The first time he set foot in what is now Bridgestone Arena, Craig Leipold stood on a dirt floor and looked around at a shell of a facility. Despite the fact that seats hadn’t even been installed, he envisioned a full house — nearly 20,000 people on hand to cheer a professional sports franchise. An NBA team, Leipold thought.
At the time, the wealthy Wisconsin-based businessman was in negotiations to buy and relocate the Sacramento Kings. He believed the deal would happen. Only after an eleventh-hour deal was struck that kept the Kings in California did Leipold turn his attention toward the NHL.
Now, with the Predators — the franchise Leipold founded and later sold amid consistent financial losses — well into its second decade of competition, John Rowe is the man with hoop dreams. As he moves toward a December debut of the Nashville Soul, an expansion franchise in the American Basketball Association, Rowe can’t help looking ahead.
“I know it’s going to seem like pie in the sky, but if we do our job and market this properly, I see no reason that basketball should not be as popular as any other professional sport in this town,” Rowe said. “Nashville is such a great basketball town.”
The Soul is the ABA’s latest attempt to establish a professional basketball foothold in Middle Tennessee. Other incarnations have failed, including the Nashville Rhythm (2004-05), the Nashville Broncs (2008-09), and most recently the Music City Stars, who ceased operations in January 2010 without having completed a full season of competition.
Whether the city and the surrounding area can support a basketball team of any sort is one issue. But whether Nashville has both population and disposable income enough to float a third professional sports franchise — regardless of the sport — on a level comparable to that of the Predators and Tennessee Titans seems unlikely.
Right now, most consider the NBA and Major League Baseball impossibilities for Middle Tennessee based on virtually all empirical and anecdotal evidence. Nashville lacks the population and corporate bases to expand its sporting footprint in either of the remaining major professional leagues. Plus, the rights afforded the Titans and Predators regarding concessions, merchandising and the like for any and all events at their venues block revenue streams that would be necessary to franchises that pay athletes millions of dollars for their services.
That doesn’t mean that lesser options, such as Rowe’s venture with the ABA — widely considered no better than the country’s third-best professional basketball league behind the NBA and its developmental league — have no chance whatsoever.
“Bridgestone Arena is motivated to fill dates,” Jeff Cogen, CEO of the Predators and Bridgestone Arena, said. “A subset of ‘filling dates’ is other types of sporting events, leagues or teams. From indoor soccer to indoor lacrosse to indoor football to a Friday night boxing series — the world is limitless.
“If there’s a partner willing to bear risk and partner with us, we look at all options. I think, if done correctly, there is a market for some of these other ‘mid sports.’ ”
Again, though, the top tier of competition in the United States appears to be out of the question. According to research by Portfolio.com published in Decemeber 2009, Nashville already is overextended in terms of its ability to support professional sports.
At that time, it was determined the city had a total personal income of $60.98 billion. The study determined that the TPI needed to properly support an NFL franchise was $37.3 billion and an NHL franchise was $36.4 billion — the combined total of which already exceeds Nashville’s number.
None of that took into account the additional share of time and income Nashvillians devote to Vanderbilt teams, the Nashville Sounds and the Nashville Superspeedway, among others.
Writer G. Scott Thomas, who produced a series of articles based on the research, said he plans to update the figures later this year, but stressed that any movement since then will not be significant. He said Nashville is “overextended” and already has one more major professional sports franchise than it should.
Scott Ramsey, executive director of the Nashville Sports Council, said for the time being, the figures overwhelm any other sentiment.
“When you’re talking about the difference between cities with two teams in the four major professional sports leagues [NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB], you see a quantum leap in terms of population, per capita spending and corporate headquarters. I think those are the key factors as far as the growth of a city, and I just don’t think we’re there yet,” he said. “When you get past the fan interest into the business aspects … there are some questions you have to be pretty sure about in terms of the answers before you can commit to going forward aggressively with a project like that.”
But the world outside the Big Four, as it were, is still ripening with possibilities.
Nashville twice had an entry in the Arena Football League, which is just past the halfway point of its 20-week season and currently has 18 franchises. The Major Indoor Soccer League two weeks ago expanded to 10 teams through an agreement with the United Soccer Leagues. The National Lacrosse League recently completed its 25th season of competition. All are indoor sports for which a suitable venue (Bridgestone Arena) already exists.
Some also view Major League Soccer as a viable secondary option, particularly given the city’s attempts to have LP Field named a World Cup venue as part of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s host bids, which were recently filed.
MLS currently has 18 teams and is on the record with its desire to hit 20 for the 2012 season. The league recently confirmed that Minneapolis-St. Paul, in conjunction with the recent decision to build a new suburban stadium for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, has begun the expansion process.
While significantly cheaper than the four major professional sports leagues, $13.9 billion in TPI is needed to sustain an MLS franchise, according to the Portfolio.com study. That report, which analyzed 82 markets in the United States and Canada, determined that 42 open markets effectively could support an MLS entry. Nashville was not one of them. But neither was Minneapolis-St. Paul, for that matter. The closest possibilities to here were Birmingham, Ala., and Louisville, Ky., neither of which has a major professional sports team.
Beyond just the need to sell tickets and attract interest, there are significant costs related to MLS. The league’s two newest franchises, which began play this year, each paid a $35 million expansion fee for the right to join the league. Plus, the league has specific stadium requirements, which in Nashville’s case would require some measure of public funding.
“You’re going to have pockets of interest in many things,” Ramsey said. “I don’t think anything would not be looked at — every opportunity would be vetted and considered. You’re going to have to answer some tough questions, though, and it comes back to: Will a franchise be successful here?”
A relevant case study exists in Buffalo, which like Nashville has established franchises in both the NFL (the Bills) and the NHL (Sabres), as well as a minor league baseball team (the Bisons). Both the Bills and Sabres have been around for more than 40 years.
That city tried to add an NBA franchise in 1970, the same year the Sabres came on the scene and a decade after the Bills were founded. But the Buffalo Braves left for San Diego (they’re now the Los Angeles Clippers) after nine seasons.
More recently, though, that city — which has suffered dramatically because of the recession — has enjoyed success with lacrosse, an emerging sport in North America. The Buffalo Bandits have competed in the National Lacrosse League since 1992 and have nabbed four championships.
The Bandits reached the conference final in the just-completed 2011 season and averaged 17,096 fans per home game. They sold out three times at HSBC Arena (capacity: 18,690), where the Sabres are the primary tenants. Those are major-league attendance numbers for a league in which the average player salary is less than $20,000 a year. Season tickets were priced this season between $17 and $27 for eight home games.
The Bandits, though, benefit from the fact that they share ownership and infrastructure with the Sabres and the venue.
“The Sabres, Bandits and the HSBC Arena are all separate entities,” Bandits director of operations Scott Loffler said. “But at the end of the day, everything gets thrown into the same pot.”
The WNBA was conceived with a similar setup: Teams shared resources such as arenas with their NBA counterparts. But that arrangement ended in 2002; now WNBA teams are owned either by their men’s counterparts or by independent entities. The majority of teams remain in cities that also have NBA teams.
Investors in Nashville have reportedly been in discussions at least twice (first in 2003) with the NBA and WNBA about bringing professional women’s basketball to Nashville. The last time was in 2008, when WNBA president Donna Orender told Business TN, “We’ve gotten a very strong degree of interest, and I think now our next steps would be to put together the right business partner — we think we’ve identified a couple of those, or they have self-identified.”
A deal obviously never materialized, and profit remains elusive for most WNBA teams despite player salaries far lower than those in the NBA. Still, women’s basketball has maintained a strong presence in Nashville: Next year, the city will host the Southeastern Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament for the fifth year.
Loffler said the Bandits are a profitable entity in their own right, particularly in a season such as this, when they hosted two playoff contests.
But that franchise is the exception among the 10 teams in the National Lacrosse League because of its shared operations with the Sabres. It suggests, though, that a similar arrangement could work in Nashville, where the Predators and Bridgestone Arena function under the same financial umbrella. Such an opportunity to fill dates at the arena would be welcomed even by the Predators, who have priority scheduling rights to the building.
“Generally speaking, we’re in the business to produce and host events,” Cogen said. “That’s what we do. A dark day costs us money. It’s all a function of the deal. You can cut a lessee in on those revenue streams, or you can reduce rent. It’s all a function of the deal. These are the types of decisions that would be part of negotiation.
“If you have a partner with the wherewithal, a willingness to bear the risk and some degree of sophistication, it can be done.”
For now, Rowe, a Knoxville-based sports agent who plans to relocate his family to Middle Tennessee in the coming weeks, will go it alone — and go on the road. Rather than throw open the doors to a single college arena and hope people show, he intends for the Soul to play “home” games in their first season at Vol State in Gallatin, in Columbia, in Murfreesboro, in Lebanon, in Cookeville and possibly in Knoxville. That’s in addition to a couple games in downtown Nashville, presumably at Memorial Auditorium, which was the home court of the Broncs.
Eventually, he hopes fans will follow his team all the way to Bridgestone Arena for an entire season. Although he cautiously admits that any such evolution lies well beyond the immediate scope of things, he remains steadfast in his belief that there’s enough interest in basketball in Nashville to overcome the financial realities that currently exist.
“Why the NBA is not here just baffles me,” he said.
Part of it is timing. Part of it is bad luck. Much of it has to do with money.
Even the most high-profile professional sports require more than just their mere presence in order to succeed. The Titans and Predators each needed significant enticements from state and Metro governments, not to mention financial support from the population at large. Even then, it has not always been smooth sailing — particularly in the case of the Predators.
“Everybody is going to have their economic argument,” Ramsey said. “But from an interest standpoint, I don’t think anyone can say the Tennessee Titans and Nashville Predators — and LP Field and Bridgestone Arena — haven’t been a value to our community.
“I don’t think anybody can look back on the last 12 years and say that most people don’t have a very positive feeling about what they have brought to our community.”
Similarly, though, it’s tough to find someone who — given the size of the local population and corporate bases, the existing love affairs with the current teams, plus any number of other factors — looks forward and sees similarly successful ventures.
Tough, but it’s not impossible. As was the case prior to the arrival of professional sports in Nashville, there are those willing to dream.