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Nashville looking to utilise NFL Draft to become 2026 World Cup host venue

  • Music at heart of experience as tourism chiefs try to set stage for bigger events
  • Tennessee capital one of 17 US cities vying to make final cut for Fifa showpiece
  • Record 300,000 visitors expected at three-day event, with potentially 40 million TV viewers

Nashville is a small market with big ambitions. Music City will be thrust into the spotlight this week when it hosts the nationally-televised NFL Draft, with approximately 300,000 visitors expected at the three-day event.

City leaders are hoping the showpiece occasion will not only raise Nashville’s profile and boost tourism numbers but also lead to major sporting and entertainment events in the future – specifically 2026 Fifa World Cup matches, the NHL Winter Classic and the Grammys.

Nashville has become one of the leading soccer markets in the United States in recent years, with the city being awarded a Major League Soccer expansion team and becoming a regular stop for the USA men’s and women’s teams, as well as other international friendlies.

It is also one of 17 US cities vying to become a host venue for the 2026 Fifa World Cup, which is being co-hosted by the US, Mexico and Canada. With major markets such as New York, Miami, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas and Washington DC also in the running, Nashville’s business leaders have their work cut out to make the final list – which will be reduced to 10 in the coming years – not least because the city is just the 27th biggest media market in the US.

However, tourism chiefs believe the NFL Draft – which begins tomorrow (Thursday) – will not only show a wider audience what the Tennessee capital has to offer but prove that Nashville can successfully host large-scale, multi-day events.

“We see the opportunity that if we do this right that our entertainment footprint and our capacity, along with our capability, will be on a par with the major cities that we know are going to get a game [in 2026],” Butch Spyridon, the president and chief executive of Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation (NCVC), tells SportBusiness. “We think that we’re worthy of consideration and we think this will further demonstrate that.

“At any of our events we want to do four things: fill hotel rooms, promote our brand of music, generate PR and editorial coverage of what we’re doing, and build our résumé. For the last thing, that has been hard when you are a small market…people tend to doubt your abilities. We think this gets us over that hump and people aren’t going to doubt us any more.”

Butch Spyridon, president and chief executive of Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation (left), has helped grow Nashville’s tourism numbers from 8.5 million in 2008 to 15.2 million a decade later (NCVC)

Using sports events to attract tourists

Following the closure of theme park Opryland USA in 1997, one of its main attractions at the time, Nashville went into a slump. The city was “left for dead” from a tourism perspective, according to Spyridon, with visitation declining 20 per cent within a year.

In turn, local business leaders developed a new branding strategy built around the city’s musical roots and securing major sporting events. “In 2003-04, as we were retooling everything – our organisation, our strategy, how we were going to build out of a significant slump. Events rose to the forefront of how we could lift the city and the hospitality industry,” says Spyridon.

“This was driven by the fact that after we closed the theme park, we didn’t have a leisure-demand generator and we were stagnant. The use of events to build and broaden the perception and brand of music, and as the reason to come now, became front and centre of the strategy.”

The initiative has proven a success. The Bridgestone Arena – home of the NHL Nashville Predators – began the revival by hosting the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. It has since hosted the 2014 NCAA Women’s Final Four and 2016 NHL All-Star Game, as well as securing the rights to the SEC men’s basketball tournament until 2035.

Meanwhile, Nissan Stadium – home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans – has secured numerous soccer games, such as the International Champions Cup game between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in 2017, which drew a crowd of 56,232 fans. It will host a Concacaf Gold Cup semi-final this summer and Nashville SC for the club’s first two seasons in MLS, in 2020 and 2021.

Aided by the success of TV series Nashville, which ran on ABC and then CMT for six seasons, the opening of a $623m (€554m) downtown convention centre complex in 2013, direct flights from London Heathrow, and the growth of the city’s July 4 and New Year’s Eve events, Nashville has enjoyed a staggering tourism boom in the past decade.

A record 15.2 million people visited in 2018, according to NCVC figures, which represented a five-per-cent rise on the previous year. By comparison, there were 8.5 million visitors in 2008. “As we built the [events] strategy and we saw it work, we also as a city became pretty good at it,” notes Spyridon.

The NFL Draft, he hopes, will take Nashville to a new level of prominence.

Nashville is expecting around 300,000 visitors during the three-day NFL Draft (NCVC)

Draft to take on ‘completely different look, sound and feel’

It is only recently that the Draft became a hostable event.

For 49 years – from 1965 until 2014 – the NFL held the Draft in New York. Only a scheduling conflict at Radio City Hall, its home from 2006, inspired the league to take it on the road and create a festival-like experience. It was subsequently held in Chicago in 2015 and 2016, Philadelphia in 2017 and Dallas in 2018.

It quickly became a highly sought-after event. In May 2018, Nashville held off four other bids – Cleveland/Canton, Kansas City, Denver and Las Vegas – to secure the 2019 Draft. Vegas was then awarded the 2020 event in December.

Spyridon had his eyes on the event as far back as 2011. “Watching the Draft in New York, we saw the potential as a fan event,” he said. “As opposed to looking for the big corporate event, like the Super Bowl (which we would still like to host), the Draft fit our character and our persona and our abilities. It stuck out.

“The Draft has entered the level of major annual events, like the college football championship, the Final Four and the Super Bowl. It’s not the competitive environment but…it is growing in terms of that top-tier event category.”

Despite the city’s willingness to host the event, winning the bid was far from straightforward. “All along, we felt we knew what they didn’t know: that they were on to something,” says Spyridon. “My personal goal was to get in before they formalised the bid process [from 2017] but did not make that cut. So we entered the realm where the NFL realised what it had and needed to put it out to competitive bids and, as you might imagine, it was onerous…it was extremely rigorous.”

The NFL has told all interested parties that it wants the Draft to take on the character of the city it goes to. “When we heard that, that was probably the best information we received and that was what we wanted as it plays to our strengths,” says Spyridon.

Accordingly, the three-day NFL Draft Experience will be extremely music-centric. It will feature a free concert each night, with headline performances by country stars Tim McGraw and Dierks Bentley. Sixwire will be the Draft’s first house band, providing entertainment between selections on Thursday and Friday, while more than 20 Nashville-based acts will perform over the three days.

“We have immersed the Draft in music: all genres, all day,” says Spyridon. “We have all-original talent singing original songs across all genres. It’s just a completely different look, sound and feel than in the past.”

In addition to the concert series, Downtown Nashville’s Lower Broadway and the area outside Nissan Stadium will host free public activities, including autograph signings with current and former NFL players, interactive games, photo with the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and an NFL Shop with exclusive NFL merchandise.

“It’s in a much more urban entertainment footprint [than before],” says Spyridon. “We’ve dropped this Draft in the heart of downtown and our entertainment district. There will be bars and restaurants open, the neon will be flashing, and it’s surrounded by retail.”

Around 300,000 fans (including local residents) are expected to attend, compared to the estimated 250,000 people who attended the Draft in Philadelphia in 2017 and 200,000 who went to Chicago in 2015. It is “without question” the biggest event – sporting or otherwise – that Nashville has ever held, says Spyridon.

“We have 31,000 hotel rooms in the city and we will be at 80 per cent occupancy when we’re done, with an average of two-and-a-half people per room. So we think 40,000-50,000 visitors will come from out of town,” he adds.

The 2018 NFL Draft at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (Getty Images)

These visitors will largely arrive from nearby NFL markets Atlanta, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and New Orleans, with a number of fans of college teams in the South also expected. “We’ve done specific marketing in the close-drive markets and the NFL has done a great job across their marketing platforms. So we feel good about the fanbases that are in the vicinity,” says Spyridon.

The NCVC will look to collect information about the new visitors via the NFL’s Fan Mobile Pass app and by collecting surveys in order “to get a better idea of visitor spend, who came and from where”.

The final day of the Draft will coincide with the St. Jude Rock ’n’ Roll Nashville Marathon, in which about 30,000 runners participate. “It was intentional to put the marathon and the Draft together,” says Spyridon. “Saturday is typically the slowest day for the Draft and we thought that we could dump fresh bodies into the Draft event and enhance the marathon experience.

“The marathon usually has a post-race concert, it’s usually a good but not great event. We’ve replaced that concert with a Draft concert. Dierks Bentley will headline Saturday night, he’s a bigger name, is on a bigger stage and it didn’t cost them anything. In my mind, it’s added attendance to the Draft, elevated the marathon and saved them some money.”

The NCVC is responsible for organising the NFL Draft Experience, which comprises the events outside of the Draft itself. Costs include food and beverage stands, security, parking and booking all the musical talent. About 110 people have worked full-time on the Draft – including an organising committee plus the entire NCVC staff – with assistance from the Nashville Sports Council, the Titans, local police department and Mayor’s office. About 2,000 volunteers have been brought in as well.

The Draft will cost between $15m and $20m in total, according to Spyridon, with the NFL paying the lion’s share. “We provide the venues and security and the NFL produces the event and pays for the stage, the sound, the Fan Experience…”

The NCVC has raised just over $3m from the private sector and a city event marketing fund to help cover its costs, with the Titans also contributing, but does not expect to make any money from the event. However, with a potential total TV audience of 40 million expected to watch the Draft, which will be covered by three TV networks, Spyridon believes it is a worthwhile investment.

“We will not make money. On the line item in the budget it is a loss but it is a planned marketing expense,” he says. “I think if the city doesn’t generate $80m in direct visitor spending, we’ve done something wrong, so I think it’s that strong of a pay-off.

“When we bid we weren’t going to have prime-time network coverage, now we have three networks, including ABC, broadcasting this event on Thursday and Friday nights and I can’t buy that. That’s why it’s a marketing expense and not a loss. It’s new money for the city and that’s our mission – to drive revenue for the city from outside sources.”

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