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THE NFL / 1996

Nashville Joins Major Leagues With a Big 'Yes' Vote on Oilers

Pro football: Mayor convinced electorate that getting an NFL team would be grand thing.

September 01, 1996|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NASHVILLE — The commercial focused on Elaine Goetz, a 75-year-old white-haired kindly woman standing in her kitchen mixing the batter for a chocolate cake. Whom did you expect? Houston Oiler owner Bud Adams? Quarterbacks Steve McNair and Chris Chandler?

"Hi, I'm Elaine Goetz and I'm retired, but I stay busy," she said before making her way to the antique chair in her comfortable living room. "I'm not a sports fan, but I am going to vote 'yes' on May 7. My vote is a lot more than about football. I'm voting yes for Nashville's future, my future."

It was a campaign masterpiece: Nashville addressing Nashville and to hell with the million dollar athletes or rip-off owners. Bring it to the people, call it "Yes For Nashville," blanket neighborhood lawns with 30,000 signs, send out 250,000 pieces of mail, telephone 350,000 homes and don't let a car pass without a bumper sticker.

"People who never voted for anything came out to vote on this," said Dave Cooley, organizer of "Yes for Nashville."

The "No" leaders had gathered 45,000 signatures in only 20 days to force the referendum and potentially scuttle a signed deal with the Oilers to move to Nashville. Early polling figures indicated that "No" would prevail.

But the people of Nashville turned out in presidential-vote-like numbers, and the answer was a resounding "Yes." It passed 59% to 41%, allowing an $80-million general bond issue obligation as part of a $292-million package to provide for a new stadium and relocation costs for the Oilers.

"I've never been to a professional football game and probably never will," says Goetz, who was brought in to solicit the vote from skeptical women and the elderly. "But we would have been ridiculous to turn it down.

"Cities that have pro sports seem to thrive, and everybody wants one. Here we had one knocking on our door, and it would have been absolutely stupid not to invite them in."

Nashville sent the limo stocked with champagne and caviar. And the little city with a population of 500,000 that couldn't--did. Who could have predicted: Nashville, the 33rd-largest TV market, will have professional football in a new 65-000-seat stadium in 1998 on the bank of the Cumberland River, while Los Angeles, the No. 2 market, will watch its football on TV.

"Oh dear, no, I didn't know that," Goetz says. "There's no football team in Los Angeles? That is pretty incredible, but then you have other things."

Nashville, known best for the Grand Ole Opry and its billing as "Music City USA," racked up a football victory despite massive political differences, NFL objection, and initially minimal public support. It fought through contentious negotiations, and then after signing a 56-page relocation agreement with the Oilers, the city had to survive the referendum.

"You don't have to be a very good financial wizard to figure out that this does not pay out very well," said Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen, the driving force behind the bid for the Oilers. "These academic analysts who point out you can't justify a new stadium in economic terms, well, they're right.

"But there are so many intangible reasons, and in our case we were also able to totally renovate an eyesore on the other side of the river. Nashville will now be known more broadly now. We have been well-known for a city of our size because of our music, but this was a chance to round out that image."

Construction of a new football stadium on ground used in the past to build barges will begin when Congress adjourns, thereby killing the Hoke bill. The legislation calls for cities that lose NFL franchises to get expansion teams within four years if they meet certain requirements. When NFL owners approved the Oilers' move to Nashville they added a provision that the Hoke bill had to be killed.

In the meantime, Nashville must watch the Oilers from afar. The Oilers have two years remaining on their Astrodome lease, and because they did not win permission to buy out their lease, they must play on with the anticipation of being greeted by small, hostile crowds.

"I know what people are thinking: Lord, what is Nashville doing with a football team'?" said Rick Regen, an insurance salesman, who co-chaired the "Yes For Nashville" campaign. "Without the mayor the deal doesn't get put together. He's an outstanding businessman with great vision, and he will tell you he's never gone to an NFL game and doesn't watch them on TV."

Bredesen, who convinced voters to support the building of a new arena with $120 million in public money despite being spurned by the Minnesota Timberwolves and the New Jersey Devils, initially entered into secret negotiations with the Oilers. The talks, which were given the code name "Operation Cherokee," because of a part of Adams' ancestry, were successful in a large part because Bredesen insisted on receiving exclusive negotiating rights with the Oilers--even to the exclusion of Houston.

Bredesen also sold the state on the idea that this would be Tennessee's professional football team in order to gain $79.3 million in support. To do so he had to strike an alliance with Gov. Don Sundquist, a short time after the two men had gone through a nasty $20-million gubernatorial campaign.

A total of 49 businesses must be moved to make room for the stadium and parking lots. More than $71 million will come from the sale of personal seat licenses, and no one's complaining.

"I couldn't begin to tell you who the Oilers are playing this week," Bredesen said. "I'm working on our library system now."

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