After focusing so much on downtown’s makeover, Bredesen ran for re-election in 1995 on a platform of investing in other parts of the city.
The point in ’95 was, ‘We’re going to do more sidewalks,’ ” recalls attorney Byron Trauger, a close friend and campaign adviser to Bredesen. “And that’s genuinely what he wanted to do.”
Then Butch Spyridon got a phone call from a friend representing a client. The caller that June, a few months before the election, asked if Nashville would be interested in talking to a National Football League team.
Spyridon, the president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation since 1991, says he wasn’t sure how to take the question, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to say yes.
“When I picked myself up off the floor laughing, I said, ‘Sure,’ ” he says.
Soon afterward, Spyridon was invited to fly to Chicago, a neutral site, to meet with representatives of the team. He quickly rounded up Trauger and Mike Rollins, then the head of the Chamber of Commerce, for a trip that week in early July.
Trauger, who viewed the mysterious overture as “the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard,” reluctantly went along. Before he left, he told Bredesen about the trip, putting the chances of any serious NFL opportunity at “about 2 percent.”
On the plane, Trauger asked Spyridon, “What team are we talking about?”
It was the Houston Oilers, and their presentation in Chicago impressed the Nashville delegation. Mike McClure, the Oilers’ executive vice president, pulled out a legal pad and rattled off statistics about the population within driving distance of Nashville and the growth of the city’s television market, which was the second-largest in the United States without a single major league team.
“Then he took out a map of the United States that showed where the NFL teams were and the other pro teams were,” Trauger remembers. “It made a big circle in the eastern part of the United States, and right in the middle of the circle was nothing (no teams). And that middle was Nashville.
“And when he did that and he had the legal-pad lecture, I thought, ‘You know, I think this guy’s serious.’ ”
Trauger didn’t start dreaming of gridiron glory for Music City that day. But when he got home from Chicago, he called his friend the mayor and said the chances now stood at about 5 percent.
Bredesen’s reply: “Well, that’s not a bad day’s work – you know, two-and-a-half times the likelihood when you got on the plane this morning.”
Trauger and McClure kept talking over the next few weeks, often joined by Steve Underwood, the Oilers’ vice president and general counsel. McClure eventually met Bredesen. The Oilers’ owner, the late oil executive Bud Adams, wanted to go ahead and get Governor Don Sundquist involved as well.
But Trauger, who had chaired Bredesen’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign against Sundquist the previous year, urged McClure to let Bredesen design the deal and present it to the state. After calling Adams, McClure agreed.
Later, at a meeting in Trauger’s law office, the Oilers proposed a wish list. Some items were non-starters, but Bredesen and Trauger agreed there was enough that was workable to justify moving forward.
Bredesen was not exactly a Sunday afternoon armchair quarterback. He thinks he remembers attending a football game or two when he was in college at Harvard, but he had never been to an NFL game. Adams, he says, “couldn’t even fathom the concept that there was an adult human being” who wasn’t a football fan.
But even if he didn’t know a slot receiver from a nickelback, Bredesen knew what an opportunity looked like.
“I just saw it as that civic furniture you have. There are things you do in the public sector that make the city an attractive place to live.”
Despite the disconnect regarding Adams’ favorite sport, he and Bredesen hit it off over their shared love of Southwestern art at their first meeting, which took place Aug. 11, 1995, at The Wild Boar, an upscale Midtown restaurant.
Before the meal was over, the mayor presented the owner with a proposal that may have been unprecedented in the world of pro sports: Nashville wouldn’t negotiate with any other team if the Oilers would agree not to negotiate with any other city – including Houston, their home since 1959 – for 60 days.
After eating, talking and, as Bredesen recalls, “drinking good wine,” Adams agreed. When they announced the exclusive negotiating period at a news conference at the Wildhorse Saloon later that day,
“it created a firestorm in Houston,” Trauger says.
“The negotiating positions shifted significantly, because initially they had the upper hand. They had the team, and we wanted the team. Well, once (the Oilers) didn’t have anywhere to go home to, it sort of evened it out.”
The announcement at the Wildhorse also introduced Nashville to Adams, who said Tennessee was “a damn good football state, with great football fans.”
By mid-November, after a final three-hour meeting in Houston – which was not the first time the mayor had hopped on a plane to iron out a negotiating point – Bredesen and Adams had a deal for Nashville and the state to build a $292 million stadium.
Sundquist, the governor, was very supportive, said Beth Fortune, who was his press secretary. But he insisted that the team be named for Tennessee and not one city.
“It was going to have to be a team for the whole state,” Fortune says.
The Metro Council also went along with the deal. But a group of dissenting council members and other citizens, expressing concerns about the city’s direction, gathered more than 43,000 signatures in just 20 days to force a referendum on the $80 million municipal bond sale at the heart of the financing package.
The ensuing campaign was financially lopsided, with the “Yes for Nashville” supporters easily outspending the deal’s opponents. When the ballots were counted on May 7, 1996, the supporters won handily with 59 percent of the vote.
The Reverend James “Tex” Thomas, pastor of Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church since 1971, says voters made the right call by supporting the Oilers.
“We were lucky to get ’em,” Thomas says.
Bredesen says the referendum, which almost caused Adams to pull out of the deal, was in retrospect “the best thing that could have happened,” because “everybody felt they had their say.”
And the former mayor believes his detached view of pro football helped the cause by giving him a certain credibility with voters that a passionate fan of the game would have lacked.
The football stadium, now known as Nissan Stadium, went up on industrial land on the east bank of the Cumberland River. The city took property by eminent domain to make it possible, including a sand yard facility owned by Ingram Industries Inc.
The condemnation angered some of the company’s top executives, who pledged to fight it and said
Bredesen wouldn’t get away with it, Chairman Emerita Martha Ingram recalled. But she wasn’t having any of that.
“I said, ‘Fellas, that’s not what we’re going to do. What we’re going to do is take the first box on the 50-yard line and be supportive.’ ”
Ingram says she trusted Bredesen, who had helped her keep the symphony alive when he was a private citizen in the 1980s, to do what was best for the city. Her company, which has 5,500 employees, still owns that same box.
The stadium was ready for the 1999 season, by which time the Oilers had been renamed the Tennessee Titans. The Titans went all the way to the Super Bowl that year, falling a yard short of tying the game on the final play.
Spyridon, who took the call that got the whole thing started, says landing the Titans was huge for Nashville.
“Even though the arena might have done more for downtown development, the Titans were more of a game-changer from an awareness that Nashville was for real. There are 32 cities that have NFL teams.
“And going from zero to two major league teams at the same time was even more mind-boggling.”
The other team, the Nashville Predators, started reaching the NHL playoffs on a regular basis after five years but kept struggling financially. By 2007, original owner Craig Leipold was ready to cut his losses – which he estimated at $70 million in nine years – and move on.
Leipold found a buyer in Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, but Balsillie quickly showed his hand: He wanted to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario. His plans upset the Predators’ fans and motivated a Nashville venture capitalist named David Freeman to start pulling together a group of mostly local investors to buy the team.
Hoping to increase the Predators’ average attendance so their initial arena lease with the city would stay in effect after the 2007-08 season, supporters held an “Our Team” rally at the arena to sell tickets on July 19, 2007. Ron Samuels, the Avenue Bank founder who’s now vice chairman of Pinnacle Financial Partners, was leading the effort. He was stunned to see 8,000 people on the floor of the arena.
“My God, that whole thing is full!” he remembers thinking.
What Samuels didn’t see at first was the prospective ownership group, which was gathering backstage behind the curtain. When he did notice Freeman, Tom Cigarran and other members of the group, he knew “they were pretty serious.”
Leipold decided not to move forward with Balsillie. Instead, he announced he had signed a letter of intent to sell the Predators to Freeman’s group for $193 million.
The buyers knew they would want to renegotiate the lease with the next mayor, and it was one of the first things on Mayor Karl Dean’s plate when he took office on September 21. The Predators also managed the arena for a fee from the city, but they didn’t have strong incentives to bring in many concerts or other non-hockey events.
The city was responsible for covering the arena’s operating losses, which were averaging about $3.8 million per year.
With Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote working countless hours on a deal even before he was officially on the payroll, the Dean administration reached an agreement with Freeman, Cigarran and company in November 2007. The Metro Council approved it the following spring.
The new, five-year lease gave the Predators up to $2 million a year in incentives along with a $2 million annual management fee. When it was time to renegotiate again in 2012, the administration gave the Predators less guaranteed money but an opportunity to make more than they had been making from incentives.
The Predators’ management ran with the new arrangement and aggressively booked Bridgestone Arena, which has now hosted Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Jack White, The Black Keys and countless other artists. Adele was scheduled to perform two shows in October 2016.
The facility was named 2014 Arena of the Year by Pollstar magazine after finishing that year with the second-most ticket sales in the United States and the fifth-most in the world. It was the first time a venue outside New York or Los Angeles won the honor.
A building Nashville didn’t even have until 1996 was now in a class with its counterparts in the nation’s two largest markets.
The arena also began a 12-year contract with the Southeastern Conference in 2015. The SEC agreed to hold nine men’s and three women’s basketball tournaments there through 2026. The building even hosted a hockey game and a basketball game on the same day in December 2015.
The Predators’ owners deserve a great deal of credit for stepping up to keep hockey in Nashville and an anchor tenant in the arena. Tom Cigarran, who says he “didn’t want to know how a hockey team is run” when he signed on but is now the chairman, says $5 million loans that each owner made to the organization in 2007 – theoretically for just 30 days – weren’t fully paid back until the end of 2014.
The Predators had more money coming in than going out for the first time in the 2015-16 season, despite their highest payroll ever.
The franchise took a huge leap forward in its marketing when it hired Jeff Cogen as CEO and Sean Henry as chief operating officer in 2010. Both men interviewed for the CEO job, and Cigarran was so impressed by both of them – he said 85 percent of what they proposed to do was the same – that he went ahead and hired both of them.
Cogen and Henry both brought fresh ideas and boundless energy, electrifying the game experience to a nonstop adrenaline rush and consistently getting people into seats.
The city has played a crucial role as well, not only with the lease incentives but also through a user fee that pays for capital improvements, such as a new entrance at Fifth Avenue South and Demonbreun Street that helps tie the arena into the Music City Center campus. Metro and the Predators also partnered to build Ford Ice Center, a facility in Antioch where kids can go to play hockey or learn to skate from former Olympian Scott Hamilton.
After all the city’s work to keep the Predators in Nashville, Mayor Dean started working on NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. It was time for the league to bring its All-Star Game and the full weekend of events that go with it to Music City. Bridgestone Americas then-CEO Gary Garfield, whose company bought the arena’s naming rights in 2010, was just as persistent.
In October 2014, it finally happened: the NHL announced that Bridgestone Arena, the Predators and Nashville would host the All-Star Game on Jan. 31, 2016.
At a breakfast for hundreds of civic leaders and fans two days before the game, Bettman said there’s no longer any doubt that Nashville is a hockey town.
“This is a community where the team has been able to put down roots and be embraced in a way that’s comparable to the longest, strongest franchises in the league,” he said. “It’s palpable how much a part of this community this team is.”
On April 1, 1993, before the Metro Council approved construction of the arena, Mayor Phil Bredesen gave the annual State of Metro Address. He asked council members and others in the audience to imagine going up over the city in a helicopter with him in the year 2000 and looking down on what they might have accomplished by then.
“As we swing up along Broadway, there’s still not too much foot traffic yet,” he said. “But it will pick up in a couple of hours, and by suppertime, it will be as crowded as always. Especially tonight, as the Nashville Notes have a home game at the arena.”
More than 20 years later, Bredesen said the changes he had seen downtown gave him a great deal of satisfaction.
Near the end of his second and final term, Bredesen was approached by a Major League Baseball team that was interested in relocating to Nashville. He felt the city wasn’t ready for three major league sports teams yet, so he turned them down.
“We needed two successful teams and not three struggling teams,” he says.
The feedback he heard from some of his earlier critics showed how quickly the city’s attitude had changed.
“Some of these same people were just reaming me out. It sort of marked for me the change from ‘That’s the stupidest idea I ever heard of’ to ‘What do you mean, we can’t have three teams?’
“The city just had a very different view of itself and a different set of expectations for what it might do and what it expected its city government to do. And that’s the thing I’m proudest of from that period.”« Previous Chapter | Next Chapter »