Nashville sports a ‘10- or 11-year overnight success’

Friday, January 24, 2020, Vol. 44, No. 4
By Tom Wood

Nashville Predator fans watch the action during a screening of Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Predators in 2017.

-- Photo By Steph Chambers | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Via Ap

Nashville is the 2019 Sports City of the Year, as chosen by Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal. Let that sink in for a minute. Not New York. Not Los Angeles. Not Boston, St. Louis or Miami. Nor Chicago, Dallas or Washington.

It is Nashville.

Along with its end-of-the-decade list of accomplishments (San Francisco/Bay Area won Sports City of the Decade honors), the Sports Business Journal decided to add a new category last year and name the top sports city for 2019.

“We’ve never done (city of the year ranking) before,” says Ted Keith, SBJ’s assistant managing editor. “This is the first time. So they’re one-of-one. We didn’t rank the top five publicly, we only have the winner – and it’s Nashville.

The eye-opener, of course, was the city’s first-class staging of April’s NFL Draft, which drew an estimated 600,000 fans during three days to downtown Nashville. But it wasn’t the only reason why Nashville beat out other cities for the SBJ recognition.

“It was a no-brainer, looking back on it, because there were plenty of other aspects of Nashville sports that made it important, but without the NFL Draft I don’t think (Nashville) would’ve won,” Keith explains.

“Nashville was one of the two, maybe three, cities all along that I thought would have a really good chance, mostly because of the NFL Draft. I mean, that was such a well-run, well-received event that gave everybody an even greater appreciation for what the NFL Draft could do.”

And the final day of the NFL Draft was held on the same day as the Rock & Roll Marathon – with another 30,000 people in town for that event.

“The city was able to operate all of that,” Titans President Steve Underwood told SBJ last month. “I’m not saying they weren’t breathing hard, but they were pulling it off, and they pulled it off very successfully. When you can have two very large events in the same weekend, and most everyone thinks it was done very successfully, it breeds more interest in other events.”

Nashville SC fans cheer the team’s first pick in the Major League Soccer expansion draft.

-- Photo By Mark Zaleski | Ap Photo

And there were other major sports business events in 2019 that helped seal Nashville’s selection.

In June, the Music City Bowl announced a new affiliation for its late-December college matchup at Nissan Stadium, replacing the ACC with a foe from the Big Ten and later adding TransPerfect as its title sponsor. Then, in October, Nashville was named host of the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Bridgestone Arena, an event that will serve as qualifier for the Olympics.

Visionary success

The SBJ award reflects a decadeslong goal that is now being realized.

“We are literally a 10- or 11-year overnight success story,” says Monica Fawknotson, executive director of the Nashville Sports Authority. “Back around 2008-09, we formed a Sports Visioning Committee and the goal was to look at Nashville to see what it would take for Nashville to rise as a top sports city – and a sports business city.

“We’ve had a lot of vision of the city that has led to where we are today. And this was not something that just happened. The leadership and the visionary leadership has really kind of brought us to this place. And so, it’s exciting.

“People ask all the time, ‘How did this happen?’ But it takes a lot of work, a lot of perseverance and, so, we’re thrilled about that.”

Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., called the Sports Business Journal award “a confirmation and an affirmation of what we believed in ourselves.

“And I think it’s also a testament to a long implementation of a strategic plan where events were a focal point and a way to elevate a profile of the city. And as you look at the trajectory – and every time we’ve done something reasonably big – it has opened the opportunity to do something bigger. And that strategy has worked for us.”

SBJ’s Keith, taking note of that visionary approach, foresees even more success in Nashville’s future.

“That’s a great thing for a city that 20 years was just getting its first (top-level) professional sports team,” Keith says. “Given the trajectory that they’ve been on for the last 20 years, I think that city has nothing but great opportunities in front of it.”