Analysis: Former Gov. Bill Haslam is missing ingredient in bringing MLB to Nashville

First Horizon Park, home of the Triple A Nashville Sounds. (Photo: Wikipedia)
First Horizon Park, home of the Triple A Nashville Sounds. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The resignation of Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein on Tuesday touched off immediate speculation on baseball Twitter – as depraved a place as any on the internet – that Epstein could soon join a Major League Baseball expansion franchise in Nashville.

Epstein-to-Nashville is the latest gasoline to be poured on the fire of baseball coming to Music City.

Epstein is one of the most decorated front office executives in baseball history, having ended multi-generational championship droughts in Boston and Chicago. In his goodbye letter to Cubs employees, Epstein revealed that being part of an MLB ownership group is one of his goals.

There already is a group looking to bring an MLB franchise to Nashville, Music City Baseball, which is led by businessman John Loar. If Epstein were to join Music City Baseball, it would legitimize the effort in the eyes of Nashville decision makers in a way that the additions of Justin Timberlake, Eddie George and others did not.

The Music City Baseball group is flawed because it lacks the known billionaire with Nashville ties necessary to pull off such a project. As of late July, the group had raised about $1.5 million, according to Loar, but that’s a far cry from the approximately $1.5 billion that it would cost between stadium construction and MLB expansion fees. As Music City Baseball scrounges for investments and whips up media coverage of celebrities joining its ownership, there is major doubt behind the scenes that the group has the political connections, financing or business plan to pull off a successful expansion effort.

Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (Photo: TN.gov)
Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (Photo: TN.gov)

However, there’s another name circulating the courthouse rumor mill as a possible leader of a legitimate MLB expansion effort in Nashville: former Gov. Bill Haslam.

Because of his wealth and political clout, Haslam wouldn’t need to partner with Loar and Music City Baseball. Haslam is the kind of billionaire with a capital B necessary to lead a professional sports ownership group.

The former Knoxville mayor already has ties to professional baseball. The Haslam family was the principal owner of the Tennessee Smokies, which is a minor league affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.

Haslam and his brother Jimmy Haslam, the lead owner of the Cleveland Browns, sold their leading stake in the Smokies in 2013.

As a successful businessman and former governor, Haslam is the kind of lead owner that Epstein would surely want to partner with in a baseball ownership group. Because of his success in business and politics, Haslam knows what he doesn’t know. Running a baseball team is complicated work that requires specialized expertise. And that makes a hypothetical collaboration with Epstein logical.

“I do plan on having a third chapter leading a baseball organization someday, though I do not expect it to be next year,” Epstein said his goodbye letter, which was published by the Athletic. “I have seen first-hand the profound impact a baseball team, especially a championship team, can make on its community, and how team owners can become important forces for civic good. If and when the timing and opportunity and partners are right, I would like to join an ownership group.

“In the meantime, I would love to find a way to serve the game that has given me so much and am pursuing a few possible avenues to do just that.”

The Tennessee Lookout asked Haslam, through a publicist, if he had participated in discussions with Loar and Music City Baseball, or if he was interested in pursuing  or bringing MLB to Nashville on his own. Haslam could not be reached for comment.

Whether it’s Loar, Haslam or anyone else, there are substantial hurdles to bringing MLB to Nashville. For starters, the city already owns the Triple A Nashville Sounds’ ballpark, and that project has paid off by improving the surrounding neighborhood and drawing large crowds. The city owes about $102 million, counting interest, in outstanding debt payments on the Sounds’ First Horizon Park.

Music City Baseball is eyeing city-owned land on the east bank of the Cumberland River. But Nashville Mayor John Cooper would be reluctant to give up greenspace and park land for a private development. A portion of the land is also controlled by the Tennessee Titans, and there’s been no indication the Titans and Loar’s group are collaborating.

Nashville property owners just had their tax rate increased by 34 percent so the city could balance its budget. It would be a very hard sale politically to ask residents to get behind the public financing of a baseball stadium at a time when the budget is in a perpetually precarious position coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cooper told the Tennessee Lookout earlier this year he thinks voters should get the opportunity to approve the financing of such deals. Loar and the other leaders of the Music City Baseball group have cautioned that they’re playing the long game and are aware it will take many years to pull off the expansion project.

In order to navigate these issues and collaborate with politicians at the state and local level it would take a known commodity like Haslam. Whether he took the reins of Music City Baseball or lit out on his own, Haslam is the missing ingredient in bringing MLB to Nashville.