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Nashville awarded MLS expansion team

Experienced owners and a stadium ready to go pushed Nashville ahead of its competition.

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Soccer: 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup-Martinique at Nicaragua Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

At least two MLS expansion bids are expected to be granted this year, and Nashville has snagged one of them.

On Tuesday, Brian Straus of Sports Illustrated reported that MLS to Nashville was done. There was an event at the Country Music Hall of Fame scheduled for Wednesday, with the Nashville bid’s owners, MLS commissioner Don Garber, Nashville’s mayor and Tennessee’s governor scheduled to attend. And at that event, MLS made it official.

Nashville started to get some buzz as a potential future MLS city in 2009, when over 27,000 turned out to watch the United States face Trinidad and Tobago in a World Cup qualifier. Eventually, a fan group formed Nashville FC, a fourth-division club that drew 2,000 fans to its first match. In 2016, the club’s trademarks were sold to the ownership group behind a bid to bring a second-division USL club to Nashville. That group wasn’t in charge long — John Ingram, head of Nashville’s MLS expansion bid, bought a majority stake in March. The rebranded Nashville SC is set to start play in 2018, and will help Ingram’s group build a bigger fanbase ahead of the MLS launch.

While most of the cities vying for MLS expansion have an existing lower-division club or have been planning for several years, Nashville got into the game late. But its enthusiasm for soccer in the summer of 2017 turned into a big selling point — 47,622 attended the USMNT’s Gold Cup match against Panama, and 56,232 showed up for a friendly between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City just three weeks later.

In November, Nashville city council approved a stadium funding deal. That thrust Nashville into the lead for an expansion bid, and it’s why it was the first one announced.

Any concerns here?

Very few. They didn’t exactly get a downtown stadium, but it’s pretty close and accessible for people coming from multiple directions. Most of Nashville’s population growth is in the suburbs anyway, so this is a good compromise.

While Nashville has proven to be a market able to support multiple pro sports teams, it’s the smallest of the four finalists — Nashville, Detroit, Sacramento and Cincinnati. It’s growing quickly, but not as fast as fellow expansion candidates Charlotte and Raleigh, or relocation candidate Austin.

But MLS probably noticed the incredible environment at Nashville Predators games last summer and thinks it can recreate that enthusiasm for soccer. They won’t have trouble selling the expensive tickets either — Nashville has a higher income per capita than Detroit, Sacramento and Cincinnati, and has plenty of Fortune 500 companies. You might not care about this stuff, but MLS sure does.

Who are the owners?

The lead owner, John Ingram, has deep local ties. His dad started Ingram Industries, a manufacturer in Nashville, and became a billionaire. His son John took over the business, expanded into publishing, and is now the chairman of that company and its spinoffs. He also has a graduate degree from Vanderbilt University, where he’s on the board of trustees.

Despite his wealth and local connections, Ingram doesn’t have a ton of experience in pro sports. That’s where the Wilf family, who owns the Minnesota Vikings, comes in. Ingram brought them aboard in August. Mark Wilf also sits on Vanderbilt’s board of trustees, which is how he ended up talking to Ingram about investing in an MLS team in Nashville.

Any chance things get weird with MLS expansion?

Yes! So far, the expansion process has been predicated on the idea that a Miami team will begin play in 2019. That currently appears to be impossible. David Beckham recently added some new faces to his ownership group and still faces some hurdles to getting a stadium deal done.

Meanwhile, Nashville has a USL team ready to play this season and a stadium deal done. Both Sacramento and Cincinnati have successful USL teams with some MLS-quality players on their rosters and good temporary venues to play in. It would not be surprising if MLS fast-tracked one of its expansion teams to play in 2019 instead of 2020. It also wouldn’t be shocking if MLS decided to award three expansion teams instead of two during this round as they previously announced, due to the number of good candidates and Miami lagging behind. There’s no reason the league can’t have one team start play in 2019, then two others start in 2020.

Even though Garber made this announcement in Nashville on Wednesday, he didn’t have all of the details about how the entire expansion process will shake out. This is still a very fluid situation.