Nashville, Tennessee, is a city on the rise. In the last decade, the city’s population ballooned by 21%, growing to the 36th-largest metropolitan area in the country at nearly two million residents. Music City is turning into a destination city for tourists, and a quick trip to lower Broadway reveals bars, shops and locals favorite pedal taverns swarmed with throngs of bachelorette and tourists eager to take in the sights and sounds of Nashville’s entertainment district.
As Nashville’s population and recognizability has grown, its footprint in the sports world has also climbed. The Nashville Predators’ run to the NHL Stanley Cup finals in 2017 drew thousands of fans to Broadway to cheer on their team, and the 2019 NFL Draft set the league record with 600,000 fans in attendance.
All this has set the stage for Nashville’s biggest sports opportunity yet: being a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. The city is one of 17 on FIFA’s shortlist, from which 11 will be selected to host games, as well as three from Mexico and two in Canada.
A FIFA selection committee will visit the 17 cities in the upcoming weeks, and will travel to Nashville on September 16 to get a final look at the city and discuss the bid with city officials before announcing the final host cities in early 2022. While Nashville may not seem like a favorite to make the final cut, Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp CEO Butch Spyridon is bullish on the city’s chances.
“A little over a year ago we made our first formal pitch to FIFA via Zoom,” he told reporters before the United States and Canada played in a World Cup qualifier at Nissan Stadium on Sunday. “I started with, ‘I assume we are in last place, and we’re going to have to work hard to earn your confidence and support.’ We’re going to continue like we’re in last place. It’s the only way we know how to do it.”
It became obvious as our conversation continued, though, that Spyridon is highly optimistic about Nashville’s chances, and certainly its potential, to host the world’s largest sporting event.
“We host 16 million visitors a year. We didn’t do too bad a job with the NFL draft,” he said. “We’re one of the top performing hotel markets, and our international presence is growing daily. So if we can convey that, we think we have a chance. We’re positioned as good as we can be.”
With major markets like Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Houston and Atlanta also in play, Nashville has steep competition to fight off if it is to end up making the list. Spyridon believes that Nashville’s unique qualities as an entertainment city, as well as its growing profile, is a major asset that could push them higher up FIFA’s list.
“You have to assume LA, New York, Miami, Dallas or Houston, those major cities are going to get their games,” he admitted. “But if FIFA truly wants to showcase this part of the world and US soccer, we’re as American a city as it gets. I think we offer something a little bit different. We can put the sizzle entertainment-wise as good as anybody, if not better. I would stake our reputation on that.”
Aside from simply size (Nashville’s metro area is the smallest on the shortlist), there may be financial hurdles for the city to overcome. Vancouver, Minneapolis and Chicago have already dropped out of consideration, citing financial concerns and a lack of cooperation from FIFA in their decision not to continue their bids.
When asked about those financial concerns, Spyridon was honest.
“Anytime you have an unknown financially, you have some definite concerns. I don’t feel like we know enough yet about what our costs are,” he admitted. “For example, our field is a great size. Is it satisfactory to them? We’ll find out when they’re here. That may cause us to ask some more questions, but we’ve talked to the right people in town who would help us raise money. They’re on board, as long as it’s within reason. And when I say within reason, I mean somewhere between hosting the NFL Draft and the Super Bowl.”
We’re not as big as LA or Miami or New York, but we’ve shown what we can do on a global stage with an event like this. Events are what we do.Butch Spyridon
Spyridon did mention that FIFA may request upgrades to Nissan Stadium in their visit, something which he says he “hopes is an asset and not a hurdle”, adding that the Titans have had conversations with FIFA and have their own goals of “upgrading the fan experience”. The actual playing surface, though, meets all of FIFA’s standards, and is the largest field in an NFL stadium, including the portions outside the field lines.
Nashville’s had a chance to make a final exhibition to FIFA on Sunday, as the United States and Canada played a World Cup qualifier at Nissan Stadium. While the crowd of 43,028 didn’t blow anyone away, it passed Spyridon’s goal of 40,000. It didn’t break the Nissan Stadium record for a USMNT game, but it was a marked improvement on 2019’s dismal numbers.
Nashville won’t have long to make their in-person pitch to FIFA; the selection committee arrives late on Wednesday and leaves Thursday afternoon. Spyridon chuckles that they won’t have time to take the committee on a formal tour of the entertainment district, but the committee may wander that way on their own. The visit is a milestone for Spyridon and Nashville, who have been in the running for over a decade.
“I feel really good that we’ve got to this point, and the fact that we’ve made it into the US inclusion last time for the 2022 World Cup,” he notes. “If anybody doubts our commitment, we’ve been chasing this since 2009. If they liked us then, hopefully they’ll like us more now.”
With the goal finally in range, Spyridon is upbeat about Nashville’s chances.
“We’re not as big as LA or Miami or New York, but we’ve shown what we can do on a global stage with an event like this. Events are what we do.”