The NWSL and Nashville’s (tempered) enthusiasm

Last week, The Tennessean’s Sandy Mazza reported that the Nashville Sports Authority was pivoting from a pursuit of a WNBA franchise to an NWSL franchise. The report noted that the Sports Authority Women’s Professional Sports Ad Hoc Committee (and the Women’s Professional Sports Initiative) had talked to representatives of Nashville Soccer Club’s stadium and had conducted a survey indicating that Nashville expressed more interest in women’s soccer than women’s basketball. Mazza also reported, however, that while conversations were still taking place with both basketball and soccer league officials, “no interested majority owner has come forward publicly” (although there is clear regional corporate sponsorship interest).

While most anyone who reads my column would see this as something to put in the “good news” category, it was a bit difficult to completely understand what the story meant. Should we be hopeful? Or is this a report with no real traction?

It turns out, I believe, that soccer supporters can be hopeful even though nothing is guaranteed.

To get a better sense of the context for the report, I sat down with Nashville Sports Authority Executive Director Monica Fawknotson and Kim Adkins, who sits on the Board of Directors.  While the discussion left me excited and hopeful, the fuller context is far more complex than a pivot of interest from basketball to soccer.

First, the recent report was the second one compiled by CAAIcon Strategic Advisory, a consulting firm hired by the city to help with the initiative. The first report looked at the city and region, as well as existing facilities and venues, while also talking to representatives of multiple women’s professional leagues, including the NWSL, WNBA, and NWHL. While the report didn’t rule any sport out, the NWSL and WNBA clearly rose to the top. 

In the second phase, the one reported on recently, the group drew from 4400 surveys (with slightly over half of the respondents being men) concerning women’s professional sports in Nashville (as well as the initiative itself), three different focus groups with 41 participants, and further analysis of facilities and economic impact to the region. 

What is particularly exciting about the report is that there is, indeed, genuine interest in a women’s professional sports team in Nashville, with over 60% of respondents expressing anywhere from moderate to strong interest in a team. While some of the interest is based on the desire to simply have more female role models locally, there was also plenty of interest in sports simply as entertainment. 

Counter to the Tennessean, however, the report showed strong support for both women’s soccer and women’s basketball. It’s not that the report shifts the focus of the Sports Authority to soccer alone, so much as soccer was a little ahead in terms of interest. In short, the city is still open to pursuit of franchises in either (both?) the WNBA and the NWSL. (Indeed, the city remains open to other opportunities as well. It’s just that basketball and soccer are keyed to be the most successful out of the gate). 

Survey respondents noted that an NWSL team made sense following the clear success of Nashville SC and the availability for the team to potentially play in the new stadium. Those supporting a WNBA franchise noted Tennessee’s success with women’s basketball at the collegiate level and the attraction of another professional team playing in the downtown area (Bridgestone was clearly favored over Municipal and, as was pointed out, WNBA and NHL schedules are fairly compatible. 

It should also be pointed out that, in a way, the pursuit of professional women’s sports was built into the DNA of Nashville SC’s soccer stadium. That is, the resolution Nashville Metro Council passed in 2017 that conditionally authorized the Authority to issue revenue bonds for construction of the MLS Stadium notes that the addition of a MLS franchise, “… would increase public exposure to soccer, which could result in an increased interest and participation in women’s soccer, and one day lead to a professional women’s soccer team in Nashville.”  

The next phase of work with the consultants involves thinking specifically about ways of moving forward. That said, one of the benefits that has already arisen from the report is the coverage the city is receiving. Indeed, publications like The Athletic have reached out to the Nashville Sports Authority to get a sense of the city’s efforts, especially in terms of the WNBA. 

While no one has stepped forward as a potential owner or large scale investor in a team, Adkins and Fawknotson stress that the work the Sports Authority is doing illustrates for leagues and potential investors that Nashville is actively putting the pieces in place to be ready while the window is open for growth with these, and other, leagues. 

While I’m keeping my fingers crossed regarding an NWSL franchise, I’m also simply heartened by both the level of interest expressed in the surveys and by the fact that the city has an active initiative concerning a women’s team.

Maybe neither a complete pivot to soccer or a guarantee, then, but still a solid cause for excitement.

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