Nashville in play for pro soccer expansion team – The Tennessean
Two professional soccer leagues are considering Nashville for a future expansion franchise as Metro officials said potential team investors are exploring the cityâs appetite for higher-level pro soccer.
Representatives from the rapidly growing United Soccer League and the North American Soccer League both confirmed interest in making Nashville a future expansion city for their respective leagues. Key to both would be figuring out a stadium that meets their needs.
Their eye on Nashville comes as Metro government has been approached by separate groups of possible investors floating the idea of professional soccer in Nashville â one exploring a new club in the USL, the other the NASL. Talks are considered preliminary.
The NASL and the USL, which both launched in 2011, represent the second and third tier of leagues, respectively, in the U.S. and Canadaâs professional soccer pyramid.
Each is below Major League Soccer, or MLS, the highest division, but higher than the National Premier Soccer League that includes Nashville FC, the cityâs community-operated soccer club that plays at Vanderbilt University and opens its season Saturday.
âNearly six years ago the USL embarked on a mission to create the most sophisticated, best operated and most competitive soccer league under MLS and has achieved that mission with a deliberate business plan that includes expansion,â John Griffin, senior director of communications of the USL, said in an email.
âThe USL has interest in Nashville and has identified the city as a vibrant market with considerable interest in soccer.â
NASL spokesperson Neal Malone gave similar praise for Nashville and also confirmed the leagueâs interest.
âWe absolutely believe Nashville would be a great fit for the NASL,â Malone said. âItâs home to a robust soccer community and it has a reputation for being an excellent sports city. We feel that there would be a lot of support, and you see that already with Nashville FC.â
Nashville is in play for a new team in one of the two leagues, but not a franchise in each.
On the USL side, the Metro Parks & Recreation Department has been approached by a group with Nashville ties seeking permission to use the city-owned soccer fields at Ted Rhodes Park near MetroCenter for a temporary soccer stadium before moving to a permanent stadium elsewhere in Nashville.
Metro Parks Director Tommy Lynch identified Marcus Whitney, founder of the start-up tech company Jumpstart Foundry and Ryan Doyle, general manager of oneC1TY, a new technology office hub off Charlotte Avenue, as individuals who came to parks officials to discuss that possibility.
The plan would be for a USL franchise to later move to a new permanent soccer stadium at an unidentified location, Lynch told The Tennessean.
âTheyâre in discussions about trying to find a permanent stadium, but in order to get started they need a temporary stadium,â Lynch said.
âSo, theyâve talked to us about possibly building an initial temporary stadium while they search and talk to us and others about finding a place for a permanent stadium.â
Whitney, who is the chairman of the Nashville FC board, did not respond to multiple attempts for comment. In an email, Doyle declined to comment.
Opening up Ted Rhodes Parks for professional soccer is listed as an item on the Metro parks board’s Tuesday agenda, but Lynch said it will be deferred at the request of the group. He said the group had pitched playing there on a temporary basis beginning in 2018 but heâs unsure whether this is still a target.
Lynch said bringing professional soccer on a temporary basis to Ted Rhodes Park would not affect residential neighborhoods and would be consistent with the parkâs current uses. He said he would recommend approval to the parks board if the group and USL intend to move forward.
At the request of a group of investors interested in bringing the North American Soccer LeagueÂ to Nashville, Monica Fawknotson, director of the Metro Sports Authority, said sheÂ provided tours of the First Tennessee Park and Nissan Stadium recently. Both facilities are owned by the city. SheÂ declined to name the individuals but said they are from outside Nashville.
âThey were interested in just seeing what the options would be in terms of facilities,â Fawknotson said, adding the group of investors is also looking at another city that they have not disclosed.
âThey feel like Nashville would be a great city based on what they read and know of Nashville, but clearly wanted to visit in person and just get a feel for the city, what the city has to offer at the facilities and the support of the community.â
In recent years, soccer has become widely seen as the sport most likely to draw the next professional team in Nashville. Youth soccer participation in the Nashville area has picked up steadily in recent years, and the city’s growing immigrant population has also driven interest.
Nissan Stadium drew 44,835 people last summer for a U.S. men’s national team game against Guatemala. It was the largest crowd in Tennessee history to watch soccer. That was followed up with the state’s largest crowd ever to watch women’s soccer, when in March 25,363 attended Nissan Stadium for the U.S. women’s national team beat France.
The USL launched in 2011 with 13 teams, but has grown to 29 clubs today. The league has added an assortment of small- and mid-size cities this year: Kansas City (the team goes by Swope Park), Orlando, Rio Grande Valley (the southern tip of Texas), Cincinnati, Bethlehem, Pa. and San Antonio. Another team is scheduled to open in Reno, Nev. next year.
Griffin, the USL spokesman, said the league has âthree significant principlesâ when evaluating a potential expansion city and a proposed team’s investors: strong local ownership, plans for a âsoccer-specific stadiumâ and sound short- and long-term business plans.
Although the NASL is a higher division than USL, it has 12 teams, including two in Canada and one in Puerto Rico. The NASL has plans to expand to San Francisco next year.
Unlike the USL, the NASL does not have requirements for a soccer-only stadium, which could open the door to a stadium like First Tennessee Park, home of the Nashville Sounds. It is unclearÂ whether a shared stadium would work logistically given the coinciding seasons.
Nissan Stadium, home of the NFLâs Tennessee Titans, is considerably larger than soccer stadiums used in the NASL and USL, which generally hold between 5,000 and 10,000 people. A few NASL stadiums are more than 20,000.
Greer Stadium, Nashvilleâs former minor league baseball stadium, has been floated as a possibility for professional soccer. In 2014, the owner of the Harrisburg City Islanders, a USL team from Harrisburg, Pa., met with Metro officials to gauge the cityâs interest in converting Greer to a soccer stadium. Talks never advanced, and that organization is no longer interested in relocating.
Since then, Lynch, whose parks department manages Greer, has recommended the abandoned stadium be demolished because of its condition. The city intends to begin a community process to identify possible future uses for Greer’s property.
MLS, the highest level of professional soccer in the U.S., which has teams in 20 cities, is also preparing for major expansion in the coming years, with plans to jump to 24 teams by 2018 and a goal to expand to 28 teams, perhaps by 2020.
But Nashville would likely need to first prove it can support the second or third division of soccer before MLS would be an option.
In an email, Dan Courtemanche, executive vice president of communications, said MLS understands Nashville âis a tremendous sports market and know that passionate fans have come out in large numbers for international soccer matches throughout the years.
âHopefully weâll see more big-event soccer matches in Nashville in the future.â
Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236 and on Twitter @joeygarrison.
Professional soccer leagues
Major League Soccer
United Soccer League
Founded in 2011
North American Soccer League
Founded in 2011