Major sports leagues are expanding across the country, and one city may have more to gain in the next few years than any other: Nashville.
Music City has quietly hummed along as a mid-tier sports city since 1997, when it gained the the NHL’s Nashville Predators, with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans arriving the following year.
That remained the status quo for two decades until the beat picked up in 2019 with the NFL Draft. It grew stronger still with the launch of MLS’ Nashville SC a year later.
Now, three major decisions could take the city to another level.
On June 16, FIFA will reveal World Cup 2026 host cities in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada — and Nashville is one of 16 U.S. locations vying for hosting duties and the global attention that comes with them.
As soon as 2024, the WNBA is looking to expand, and Nashville is among the top contenders for a team. The WNBPA has openly pushed for a Nashville team, along with Toronto and the Bay Area, and the league has allies within city government.
A study commissioned by city officials found that 80% of surveyed residents would support at least one of a NWSL or WNBA team. The Nashville Sports Authority is preparing a bid for a WNBA team, and the league could identify target expansion cities later this year.
Finally, and probably most consequentially, Music City is vying for a Major League Baseball team.
“With the amount of people that are moving there from different parts of the country, it creates the perfect demographic for a major league sport,” MLB legend Dave Stewart told me. Stewart is among the leaders of the group pushing for a baseball team in Nashville.
Nashville’s metro area has a population of 1.3 million and has grown nearly 2% each of the last two years. That population is turning more and more to its sports teams:
- The Titans drew 68,566 fans per home game in the 2021 season, 12th in the NFL.
- That’s a 6.3% increase from 2019, when the team averaged 64,509 fans, 21st in the league.
- The Predators brought in 18,495 fans on average for the team’s 41 home games in 2021-22, fourth in the league.
- In 2019-20, the Predators were middle of the pack at 17,407, 18th in the NHL.
The soccer club is the best test case for Music City as fertile ground for a sports franchise. The Preds and Titans are hitting the quarter-century mark, but Nashville SC is still taking root.
The team’s attendance doesn’t allow for easy year-to-year comparisons, because they launched in 2020, getting in two games before COVID-19 upended their schedule. That said, the returns have been encouraging.
“We have really only had five or six games ever in a ‘normal’ state,” Nashville SC CEO Ian Ayre told me. “But, the demand is extremely high and with almost 23,000 season ticket holders we already are in the top of MLS rankings for season tickets and attendance.”
So far in 2022, Nashville SC, which moved to the soccer-specific GEODIS Park this year, is fourth out of 28 MLS teams with an average attendance of 28,612.
“We always felt that being a part of the community was paramount in Nashville,” said Ayre, “so being humble, approachable and available were big on our agenda. That has been a huge success and well received, most evident by the sea of gold and blue in our stands on game day and by the amount of NSC branding you see throughout the city in such a short period of existence.”
Stewart sees a Nashville MLB team as more than just a well-placed franchise — it’s a movement.
“It’s going to be an exceptional project,” he said. “It’s not just that we’ll bring a Major League Baseball team to Nashville, although that is a great thing. But the meaning of what we’re doing with minority and diverse ownership will open up eyes in all business industries, about how you put together an organization.”
The team plans to be the first MLB club named after a Negro League team, the Stars, and the first that is majority minority-owned.
“All that is very attractive to MLB and the commissioner [Rob Manfred],” Stewart added. He indicated that he had spoken to Manfred, and that “we’re very encouraged” by Manfred’s support of the project.
MLB is likely to add two new teams once the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays have new stadiums in place, in their current cities or elsewhere. Charlotte, Portland, and Las Vegas (which could snag the A’s), are among those oft-mentioned in addition to Nashville.
Should the Stars become a reality, they may find allies in the city’s other franchises.
“The three organizations, Titans, Predators, NSC, are all supportive and respectful of each other,” said Ayre. “We help each other, share data and in some cases cross-promote. That collaborative approach is a very Nashville mentality, maybe uniquely Nashville. I don’t know that this happens everywhere.”