What’s the Deal (or no deal) with Nashville’s New Soccer Team?

WHEN the news dropped in December 2017 that Nashville would adopt a soccer team and join the nearly 30 other cities buying into Major League Soccer (MLS), many of us began to picture a stadium filled with cheering fans from all different walks of Nashville. Sports are a cultural bedrock for societies dating back before codified language even came about to describe them. They have a way of drawing people together and the idea of a multi-cultural staple like soccer coming to Nashville seemed to fit a city growing more and more diverse every day. But bringing in new stadiums and teams can be complicated – and Nashville’s case has proved no exception. It’s raised the question – how much of our policy, government, and democracy are we willing to sacrifice for our culture of entertainment and sports?

With the opening game of Nashville SC’s inaugural season scheduled in just a few weeks, construction plans for their new stadium have come to a grinding halt.

Dig into things a bit, and you’ll find a lawsuit against the city claiming that the proposed site for the new stadium runs against the city charter and is an injustice to those who have lived and worked in the area for years.

You also might stumble across stories of more billionaires spinning their web of influence on the city vote for the stadium. Reports of corruption surface involving an illegal bidding process and a construction company that already deceived their way into charging the city of Denver millions of dollars in extra costs for a city project.

But building new stadiums means new jobs, right? And it also means a new team which can bring excitement and a sense of identity to a city. Do these jobs pay off the multi-million-dollar cost of building a stadium? PBS (aside from producing the painfully dry radio shows your parents listen to) looked into this and found – big surprise – it’s complicated. It can be pretty good or, more often, abysmally bad for a city.

So what’s the deal with Nashville’s new soccer stadium? And can I wave my soccer scarf yelling GOALLL with a clear conscious, or should I be waving a banner outside protesting it?

Mock Plan for Nashville SC Stadium

Back in 2017, Nashville won the initial bid to bring an MLS team to the city. A huge part of why they ended up with the contract was due to a push from former mayor Megan Barry to cement the plan for a $275 million stadium project in an area of Nashville called the fairgrounds. This area is public land and has historically been used for the Nashville Flea Market and other community events. Barry’s project wasn’t formally approved yet, but the team decided the plan along with support from team owner John Ingram (billionaire Nashville local) was good enough.

Fast forward to the present day, and that same Nashville Flea Market Vendors Association, along with former Metro Councilman Duane Dominy, and CEO of the African American Cultural Alliance Leo Lillard, have filed a lawsuit against the city and its stadium plan.

So what are they upset about?

Turns out, John Ingram isn’t the only billionaire with a stake in the game of Nashville SC. Brothers Zygmunt and Mark Wilf, and cousin Lenny Wilf are also all co-owners of the team. The New York-based Wilf family has an estimated net worth of over $5 billion and owns the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings along with a partial stake of the MLB’s New York Yankees.

And the Wilf’s aren’t only interested in sports.

The family has a variety of ties and ownership stakes in venture capital, construction, and design companies. When it comes to the Nashville stadium construction, Fox17 points out that the Wilf family’s former construction manager, Mortenson Construction, won the contract to build the stadium; the family’s former design consultants won contracts to engineer the stadium; and a company indirectly owned through a Wilf investment won contracts to initially conduct feasibility studies to relocate the fairgrounds.

That Mortenson Construction company? It’s the same one that was used to build the Vikings new stadium. After the dust settled on the Wilf’s stadium construction in Minnesota, Minneapolis Council Member Paul Ostrow shared that the stadium project, “Has been plagued by a high degree of secrecy, too little professional planning, a lack of due diligence and financial analysis, and an overdose of misleading propaganda.”

How about in Denver? Currently, the Denver District Attorney’s Office is investigating a lawsuit against the same Mortenson Construction for colluding to win a recent multi-million-dollar construction project in Colorado without fair due process.

To top things off, the Wilf family themselves just got out of a recent lawsuit back in New Jersey and had to pay a $110 million bond after being found guilty of cheating partners in an apartment complex deal.

Mark, Zygmunt, and Lenny Wilf

So the Wilf family proved another example of just how much corruption we’re willing to put up with for our cultural love of entertainment and live sports. But how does this tie back in with Nashville soccer, again?

When it came time to vote on which companies would win the bid to build the Nashville stadium, there were a variety of options.  Barton Malow Company and Skanska AECOM Hunt were both turned down after receiving scores less than 1 point (out of 100) lower than Mortenson with price tags multiple millions of dollars lower. The city, in theory, should pick the company offering the lowest cost that still ensures high quality. A variety of city committees typically evaluates that process.

In Nashville’s case, the lawsuit claims that three of these committees were pumped with members from Nashville Soccer Holdings (NSH) to act as advisors on how to judge the incoming project proposals. There’s a pretty significant conflict of interest here as the city council should be picking the lowest cost option for the city. NSH and the Wilf family, on the other hand, would want the city to choose the highest price option to help ensure that the stadium doesn’t run over its proposed cost (a situation in which NSH would be liable to pay for) and to ensure Wilf family interests win the contracts.

The Save Our Fairgrounds movement is suiting the city and wants to toss this whole construction plan out the window to head back to the drawing board.

Meanwhile, owner John Ingram, Nashville SC, and their movement Build The Stadium have been vocalizing their discontent with current mayor John Cooper and his hesitancy to push forward with the stadium build.

The stadium bidding process looks like it was botched. But that’s not to say the relationship between the team and the community is similarly trashed at this point.

Thanks to the diligent negotiations and protesting from the advocacy group Stand Up Nashville, a Community Benefits Agreement has been signed between the team and city. It promises

  • 20% of all housing units built at the development site be set aside as affordable housing with 3-bedroom family-friendly units
  • Locally hired stadium workers all paid a living wage of at least $15.50 an hour
  • 4,000 sq ft to a childcare facility, which will operate on a sliding scale.
  • A Joint community committee to oversee the implementation of the CBA

Not bad.

At the core of this whole thing though, is whether or not cities should be paying millions of dollars to support a culture of mass entertainment instead of putting that money toward social policy in education, housing, climate, you name it. Billionaire owners pay only a small fraction of the stadium costs while the city is left dealing with hidden costs, risks of the team moving away, and long-term debt. All of this is common practice in the US, and you can read more about why here and some and exciting ways we could shake things up here.

But in the meantime, Nashville SC and soccer culture look to be here to stay. How the stadium construction plan takes shape will continue to play out in the coming months – a hearing is set for February 21st to set a date for the lawsuit’s trial. Nashville SC will play its first game on February 29th against Atlanta United.

UPDATE: As of this week, Mayor John Cooper has given the green light to demolition on the fairgrounds. The stadium project will begin proceeding despite the pending lawsuit still set for trial. It looks like our blind love of sports and entertainment will live to plague another day.

4 thoughts on “What’s the Deal (or no deal) with Nashville’s New Soccer Team?

  1. Hey Oliver,
    I really liked this piece. It highlights how corruption truly functions in our society and how that doesn’t just lead to disproportionate benefits for some elites but direct harm to the mass local community as well. This piece helps humanize the impact of what is usually summed up in articles as “a massive corruption scandal” where details are given to the extent of the dollar amount associated with the deal. Highlighting how this affects our community locally through the fairgrounds and how that has ripple effects through our local society is a great way to change the action people pursue after reading a piece like this. I feel like many times we can feel disconnected from the backroom, corrupt deals that plague our politics like this, but by highlighting movements like Save Our Fairgrounds you allow us to focus our reactions into substantive efforts.
    – Satya


  2. Hi Oliver,
    This piece is very well-researched and informative. I was not aware that Nashville was getting a soccer team, and when I first read that it was on the horizon, I was not pleased simply because I personally do not care for soccer. However, as I kept reading, the corruption of the project and detriment to people in the community reinforced the fact that if it is going to be done, it should not be done in this way. I was reminded of concerns surrounding the gentrification of North Nashville in particular, where land previously used by working-class families is being reclaimed and used to build high-density, high-price housing. In this case, the fairgrounds, which anyone in the community could use and enjoy, are being bulldozed in favor of this expensive stadium. An option that would likely be easier on the community, although it would halt NFL activities in Nashville for time, would be to renovate Nissan Stadium to accommodate soccer as well as football. This project would not require bulldozing a communal space and would likely be less costly for the city. Nevertheless, corrupt billionaires do not tend to consider less destructive options on their quest to make and conserve their money.


  3. Oliver,

    First, I want to applaud your journalistic approach to writing this piece. You kept me as a non-sporty reader completely engaged in the topic with your reveal of the issue, and build-up to your final point. This article is – in a smaller sense – one of the very types of journalism that would sway me as a policymaker or voter to change existing policy. Second, what an interesting topic. I would be curious to know if there have been any articles published by journalists drawing attention to the issue that has swayed policymakers. I believe that a series of personal interviews with current residents in the neighborhood where the stadium is proposed to be would be a very powerful piece that could sway public opinion on the construction of the stadium. Additionally, not to get too bold with the ideas, I think a novel written from the perspective of a citizen in the neighboorhood could add a layer of humanity and emotion to the issue that many have not accessed yet. Great read!


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