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Nashville Soccer Stadium Deal Will Gift Land Worth $20 Million to Team's Billionaire Owners

Why can't the team just play in the city's NFL stadium?

Source: Wiki CommonsSource: Wiki CommonsSports stadiums are notoriously bad deals for taxpayers, but Nashville's proposed plan to build a soccer-specific stadium on the city's old fairgrounds adds a new wrinkle. The stadium itself, while probably unnecessary, might not be as bad for taxpayers as what the city plans to do with 10 acres of land right next door.

In order to get the prospective team's owners to agree to a less-than-ideal location—the fairgrounds are well outside of Nashville's densely packed downtown—city officials agreed to gift an additional 10 acres of land adjacent to the 10 acres that will be used for the stadium. There the team's owners plan to build apartments, office buildings, a 200-room hotel, and plenty of bars and restaurants. The soccer stadium, they argue, will be the centerpiece of Nashville's next hip enclave.

While some members of the Metro Council object to the very idea of privatizing public land, that isn't bad in itself. Those 10 acres will bring more economic benefit to the city and more use to residents if they can be privately developed.

The land will also be considerably more valuable. A new assessment of that 10-acre parcel found that it would be worth more than $20 million after it is rezoned to allow mixed-use development. But throughout the stadium debate, Nashville's Metro Council has told residents that the land is worth a mere $11 million—a figure that did not take into account the rezoning. Nashville, bear in mind, faced a budget shortfall earlier this year and may have to renege on promises to give raises to teachers. Giving away land that could be sold for more than $20 million probably wouldn't make sense even if the city was flush with cash, but it seems particularly foolish at a time when tax hikes are being discussed.

The new assessment makes the deal look twice as bad for taxpayers—and makes the free land look twice as good for the prospective team's billionaire owners: John Ingram, one of the heirs to an estimated $15 billion fortune, and Zygi Wilf, who successfully swindled the taxpayers of Minneapolis out of nearly $500 million to build a new glass palace for the Minnesota Vikings.

The Nashville area Metro Council is set to vote next Tuesday on a number of stadium-related bills, including a $225 million revenue bond that will fund its construction, a $50 million general obligation bond to cover demolition of fairgrounds buildings, and the all-important rezoning of those additional 10 acres of land.

The final votes are expected to be contentious. A preliminary council meeting on Monday was packed with stadium opponents dressed in red and stadium supporters waving the blue and yellow scarves of Nashville SC, a lower-level team that already plays in the city. After an hour of back and forth, the council voted 20–9, with 11 members either absent or not voting, to advance the proposal to next week's final hearing. But the final vote is far from a sure bet, since a super-majority of 27 votes will be required to pass some of the bills.

Taxpayers are already on the hook for $300 million in upgrades to Nissan Stadium, home of the National Football League's Tennessee Titans. That stadium is within walking distance of downtown and could easily be adapted to host soccer games. In fact, Nissan Stadium has regularly hosted the U.S. men's and women's national soccer teams. 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. Why exactly does the city need a new soccer-specific stadium?

Major League Soccer (MLS) says it will not consider expansion bids that do not include soccer-specific stadiums as part of the plan, but the league has been happy to look the other way in places like Seattle and Atlanta, where soccer teams share NFL stadiums. Another MLS team plays in Yankee Stadium—awkwardly, since baseball fields and soccer fields are not really compatible—and the league allows that.

"MLS has two overriding goals: To get as many deep-pocketed new owners as they can, and to get as many new stadiums as they can for those owners—preferably paid for as much as possible by somebody else," Neil deMause, the author of Field of Schemes and a sharp critic of MLS's long-term viability, tells Reason. "This isn't about what the teams need, it's about what the league can demand in tribute."

DeMause thins Nashville's stadium plan is pretty typical for mid-sized soccer-only stadiums: The team is putting up most of the money and getting public subsidies to help, and then the owners get to keep all the revenue. Funding a stadium with revenue bonds—to be paid back by a portion of ticket and concession sales—is better than handing over a bunch of money to the team's owners.

But of course Nashville is doing that too, by handing over those 10 acres of land to the team's owners.

Councilman John Cooper says the selection of the fairgrounds site was a mistake from the beginning. In the rush to get the stadium approved, he says, the Metro Council never considered alternative locations or whether the public was getting adequately compensated for the loss of the land.

"It's taking from one group to give to an in-favor group," he tells Reason. "It's pretty ruthless."

Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

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  • Mickey Rat||

    Here is the problem with negotiations. Does MLS want a franchise in Nashville more than Nashville wants a franchise? If it does, Nashville can tell the MLS to pound sand with its demands. If not, Nashville will let itself be led around by the nose.

    I am not sure why an MLS team is considered a "must have" entertainment option.

  • perlchpr||

    I'm frankly shocked to hear that Nashville cares about soccer enough to even contemplate this.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    The question is whether the rezoned land is worth $20 mil if there is no plan for the stadium. Sports venues, better it worse headline at least a short term economic book for an area. I'm sure most people there could care less about the sport/league itself.

  • Just Say'n||

    Nashville desperately wants to look cool to its coastal betters

  • JWatts||

    Bingo! Always remember that the surrounding counties are red state, but the city itself is blue and a Democratic haven.

  • DarrenM||

    San Diego basically told the Chargers to go take a hike when that NFL team wanted a new stadium. I was about resigned to the "We need an NFL team...um...because" mindset and being forced to subsidize the Chargers. I have no problem with the team moving to L.A.

  • tbc||

    We don't care.

  • Cstaley72||

    The fairgrounds are the current site for the Nashville Flea Market. This event has been going on for decades. There are on average 2500 vendors (small businesses) that pay $100 or so per month plus 50000 visitors that pay $5 per vehicle. Not to mention the sales taxes collected from everything sold at the site. This event alone provides more income for the city in one month than the soccer team will provide in decades.

    The people in the red shirts at the meeting Monday were there to support the flea market. If the city thought this through they would realize they are supporting American entrepreneurship. Many businesses have begun at the flea market to expand to brick and mortar locations or online.

    This isn't just about about another stadium boondoggle but a choice between big deep pockets and small businesses.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    I'm sorry they're doing this, C Staley. It isn't right.

  • DarrenM||

    they would realize they are supporting American entrepreneurship

    What makes you think they didn't?

  • Jerryskids||

    After an hour of back and forth, the council voted 20–9, with 11 members either absent or not voting, to advance the proposal to next week's final hearing. But the final vote is far from a sure bet, since a super-majority of 27 votes will be required to pass some of the bills.

    So are the 11 Brave Sir Robins drawing straws to see which 4 of them will still be able to hide in the closet at next week's final hearing and which 7 will be forced to claim they were hornswoggled and arm-twisted into voting 'Aye' even though they immediately regretted their vote and please don't hold this vote against me at the next election?

  • DesigNate||

    a 40 member council? Jesus Christ that is bloated.

  • Stevecsd||

    This is because Nashville City - Davidson County is a "consolidated" county. On paper there is no separation between the two entities. The Metro Council acts as both a city council & county board of supervisors or county commission. It is similar to San Francisco, which has one legislative body for both city & county governments.

  • tbc||

    bloated and ineffective... and stacked with time servers who never met a tax increase they didn't like or a corporate giveaway they couldn't support -- like Congress when you think of it

  • Hamster of Doom||

    We have entirely too many protected markets in this country. It isn't going to end well.

  • Just Say'n||

    How many people in Tennessee watch soccer anyways?

  • JWatts||

    My understanding is that the background to this, is that several prominent politicians or friends of same, happen to own land around the old Fairgrounds. And currently the area, though well situated, is run down. However, if the city ponies up a lot of public money and assets, then all that surrounding private land will be worth considerably more money.

  • JWatts||

    reference:

    "Back in the rough-and-tumble 1980s, the Tennessee State Fairgrounds wasn't for the faint of heart. A federal grand jury investigated charges of kickbacks and extortion at the property's lucrative flea market, one of its managers was found shot dead in a Memphis apartment, and another went to jail. All the while the Fair Board was dominated by James "Mack" Smith, a liquor store owner from Goodlettsville both loved and feared, and the target of a federal probe into whether he helped secure police and fire promotions in exchange for political donations to his friend, Mayor Richard Fulton.

    When Mayor Phil Bredesen was elected in 1991, he sought to get rid of cronyism at the fairgrounds. In a controversial move, he removed not only Smith but all the board's members one by one, replacing them with his own appointees. Then, in June 1998, Bredesen eased the way for his longtime aide, Jennifer Hill, to run the place.

    It seemed like the end of the story. Bredesen cleans up the fairgrounds, while the Fair Board and its manager keep the operation profitable, well-run, and honest. Well, it didn't quite work out that way."

    https://www.nashvillescene.com/news/article/

    13003802/at-the-crossroads

  • tbc||

    Where "run-down" is a euphemism for "lower middle class people and minorities live around prime land that upper middle class hipster white people want to move into but its too icky"

  • Benitacanova||

    Soccer sucks so bad. Why do they keep pushing it on us?

  • Stevecsd||

    This all happened when Nashville - Davidson County is facing a multi-million dollar budget shortfall because they have been spending too much (so, what else is new!) I hope this stadium things fails in a fantastic manner. Here's some reasons why it might fail. 1. Major League Soccer in the U.S. only started in 1995. So it's less than 25 years old. 2. There is very little or no track record for the Nashville team, and they've been mediocre to bad. 3. This is a 20 year deal, but there is not enough history on the league or the team to base a $225 million bet on it.

    I lived in San Diego until 2007. The people there finally wised up about these stadium scams. If this fails maybe more people will wake up and stop this silliness of having local governments pay for these monstrosities with tax money. John Ingram, the major person in this deal, is a billionaire. They should have made him put up all of the money.

    In addition to opposition to the stadium itself at the fairgrounds, there has been a lot of push back about the extra 10 acres for his houses & hotels.

    Someone needs to start the Association for the Separation of Sports & State, because people are ASSES if they keep letting the government hoodwink them on these stadium deals.

  • OldGuy||

    Well now I don't feel so bad. In Austin we're going to charge the owner rent for the public land we are letting him build on (well, after a few years of no rent). Oh and he's going to build a station for the commuter rail that runs by the site.

    Still wondering why we needed to make any concessions at all. If MLS was that viable the owner could have purchased land on his own.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    One thing I keep reading about MLS is that it's aggressively pursuing expansion because it's essentially a ponzi scheme. Any sane city would tell them to pound sand.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Just another human behavior curiosity. Pro sports fans, who tend to be critical if not hostile to taxes and government spending for other public projects, will dive to their knees to suck the dicks of sports heroes and team owners. And that behavior is too obvious for the pols to ignore.

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