Not ready for takeoff

Metro Council should seize its opportunity next week to put the brakes on Nashville’s stadium plan

December 13, 2022 6:01 am
Nissan Stadium in Nashville, home of the Tennessee Titans. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Nissan Stadium in Nashville, home of the Tennessee Titans. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Eight weeks have blown by since Mayor John Cooper and the Tennessee Titans delivered unto Nashville a so-called term sheet (lawyer speak for “stuff we provisionally agree on”) with procedural and financial particulars for a proposed new East Bank stadium. Writing here at the time I called it a bad deal built on specious logic and incomplete data, suggesting the need for a do-over. Eight weeks and one clumsy disinformation campaign later, it’s still a bad deal and it still needs a do-over.

During these last two months the Metro Council’s East Bank Stadium Committee has convened a series of public comment sessions around the city, and a pair of measures that would edge the project forward have been placed on the council’s agenda. Those bills—one approving the (nonbinding) term sheet, and the other authorizing the hotel/motel tax part of the package—are both teed up for a council vote on December 20. Meanwhile, the mayor’s office and its allies in the tourism vortex have spent their time since October spinning a pro-stadium propaganda offensive organized mainly around the same flimsy arguments offered up at the outset, but now repeated by different voices in different forums. 

It says something about their lack of faith in their own arguments that stadium boosters apparently felt the need to stage manage the public comment sessions. 

In the two sessions that I watched, leaders of construction firms that may well stand to benefit financially from a new stadium project parroted dubious administration talking points. Michael Carter of Pinnacle Construction Partners offered up this demonstrably false assertion: “This doesn’t cost Nashville’s taxpayers a dime; the revenue is coming from people who travel here and come from outside.” Carter showed up for and spoke at both of the sessions I saw. If the point of these forums is to give the council committee a chance to hear from the actual public, then as a potentially vested interest you can speak, but c’mon, you should speak at only one. If, on the other hand, you are hoping to turn them into a vehicle for advancing the establishment pro-stadium narrative, well then sure, grab the mic as often as you can and regurgitate the bull. 

Country music superstar Garth Brooks sent a letter to Metro Council assuring members that “domed stadiums are revenue generating machines because they can be kept busy 365 days a year.” But a review of non-NFL events booked for domed stadiums shows anywhere from four events booked (Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis) to 17 at Sofi in Los Angeles.

I was bemused to notice that at the public comment sessions I observed, four individuals who spoke enthusiastically for a new stadium (two at each session) are staffers at the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. Their boss, CEO Butch Spyridon, is among the biggest public advocates for this deal, and the NCVC has even offered a piece of its current working surplus (see item 34 here) toward stadium infrastructure costs. These four individuals, of course, are entitled to offer their opinions as county residents at a public comment session, just like anyone else. But it seemed like too much of a coincidence that all four of them completely omitted any mention of what they do for a living (very few speakers left that detail out when introducing themselves). Is Spyridon so worried about the weakness of the case for this thing that he needs to dispatch emissaries to covertly populate the speaking list at public hearings? Not accusing, just wondering. 

The last eight weeks of stadium blather-as-substitute-for-serious-argument peaked with the release late last month of a letter from Garth Brooks to Metro Council boosting the project. Advancing what is pretty much the direct opposite of what economic impact research consistently shows, Brooks promises that a new stadium will boost public revenue and employment. He declares that “domed stadiums are revenue generating machines because they can be kept busy 365 days a year.” 

Let’s fact check that one, Garth. There are currently ten NFL stadiums with fixed or retractable roofs. What are they up to when it’s not the NFL time of year? I perused a few upcoming event schedules:

  • At Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis there are a couple of days of Monster Jam, one day of AMA Supercross, and one concert – and that’s it on the events schedule as of now for 2023. 
  • At US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, between now and the start of the 2023 football season is a home show and a Monster Jam in February, one concert in April, one in May, two concert nights in June, and two concerts in August. 
  • State Farm Stadium in Arizona has the same lineup as Indy through next summer but with the Fiesta Bowl and a few more concerts. 
  • A bit busier with the Cotton Bowl and a few additional concerts, AT&T Stadium in Dallas clocks in at a whopping 11 nights booked between NFL seasons. 
  • Sofi in Los Angeles tops them all at 17 nights of bookings, exceeding the others mainly because Taylor Swift alights there for five nights rather than just one or two. 

Sure, a few more stadium tours might still hit the schedule, and granted, this doesn’t include private events that might use the facility (but presumably won’t generate much revenue). It is also fair to assume that Nashville being Nashville will work in a few more dates than some other cities given CMAs and such. But on the whole, as Jon Styf at the Center Square Tennessee observed in a recent piece specifically analyzing the non-NFL usage issue, there are too few domed stadiums for there to be much of an advantage in having one since stadium tours can’t rely exclusively on them. Even being exceedingly liberal with the numbers, Garth’s 365-days fantasy would appear to be off by around 340.

Nashville's Nissan Stadium. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Nashville’s Nissan Stadium. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A related drip from Butch Spyridon’s propaganda faucet came in the form of a November news item that Nashville might land WrestleMania in a new domed stadium in 2027. But wait—why would we need a new indoor stadium to host WrestleMania? In recent years it has been outdoors at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey (2019) and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa (2021); in 2024 it will be at the conspicuously domeless Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. 

So yes, the last couple of months have certainly found Cooper and his allies moving about the county in a touring festival of stadium puffery and flapdoodle. What Cooper and company have not been doing is shedding much light on what council member and stadium committee chair Bob Mendes back in October called the “massive costs that are still unknown.”  In the most recent of his series of stadium analysis web updates, Mendes inventories the “still too many unknowns” and muses that council action on the term sheet is premature. 

Keep in mind: the alternative to building this new indoor beast is sticking with and maintaining Nissan Stadium for the long haul. As the council stadium committee’s presentation that opened each of the listening sessions makes clear, we still don’t actually have a conclusive and reliable analysis of those costs. 

At the public session last week in Bellevue, one guy who showed up to speak, an attorney named Peter Robison, framed an apt question: “How can the council make any decision on this sort of proposed deal without knowing much better granular details about the numbers?” I imagine the mayor and his stadium acolytes might reply that council is not yet being asked to decide anything; we just want them to endorse a nonbinding term sheet so that discussions can proceed. 

But we all know that an affirmative vote next week will inevitably be seen as clearance for takeoff, and reported as such by most of the dutifully compliant local press. It will then become much harder to jam the brakes on this thing as it barrels down the runway, and it will sideline the serious conversation still needed regarding Nissan.

Missing numbers are a good reason for the council to refuse to play along next week, but a better reason is that even with full numbers this is—as many Nashvillians are cogently saying at the public comment sessions—an insane thing to be doing. While busily advancing the irrational proposition that we have no viable civic alternative to putting over a billion dollars of public money into a building largely for the benefit of billionaires, hizzoner and friends have been persuading pretty much nobody that the real needs of actual non-season-ticket-holding Nashvillians are being addressed with the same level of animation and commitment.  

What’s needed now is a simple instruction from the tower telling the pilot to taxi this plane back to the gate. Metro Council has that opportunity next week, and should take it.

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Bruce Barry
Bruce Barry

Bruce Barry is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University who teaches and writes about ethics, conflict, rights, politics, policy, and other things that pop into his head.