Net Results The Inside Story of Nashville SC and the City’s Stadium Agreement

In retrospect, the speed at which soccer arrived in Nashville was breathtaking.

More than three-and-a-half years ago, Major League Soccer announced a round of expansion, and Nashville was nowhere to be found among candidate cities. But this Saturday, Feb. 29, a full-fledged MLS team — the face of a half-billion-dollar operation — will begin play here, the product of a whirlwind bid process. Just a few years from now, the club will play in its own stadium.

A little more than a year after announcing its intentions to get an MLS team, Nashville won its bid in December 2017. It was a unique moment. John Ingram and his bid group capitalized on the unrelenting good PR for the city and the afterglow of the Predators’ Stanley Cup run to outshine what many outsiders considered to be strong bids from Sacramento, Cincinnati, Miami and St. Louis.

And in the process, Ingram and the team convinced Metro to kick in for around 10 percent of the cost of a soccer-specific stadium at The Fairgrounds Nashville site in the form of a ticket tax. Metro would be responsible for rebuilding the exhibition halls and covering infrastructure costs for the site. Though a few critics howled, it was generally regarded as a good deal, especially when compared with some fiascos around the country (like Atlanta and D.C.).

But by mid-2019, stadium momentum had slowed to a crawl and the team hadn’t yet broken ground. The team’s original mayoral sponsor, Megan Barry, had been gone for a year, and replacement David Briley had not only a contentious budget to pass, but an election campaign against a well-funded opponent as well. Soccer was not a top priority.

It would take another eight months to settle what was supposed to be settled business. Over the course of six weeks, the Scene spoke to more than a dozen people with knowledge of the negotiations. This is how the stadium deal finally got done.

Aug. 1, 2019, will go down as an expensive day in Nashville SC history.

With less than seven months to go before the beginning of the team’s inaugural season, Mayor Briley finished in second place in a four-candidate field for mayor. If not the same booster as Barry, Briley had at least been a reliable supporter for the stadium deal, shepherding the fairgrounds plan through the Metro Council while he was vice mayor and continuing the work after he took office in March 2018.

Briley inherited a number of economic development deals from Barry, including the addition of an Amazon logistics headquarters as well as smaller subsidy deals for Asurion and other companies expanding in Nashville. Unlike Barry and her predecessor Karl Dean, Briley was less enthusiastic about using city dollars for deals, but he recognized commitments that Nashville had already made. In his first days as mayor following Barry’s resignation, Briley had been presented with everything that was on the table by his Economic and Community Development staff. When asked what he wanted to do about the issues, Briley recognized the upheaval that might come with suddenly changing course. “I won’t make a liar out of Nashville,” he said at the time.

But eighteen months later, John Cooper represented a course correction to this era of ECD spending. As returns came in on election night, it became apparent that Cooper’s 10-point lead at the polls might as well have been a 50-point lead. Months of unrelenting ad spending had created an insurmountable advantage for Cooper, while Briley struggled to raise money and counterpunch. The runoff election six weeks later was such a foregone conclusion that some in the Briley camp encouraged the mayor to concede and avoid getting walloped.

Cooper pledged to focus more on teacher pay and less on attracting businesses to the city. During the campaign, he had described the stadium deal — which he had voted against while an at-large member of the Metro Council — as “finished business.” But in the early days of his administration, he wanted to find out what the total costs would be to the city. Construction was behind on new exhibition halls at the fairgrounds — the ones to replace the dilapidated sheds that sat atop the future stadium site. His request produced a cart loaded with 3,000 pounds of shrink-wrapped architectural drawings, site plans and proposals, but nothing that broke down the numbers for him.

A few weeks later, an internal working group began to get a handle on some of the figures, and they weren’t good. Cooper criticized Barry and Briley to his staff for making a “shitty deal.” The new flea market buildings, which ultimately opened in October, cost $42 million instead of $25 million. But their completion gave Cooper an opening: By refusing to demolish the old buildings, he could force the soccer team to renegotiate the deal.

“I felt it was my obligation, once you start blowing up stuff, then you’re on a particular path, and do you have enough money to fix it?” Cooper tells the Scene. “And to some degree with the soccer team, [it was a matter of] making them understand the limitations of government funding in a project. This is not something that you can just pretend that you can go get the money — you have to go back and have the right amount of money, and you have to have a legislative process. And you don’t have the ability that the private sector sometimes can have of finding other resources magically. We’re not the private sector.”

A number of intermediaries and proxies entered the picture during this time to facilitate the process. Attorney Larry Papel helped Cooper on the cost side, part of the working group with architect Ron Gobbell and Metro legal department attorney Tom Cross. Greg Hinote, a lobbyist and former deputy mayor under Dean, acted as a go-between for Cooper and Ingram, given the enmity between the two men during the Metro Council approval process and mayoral campaign. (Ingram gave the maximum personal contribution to Briley.) Cooper floated other locations for a soccer stadium besides the fairgrounds, including on the east bank of the Cumberland at the current PSC Metals site. When the principals met face to face in December, Cooper drove Ingram around the fairgrounds in his Prius.

Elections have consequences, and Ingram and his advisers were aware that Cooper would come calling for money, as the mayor had spent his first months in office publicly bemoaning the state of the city’s finances. The Music City Center preemptively came up with $12.6 million days after Cooper took office, and most Metro departments were scoured to plug a $41 million budget shortfall; the Barnes affordable housing fund was cut in half. Cooper spent most of the Christmas holiday trying to draft a solution, but it wasn’t until the new year that the sides got down to numbers.

Ingram and the club came up with two pots of money. First, the club would help the city with $19 million in infrastructure overruns related to the fairgrounds site. Second, the team agreed to forego the $35 million ticket tax recapture that represented the city’s stake in building the stadium. Now the stadium would be 100 percent privately financed. But Cooper wanted something else: the 10 acres beside the new stadium that had been given to the team for a mixed-use development.

The revenue calculations for a Major League Soccer franchise can be complicated. Without a multibillion-dollar television contract like the NFL or MLB, teams lean heavily on in-stadium and stadium-adjacent revenue. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has made solid stadium plans a requirement for any incoming franchise.

Ingram had negotiated those 10 acres as a way to offset the heavy debt payments that would come with a stadium — one that would now cost $335 million if it came in on budget, which was never a guarantee. The 10 acres included affordable housing and child care components that had been key parts of a community benefits agreement that had been a key in closing the deal. Ingram agreed to consider the mayor’s proposal, but he and his team knew the math became harder without an activated area around the stadium, particularly since they were paying for the entire project themselves with no city assistance.

For Cooper, however, the 10 acres represented something else. He had begun to position the aging speedway and the Browns Creek Greenway as part of the deal as well. “The site plan in my view was never a complete solution,” Cooper says. But to make enough improvements to the speedway to attract a NASCAR race — and in the process attract a track partner that would be willing to invest some money — Cooper now believed the mixed-use development was too close to the track. At one point, the distance between a proposed building and the back of a turn was just 20 feet. Forget track and safety enhancements — Cooper wanted a parcel known as 8C back, so he could build space between improved speedway seating and the soccer stadium.

Ingram agreed to consider it, but ultimately returned with a no. Cooper then attempted to limit the giveback to 8C, arguing for a wide area to connect entrances to the two structures. Ingram again said no. Now weeks into January, the pressure on Ingram was very real. MLS had awarded Nashville’s bid based on a firm commitment from the city for the stadium site and had established deadlines for progress, and the league was getting impatient with the lack of action.

On Monday, Jan. 27, Cooper called Commissioner Don Garber’s office in New York out of the blue and asked for a meeting. Garber agreed, but said he wanted his team owner there. For two hours at the league’s Fifth Avenue headquarters in Manhattan on Jan. 30, Cooper and attorney Papel made the city’s case for a grand plan for the fairgrounds site, but no minds were changed. As Cooper flew back to make the opening toast at the Antiques and Garden Show at the Music City Center, MLS and Nashville SC issued a statement: We’ve made a reasonable offer, demolition needs to start in the next week. The next day, Ingram and Cooper began releasing a series of letters as the negotiations began to shift from conference rooms to the court of public opinion.

The team had been preparing for this kind of impasse. A couple weeks earlier, consultant Jeff Eller had slipped into town from Austin, Texas, and begun preparations to launch #BuildTheStadium, a campaign to generate pressure on Cooper. A former TV newsman, Eller was no stranger to throwing public elbows in Nashville — he headed up the No Tax 4 Tracks anti-transit campaign in 2018. The week deadline passed without a deal, and Eller launched a website and social media offensive the following weekend, delivering thousands of signatures to a petition demanding the city hold up its side of the deal.

Cooper, meanwhile, was still trying to pull off a wider fairgrounds deal. He asked for a meeting with Gov. Bill Lee and his staff to pitch state participation in speedway improvements. On Tuesday, Feb. 11, Cooper, tourism honcho Butch Spyridon and Bristol Motor Speedway’s Jerry Caldwell met with Lee, state ECD chief Bobby Rolfe and others in Lee’s Capitol Hill office. But what they heard from Lee’s side were questions about the city’s recently filed lawsuit against the state to invalidate school vouchers, the governor’s signature piece of education legislation. It wasn’t unexpected, but it also wasn’t the reception Cooper & Co. were hoping for. Following the pitch, Cooper stepped outside to find a number of reporters and cameras camped out for a progress report. His tone barely hid his dejection: There would be no state funds forthcoming.

Within 30 hours of leaving Lee’s office, Cooper’s negotiators finalized a term sheet for a deal that had not changed substantially since late January: The team would forego the $35 million in ticket tax revenue and kick in $19 million for infrastructure; both sides would agree to a set of design principles about Parcel 8C to assure a buffer for the speedway; the city would execute the demolition contract within 24 hours.

It would probably be wrong to characterize Cooper as folding in this situation, though he was under increasing pressure to end the negotiations. He had extracted more than $50 million from the team from the time he took office, and a wider fairgrounds site deal will be complex. Cooper tells the Scene that Feb. 13 was the natural date to announce the settlement, and it was “always going to happen on that Thursday,” because Commissioner Garber was going to be in town. That wouldn’t be in line, however, with the team ramping up a campaign to foment public opinion.

In the end, both sides eschewed a press conference and the awkwardness of projecting congeniality after a contentious few weeks. Cooper claimed victory and spent the evening at an event at Madison Middle School. Ingram and Garber took the stage at a packed bar on Lower Broad and celebrated the deal with several hundred Nashville SC fans, joining in chants with the faithful as they turned their attention to the upcoming season.

The stadium problem, for now, had been solved. It was time to actually play some games.

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