Major League Soccer has a big decision coming up, as they narrow down 12 candidate cities into four expansion teams. One man from Nashville, Tennessee, along with his friends, is trying to show the league that missing out on Music City would be a big mistake.
In many ways, John R. Ingram is the personification of Nashville spirit. Born just outside of Nashville-proper in the small town of Belle Meade, Ingram has done more for the city of Nashville than most. Aside from his work as CEO and Chairman of the Ingram Content Group, Ingram sits on the Board of Trustees for multiple Nashville institutions, including the National Book Foundation, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the Montgomery Bell Academy, the Harpeth Hall School, and Vanderbilt University.
He’s an accomplished businessman, father of four, and a philanthropist of the highest order. Ingram is also a huge sports fan and one of the biggest supporters of Vanderbilt Commadores athletics programs. He specifically points to his son, a freshman soccer player in high school, as a big reason he agreed to join Nashville’s bid for MLS in mid-December after being approached by two significant figures in the origin of the bid.
“There are actually two gentlemen,” Ingram told SBI. “Bill Hagerty who is now ambassador designate to Japan for the Trump Administration, but had been head of economic development for the state of Tennessee and is a successful businessman. He and another gentleman, Will Alexander from Nashville, who is the son of Lamar Alexander, last summer really decided that they thought Nashville was prepared and capable of being a good candidate for an MLS franchise.
“They kind of got the ball rolling late last summer. I didn’t really enter the picture until the fall. I have a son who is a freshman in high school, big sports fan, soccer player. I’m a big sports fan in general, I’m very close with Vanderbilt University and there’s no such thing as an owner of a collegiate team but if there were such a thing I would be the lead owner of Vanderbilt sports teams.”
Despite being a latecomer to the bid, Ingram is quick to point out how effective the group has been since his arrival in mid-December of 2016. After MLS shortened the time frame for bids to arrive from mid-2017 to the end of January, Ingram and company entered into a mad dash to meet the requirements needed to file an official bid.
“I decided to do it and jumped in officially in the middle of December and it was quite a sprint to get an initial application done by the end of January,” Ingram said. “We got an amazing amount done early and now the game has really shifted from a 100 meter dash into more of a middle distance race. Continuing to work on areas such as a stadium.
“That’s a big area we’re working on and obviously a key step in the whole thing. It’s less about beating your chest then it is about showing MLS what you can accomplish and that’s what we’re trying to do, take care of the key things that MLS would like us to do so that we hopefully become irresistible.”
Though the sole lead investor on the bid, Ingram is far from alone in his desire to bring MLS to Nashville. One of the first major moves Ingram and company made was to form a committee of prominent Nashville personalities, many of whom bring a great deal of experience in sports. Two such members of the committee are Tennessee Titans President and CEO Steve Underwood and Nashville Predators President and CEO Sean Henry, who have combined efforts with Ingram to bring another professional sports team to the city.
“I think we surprise people every time,” Ingram said. “People from other parts of the country that come here and see that in Nashville the business community and the government really work hand in hand and have very successfully in other projects. I’d say we’re well along our way in that regard on a stadium project as well.”
A stadium project that could prove key to the team’s bid. In recent years, and particularly with the current round of expansion, the league has added a major focus to eventually have soccer-specific stadiums built for every team in the league and for new teams to enter with a rock-solid plan to build one near their launch date. While the Nashville bid has yet to make a formal announcement of a stadium proposal, Ingram states that the group has taken significant steps forward and has a distinct advantage over other candidate cities: several other major sports stadium projects funded with public/private partnerships.
Ingram points to two sites in particular that still represent promising opportunities. The first is The Fairgrounds Nashville, located in Nashville’s urban core, while a partnership with Vanderbilt football on a joint-stadium also remains on the table. Also encouraging for the bid is the presence of Icon Venue Group, one of the most experienced stadium planning groups in the country. Icon has worked on nearly every stadium project in MLS, recently including Orlando City’s new stadium, Toronto FC’s BMO field renovation, Atlanta United’s upcoming Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and others across several sports. Ingram states that while nearly every expansion bid approached Icon, the company chose to work with a very small number of those teams and opted to include Nashville in that group, lending an air of legitimacy to the project.
Nashville has a strong history of completing public/private partnerships, Ingram says, citing the Tennesee Titans, Nashville Predators and Schermerhorn Symphony Center as evidence while also pointing to a recently completed minor league baseball stadium. Unlike other cities, there isn’t a contentious environment when it comes to the process, helping boost confidence in the plan
“I’m very, very confident that the same opportunity exists at the Fairgrounds,” Ingram said, “in another part of urban Nashville that is ripe for the kind of development and growth that we say around the baseball park. The success with the baseball park and that area I think gives me and the city and other people a lot of confidence and a roadmap of how to move forward, so that’s what we’re doing.”
Though the lack of a stadium proposal and the bids late origination caused MLS Commissioner Don Garber to state that the bid had some catching up to do with their competitors, Ingram believes the strong history of public/private partnership in Nashville gives it a significant advantage over their opponents. While Ingram acknowledges that expansion slots 27 and 28 may end up being Nashville’s entry to the league, he’s quick to point out that weaknesses in their opponents bids keeps slots 25 and 26 firmly in Nashville’s vision.
“I would say that an objective viewer, without knowing where we are or what we’re doing, could imagine Nashville around slot 27 or 28,” Ingram said, “But non-objectively, with my own bias and my own knowledge of the progress that we’re making, I wouldn’t say that an earlier slot is 100% out of the question.
“I wouldn’t want to rain on anybody’s parade, but St. Louis has got a lot of rain clouds right now, right? They’ve got a referendum coming up and it may turn out better than it looks, but it doesn’t look very good. I think from what I understand, they would’ve been viewed as a strong contender for those early slots, so there may be an opportunity for Nashville or others to compete for an earlier slot.”
Outside of a stadium, Ingram believes Nashville has all the right ingredients for success in MLS. He states that the group perceives the success of Atlanta United as a proof of concept in the potential popularity of soccer in the South, and that the unique mix of millennial and professional population that’s increasing in Nashville by 70-100 people every day sits right in the sweet spot of MLS fans.
While Nashville’s club history isn’t as strong as some of its competitors, the city has been incredibly supportive of the U.S. National Teams when they’ve featured, and has another chance to impress this summer while hosting a CONCACAF Gold Cup match and an International Champions Cup match between two Premier League teams.
Adding to the city’s viability is the launch of a USL team in Nashville SC in 2018, an opportunity on which the MLS group hopes to capitalize.
“At this point, I think there’ll be more to say in the coming weeks, but we’re working very closely with that group on finalizing alignment and, like I said, hopefully there will be more to say about that in the next few weeks,” Ingram said. “But I would say that we want to take any potential contentiousness off the table and we want to, as if and when we might have an MLS opportunity, we’re going to want to work with those guys to build as strong a USL team as we possibly can.”
While Ingram is not ready to comment on the whole ‘SC’, ‘FC’, unique nickname debate, he’s more than happy to throw a few light jabs out about some recent naming controversy.
“We’re not going to name them what’s the leading San Diego name,” Ingram joked. “But I wouldn’t think… It’s pretty funny, but we don’t want the Nashville Moonshiners, how about that?”
But more than anything, more than simply being an owner of a team, more than the economic benefit that a new stadium might bring, more than any individual characteristic about the bid, Ingram is a proud Nashvillian who believes in his city and believes it’s ready for professional soccer. It’s a belief he isn’t shy about sharing and one he hopes will be enough.
“If you look at where Nashville is going, I really believe that if we take care of some of the things MLS needs us to take care of, that we become a very compelling market,” Ingram said. “From our own demographics and also from a geographic standpoint, we fill a region that is a gaping hole in the MLS landscape. There’s work to do, I know that some of the recent comments from the Commissioner including Nashville as one of the 12 cities under close consideration, I don’t think that’s an accident. I think MLS is potentially intrigued by what’s here and I don’t blame them.”
And above all else, Ingram has a message for everyone to hear:
“Nashville is a city not to be missed by MLS.”