If Nashville wants to host World Cup 2026 games, it needs to start acting like it | Estes – Tennessean
Among college football coaches, a recruiting maxim will always hold true:
Just get him on campus.
If a coach can manage to convince a coveted prospect to visit his school, that coach knows he has a shot.
For Nashville tourism boss Butch Spyridon, it’s a fair analogy for the coming weeks.
In addition to 16 other U.S. cities, Nashville is bidding to host games during soccer’s 2026 World Cup in North America, and FIFA officials are set to visit Nashville on Sept. 16. That’s only 11 days after Nissan Stadium will host Sunday’s World Cup qualifier between the United States men’s national team and Canada.
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If Nashville’s World Cup bid is to be successful, these two dates must go well.
Because I’ll let you in on something I’m sensing: Nashville isn’t winning this race.
It has ground to make up, and it’s not just me saying so. That’s according to at least one high-ranking official in North American soccer I’ve spoken with about the process. At this point, most media projections of 2026 host sites (it’s expected to be 11 cities in the U.S. in addition to three in Mexico and two in Canada) don’t have Nashville making the cut.
Even Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp., would tell you that his group has been playing from behind with FIFA.
“Our very first presentation,” Spyridon said, “we started out with, ‘We know we’re in last place, and we’re going to earn your confidence and we’re going to earn your respect.’ And we still feel that way.”
Nashville was always going to be an underdog because of its market size in comparison to other competing cities like New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston.
This is far from a lost cause, though. Nashville can catch up. It’s just that if our city wants to host World Cup games in 2026, it’s time to start showing it.
Beginning with Sunday’s World Cup qualifier at Nissan Stadium.
“The fact that, by most experts, we’re a longshot to get a (2026 World Cup) game, to have this opportunity presented to us says we’re not out of the hunt,” Spyridon said. “… I don’t want to go so far as to say it’s a make or break, but it’s certainly a make. We have to show well.”
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If you haven’t heard much so far about Nashville’s World Cup efforts, it’s not you.
There simply hasn’t been much buzz or excitement, certainly not when compared to other bidding cities who’ve held events and created social media accounts and slick websites to bolster their pitches.
Los Angeles formed a “World Cup Host Committee” co-chaired by leaders from Major League Soccer’s LAFC and the LA Galaxy. Houston’s committee is led by Chris Canetti, a soccer executive who was president of the MLS’ Houston Dynamo.
Four big-league CEOs are co-chairing Cincinnati’s bid. Apparel company Under Armour has partnered with Baltimore’s bid.
The honorary chairperson for San Francisco’s bid is Condoleezza Rice. Philadelphia’s bid has U.S. women’s soccer stars Carli Lloyd and Julie Ertz as honorary co-chairs, along with the mayor and governor. Kansas City’s honorary bid captains include the NFL’s biggest star in quarterback Patrick Mahomes and MLB player Salvador Perez.
And Nashville? Our booming, glitzy city, full of money and stars of music and sports, has no one prominent serving as the face of its committee’s efforts?
Actually, Nashville doesn’t technically have a bid committee.
As one North American soccer official put it to me, he didn’t even know who was in charge of Nashville’s bid.
This isn’t Spyridon fault, mind you. Quite the opposite, he’s the one who has been working to keep the bid afloat during a draining COVID-19 era in which his operation “went from a balance beam to tightrope with budgets, staff and time,” he said.
Spyridon might be good enough to pull this off anyway. I can’t doubt him. He’s done it before. He has earned his reputation as a magician when it comes to eye-opening events. Spyridon’s efforts drove Nashville’s wildly successful 2019 NFL Draft, for instance.
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“There are not many cities that do this sort of event better than Nashville,” said Tennessee Titans president Burke Nihill, who has been representing Nissan Stadium in discussions with FIFA.
Spyridon knows how to work behind the scenes. A lot of times you won’t see the strings.
He said he has hired John Siner, a consultant experienced in soccer circles. He is keeping in close communication with US Soccer, which has long been a friend of Nashville’s and is serving as an ally with FIFA.
“FIFA is looking at the intricate details,” Spyridon said. “Yeah, they want to know you want it and you can build community support or awareness. But more important is those technical details. … We’ve been focused on that. I wish we could do it all, but you also have to take into account – and this is us – what the last year and a half has been like. We’ve been a little distracted, and yet there comes to a point where you have to prioritize with limited dollars and limited manpower what you can do.”
Landing a World Cup, too, is a complicated ordeal. Spyridon called it “the most challenging and maybe thorough process of hoops we’ve ever had to jump through, and that’s saying a lot.” That’s a major lift with limited resources.
So I’ll say what Spyridon isn’t saying: He needs more assistance.
I’m talking to you Mayor John Cooper, Governor Bill Lee and local and state politicians. I’m talking to top business leaders in Middle Tennessee. I’m talking to Nashville’s star-studded entertainment industry.
I’m talking also to Nashville SC. Our MLS club has been supporting the World Cup bid but hasn’t been at the forefront of making it sing. Whereas the Titans – an NFL team – have “been involved from the very beginning,” said Nihill.
All of the above has the ability to get more involved and make a difference.
To help drive attendance to Sunday’s game.
To help knock off FIFA’s socks in person.
Nashville really could do that, too. A major advantage is the proximity of the stadium to Lower Broadway’s bars, hotels and restaurants. FIFA officials will love that. The Titans’ proposed renovation of Nissan Stadium is another nice card the city can play.
“If we had our perfect timeline on a stadium renovation. it would take a matter of years, but the initial comprehensive renovation would be completed before 2026,” said Nihill. “… Certainly, we believe that FIFA will be more attracted to a renovated Nissan Stadium than Nissan Stadium as it exists today.”
Nashville can make a compelling case.
We have the meats. We just need some more sizzle to help sell this steak to an international audience before it’s too late.
Reach Gentry Estes at [email protected] and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.