Basketball tournaments boost Nashville's economy, profile

11:13 AM, Feb 26, 2012   |    comments
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A basketball blitz is about to hit Nashville starting in three days, and Andrew Putman can't wait.

The Bailey's Pub & Grille manager expects sales to at least double starting Wednesday, when Nashville plays host to the first of four college basketball tournaments linked to that annual rite of hoops passage -- March Madness.

"It's huge business," said Putman, whose restaurant has been a purveyor of drinks and grub on Lower Broadway for a dozen years. "We're probably going to set our sales record for the month of March."

The madness begins Wednesday, when the Ohio Valley Conference men's and women's tournaments tip off at Municipal Auditorium. A Murray State alumni group already has reserved Bailey's entire second floor for much of the four-day tournament's run.

Almost simultaneously, the Southeastern Conference's women's tournament will start rolling on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena. Then the arena will host early-round NCAA men's games in mid-March when postseason play picks up steam.

Besides pumping at least $15 million into the local economy, the tournaments will further solidify Nashville's growing stature as a sports destination, outside experts say.

And Music City wants an even greater sports-related economic jolt. Local officials hope to land an NHL All-Star game, the NCAA "Frozen Four" hockey tournament and some Olympics trials, among other events, in coming years.

Hoops drives sales

"It's not unusual for a city to develop its sports reputation around a particular sport, and in Nashville's case that sport is basketball," said Timothy Schneider, publisher of SportsTravel magazine, which aims at the sports organizing industry.

The city has hosted 32 Ohio Valley Conference, SEC, and NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments or rounds since 2000. The SEC and NCAA events have generated $84.7 million in total direct spending, the Nashville Sports Council estimates. Economic impact data for the OVC tournaments were not available.

After this year's tournaments, Nashville will host at least a dozen additional events through 2019, including the NCAA Women's Final Four in 2014, landed with the Ohio Valley Conference as co-sponsor.

"I think we've found our sweet spot with college sports," said Scott Ramsey, president of the sports council, which attracts, stages and promotes major sporting events here. "This was our strategy five years ago: land high-profile events."

Nashville was among 17 cities seeking to host five women's Final Fours when bids were last taken by the NCAA, and one of only two first-timers picked to host a championship.

It was the first time Nashville had sought the event. The city previously did not meet the NCAA's 22,000-seat venue requirement but became eligible when that was lowered to 17,000, Ramsey said. Bridgestone Arena's seating capacity for basketball is about 18,000.

When the SEC sought bids for its 2015 men's basketball championship, it picked Nashville and threw in host credentials for the 2018 and 2019 tournaments, too, even though they weren't technically up for bid.

"The main reason is our fans, coaches and players like it there, and we've had a very good track record in Nashville," said Craig Mattox, an SEC assistant commissioner responsible for championships in football, baseball and men's basketball.

Come for the game, stay a little longer

"Nashville does have a very competitive product. People ... come into town to experience more than the sporting event, and (they) stay an extra day or two," said Schneider, the sports travel publisher.

Ramsey said that's frequently the case with the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, held in late December. The annual college football game generates $10 million to $22 million in direct spending, depending on the year and the teams.

"We're seeing two- or three-night stays for what really is a three-hour football game," Ramsey said, referring to out-of-town visitors.

But other lower-profile events also are important to Nashville's sports industry. The annual Country Music Marathon and Half Marathon held in April directly injects some $11 million to $13 million into the local economy. A girl's amateur softball tournament held each June brings in upwards of $1.5 million in direct spending.

Those smaller events' economic impacts probably go beyond those figures because they're typically turned into family vacations, with larger parties and longer stays, Schneider said. The sports council's economic impact figures include only direct spending related to an event.

Ramsey said the sports council wants to broaden its reach by expanding into new areas.

A 10-kilometer and 5-kilometer run in the fall is being considered. The council plans to bid for the NHL All-Star Game and NCAA hockey finals in 2015 and beyond. NCAA basketball tournament games from 2017 through 2021 will soon be up for grabs.

And Mattox said Nashville has expressed interest in holding the SEC's soccer and baseball tournaments, the latter especially if a new Nashville Sounds stadium gets built.

'Music City is not yet Sports City'

Despite its successes, Nashville has limitations and weaknesses that hinder its ability to go after even bigger events, officials and experts say.

It can't compete for a men's Final Four because the NCAA requires an enclosed venue that can seat at least 60,000 for basketball, Ramsey said. LP Field meets the seating criteria but is an open-air stadium.

Ramsey said the stadium also is an unlikely place for an NFL Super Bowl, even after a $28 million upgrade this year. A limited supply of hotel rooms compared with true Super Bowl cities remains a shortcoming.

"Music City is not yet Sports City," said John Vrooman, a Vanderbilt University sports economist. "There is a critical-mass necessary -- and we are well below that threshold."

Experts say Nashville has other weaknesses, primarily financial, that it must overcome to become a bigger player on a national sports stage.

A 2010 research report by the Vanderbilt Center for Nashville Studies said Nashville, unlike its peers, lacks a strong public-private partnership dedicated to supporting and sustaining sports.

The study cites fewer avenues for corporate financial support as a primary cause.

"The cost of hosting an event with very few corporate headquarters here, it has been challenging," Ramsey acknowledged.

Such limited financial resources also make landing a Major League Baseball or NBA team in Nashville extremely unlikely, Vrooman said. The Predators and Titans have pretty much tapped the region's luxury seating market, a vital source of revenue for a pro team's financial success.

The region has about 1 million TV households, well below the 1.5 million and 2 million levels considered a prerequisite to support at least three major league teams.

"A marginal third franchise would struggle in a two-team market like Music City," Vrooman said.

Ramsey agrees. That's why the sports council is focusing on doing a good job in hosting the college events it has on the books, including the upcoming slate of basketball tournaments, he said.

Many businesses, even those farther away from the hard court, expect to reap the benefits of this several weeks' run of hoops action.

Occupancy rates at the Nashville Marriott at Vanderbilt University will be 5 percentage points higher next month than a year earlier, projects Steve Sines, the general manager.

"This March is very busy at our hotel," Sines said.

"We have several large groups coming in, and with the sports events, it's going to be a really good month."

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