making, expecially in their echo chambers like Reason.

    Who cares whether the subsidies come from the voters (i.e., the mob) or the politicians (i.e., the mobsters)?

    Who cares whether there is already a stadium?

    Who cares whether the team is owned by two billionaires or by two thousand bitcoin speculators?

    Stadium sports are simply not a public good: they are perfectly excludable and not even truly non-rivalrous. They are, at most, a club good. That should be the beginning, middle and end of the discussion.

    Don't let the good ... er, the bad ... be the enemy of the perfect.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Yes, by all means, let's restrict our arguments to the non-aggression principle. Don't even bother explaining that self-defense is fine, or that aggression includes non-violent theft.

    Yes, yes, we must stick to raw principles, core principles, no explanation required. That'll do the trick!

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    Consequentialism FT... L?

  • Robert||

    Not many issues you can win w just the reasons of libertarianism. What's wrong w persuading people who don't accept those premises, but could get on your side for other reasons?

  • Longtobefree||

    the city shouldn't spend public money on a stadium unless voters approve it

    the city shouldn't spend public money on a stadium.

    The second version is safer.

  • damikesc||

    I don't care what a city does with its money. Serves people right for voting for them. Stop passing the bill onto others through tax-exempt bonds.

  • Juice||

    I don't care what a city does with its money.

    Usually a city has little to money of its own. It's pretty much all stolen.

  • James Rivington||

    I agree. What does it mean when they say "unless voters approve it"? That someone who does not support this idea gets ganged up on? And has to pay anyway? As my wise brother-in-law always says, "Democracy is three wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner". Democracy may have its place, but mostly it's a crock.

  • Robert||

    Safer, but maybe less achievable? If the powers that be already decided the issue but would change their minds based on a public vote, why not take that chance?

  • damikesc||

    Only solution is to make bonds for stadiums non-tax deductible. If a city really wants it, they can pay the bill and stop asking others to do so instead.

    I love this hatred of billionaires...EXCEPT when it comes to sports. Then they need welfare more than most. Hell, they get more welfare in regards to basically free stadiums than a family of four would use in a lifetime.

  • Rockabilly||

    communism even reaches sports

  • Sevo||

    OT:
    We are to be protected from "exaggerated and misleading designations" in judicial elections:

    "Governor Signs Allen Legislation to Require Transparency in Judicial Elections"
    [...]
    "The legislation was sponsored by Conference of California Bar Associations and supported by the California Judges Association, Los Angeles County Bar Association, San Diego County Bar Association"
    http://sd26.senate.ca.gov/news.....-elections

    I can understand a talking-head legislator pushing such crap, but the remainder ought to have some passing familiarity to the first amendment.
    Pathetic.

  • Libertarian||

    I'm curious to see if current NFL problems affect future requests for tax dollars.

  • Libertarian||

    I'm curious to see if current NFL problems affect future requests for tax dollars.

  • Libertarian||

    I'm curious to see if current NFL problems affect future requests for tax dollars.

  • Libertarian||

    STILL CURIOUS!

  • Get To Da Chippah||

    Nashville is a soccer city.

    That's not how you pronounce 'sucker,' Madame Mayor.

  • TacosFromGod||

    MLS in pro football stadiums does not work. Do a little research Boehm. That's how the league started and it was generally a failure. There are too many empty seats, and fans are too far away, which doesn't produce the atmosphere that they are looking for. In addition, the teams have to pay the owners of the stadium to use it, and don't capture all of the revenue from concessions, parking, etc.

    That doesn't mean taxpayers should pay for it (absolutely not), but make that argument instead of "there's a perfectly good 60,000 person football stadium that we can use for our 18,000 person events."

  • damikesc||

    The ironic part is that the public funded that 60,000 seat stadium most likely. Why a private entity gets to collect payments for usage is ridiculous.

  • Up To The Old Shenanigans||

    TacosFromGod,

    I still recall going to two LA Galaxy games at the Rose Bowl in 2002. Yes, as you can imagine, there were too many empty seats. Fortunately, I wasn't too far away from the action for either game.

    Although I haven't been to StubHub Center, I have been to Mapfre Stadium in Columbus and Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ. Both offer a better soccer experience than the Rose Bowl ever had.

  • Robert||

    Oh, like the soccer club would be bidding vs. a lot of potential stadium-filling events for those dates? So what if the farther-away seats don't get sold? The seats are sitting idle anyway, as would be the whole stadium. The cost of security & maintenance depends on attendance, not on the # of seats total. Similary, the snack bars & souvenir stands don't have to all be open if only a small crowd is anticipated.

    Almost all the stadium events I've gone to were ones that filled only a small portion of the stands: minor league, women's, & children's football, sometimes rugby. Doesn't hurt the atmosphere at all, since none of them were expecting to pack the house. Why would it be any different w MLS?

    Again, what is the owner of the 60,000 seat stadium going to do otherwise? Renting for an 18,000 person event is pure profit.

  • Tom Smith||

    I agree with the argument against publicly funded stadiums. However, your inference that this stadium is a payback to John Ingram is contradicted by the article you reference in support. The article states, "John Ingram, chairman of Ingram Content Group, made a $1,500 personal contribution to Fox's campaign in August, as did his brothers David Ingram, chairman of Ingram Entertainment and DBI Beverage Inc., and Orrin Ingram, CEO of Ingram Barge Co. Meanwhile, their mother, philanthropist Martha Ingram, has contributed to Barry's campaign." How in the world does an article stating that Ingram and his brother's supported Barry's opponent lead you to the assertion that Ingram family bankrolled Barry's 2015 campaign?

  • ChipToBeSquare||

    Can we stop trying to make soccer happen? FIFA is a popular video game; soccer is still an unpopular professional sport, save for the ritual of us learning how mediocre our national team is every now and then. But no one will ever care about MLS. If we aren't the best league on the planet, America doesn't care. It's that simple

  • SilentSkies||

    Rocket League is far more popular than MLS in the United States. They could get a better return with an esports arena.

  • Demosthenes||

    Seriously, Eric, a simple Google search would make your posts sound less ignorant. This is just lazy.

    The Titans' stadium obviously wouldn't work from MLS's perspective 1) because the Titans would control a large fraction of the gate and concessions revenues, and 2) the MLS team probably won't hit that capacity level, making for a really poor game day experience. The combined effect of those two things nearly drown the league once.

    In fact, MLS attracts this kind of investment in large part because of the stability for the league and owners from soccer-specific venues, such as StubHub (which the Chargers are now renting, incidentally). Why would they compromise that?

    Note I am not for public subsidies.

  • Up To The Old Shenanigans||

    Agree with what you have said, Demosthenes. In 2002 when MLS reduced the league to 10 teams, I could see an argument that MLS would not be around in, say, 2032. In 2017, that prospect appears more unlikely given changing demographics and changing athletic interests. Commish Garber and company have been very cautious in expanding MLS.

    Even though I am a big fan of MLS, I too don't support public financing for sports venues. If MLS seems so sure of its future, then MLS needs to put its money where its mouth is.

  • Robert||

    the MLS team probably won't hit that capacity level, making for a really poor game day experience


    Why, because there wouldn't be enough other louts to spill beer on you & for you to have to get out of the way of while they find their seats? The experience is not your fellow spectators; if anything they just detract from it.

    "How was the game/show/concert?" "Lousy, there weren't enough other people watching alongside me."
    "What do you mean?" "I affirm my coolness by how many other people share my taste."
    "I thought it was supposed to work the other way. Didn't you say that a year ago?" "That was different, because reasons."

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