Previously established in Houston, Texas, as the Houston Oilers, the Tennessee Titans, the first National Football League (NFL) team to be based in Tennessee, secured a move to Nashville in 1996 after reaching an agreement with the city that included, among other things, the construction of a new sixty-five-thousand-seat stadium, later named Adelphia Coliseum. The contract, however, became a point of controversy in the city, reflecting contemporary nationwide debate over the relationship between professional sports and municipalities. Divided over the issue, Nashville put the question to public vote and ultimately approved the arrangement with the team.
Oilers executives first approached Nashville officials in July 1995 when the team was in the midst of conflict in Houston. Grasping the opportunity, Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen and Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist quickly signed an exclusive negotiating agreement with the Oilers. In mid-November, Nashville and the Houston Oilers entered a $292 million contract to bring the team to Tennessee.
The basic terms of the agreement required Nashville to construct a sixty-five-thousand-seat open-air stadium, which the Oilers were obligated to lease for home games for thirty years. Negotiators chose the east bank of the Cumberland River, an industrial area facing the downtown district, as the site for the new stadium. Building the facility required moving forty-nine businesses, rerouting railroad tracks and sewer and water lines, refurbishing bridges, and developing greenways along the riverbank. The project was funded in various ways. The sale of personal seat licenses (PSLs), a type of “lifetime season ticket,” brought in approximately $71 million, while the state contributed approximately $80 million. Nashville pays its portion through revenues gained via sales tax, hotel tax, and the Oilers’ lease payments. The two major sources of Nashville’s capital, however, are municipal bonds and an “in lieu of tax” charge levied on the local water department.
A number of Nashville citizens opposed the deal as a poor economic decision for the city. They questioned the use of public funds for private enterprise and argued that the city’s money was needed to back more important civic projects such as schools. Many feared higher water rates and property taxes. Others thought the team would not draw enough support and eventually millionaire-owner Bud Adams would pull the team out of Nashville, leaving the city in dire economic straits. Those favoring the deal claimed that the stadium and team would generate substantial economic growth, create numerous jobs, and bring much needed development to the east bank. In addition to enticing conventions, tourism, and corporate relocation to the city, the team would promote intangible benefits such as civic pride and an improved metropolitan image.
Project opponents formed the Concerned Citizens for Metro Nashville and in less than three weeks collected forty-five thousand signatures to force a referendum vote on the issue. The “Yes” team inundated the city with yard signs, bumper stickers, and television, radio, and newspaper ads and overshadowed the grassroots, and underfunded, “No” organization. On May 7, 1996, 42 percent of registered voters (125,897) voted 58.8 percent to 41.2 percent in favor of the agreement with the Oilers.
The city immediately began construction at the stadium site in anticipation of the team’s arrival. Still, a few glitches developed that caused a new wave of skepticism. In April 1997 the Oilers received a 64 percent rent reduction because they chose to locate their practice field off the stadium site. Even though this was a legitimate option stated in the contract, it annoyed many taxpayers and council members. After coming close to establishing their practice facility outside the Metropolitan Davidson County area, the team settled on an eighteen-acre site in the Nashville suburb of Bellevue.
Compounding public skepticism was the fact that the team chose to play its inaugural season as the Tennessee Oilers, not in Nashville, but Memphis, where they had low attendance and managed a mediocre record of 8 wins and 8 losses. In 1998 the Tennessee Oilers moved from Memphis and played their home schedule at Dudley Field at Vanderbilt University. Attendance improved dramatically, but the team again finished with an 8-8 record. That summer, owner Bud Adams announced that the team name would be changed to the Tennessee Titans and that new uniforms would be unveiled for the 1999 season.
Finally, for the 1999 season, the Tennessee Titans played all of their games at the newly completed Adelphia Coliseum. Although the team’s inaugural game against the Cincinnati Bengals proved to be a close one, the Titans won in the last minutes to the delight of a full and raucous crowd. Few would have guessed that it was the beginning of a special season in which the Titans would go undefeated at Adelphia, win their only home playoff game by a miraculous trick play (known locally as the Music City Miracle) that scored a touchdown with only seconds remaining, win the American Football Conference (AFC) championship, and play in the Super Bowl. Nashville went football crazy and gave the team a Broadway Avenue parade to celebrate the season.
For the 2000 season, the Tennessee Titans hoped to return to the Super Bowl. They won the AFC Central Division title and compiled the best overall record in the AFC. But they lost in the playoffs to rival Baltimore Ravens, the only team to defeat the Titans at Adelphia in the coliseum’s first two seasons, and did not earn a return trip to the Super Bowl.
The two successful seasons at Adelphia, however, did earn the Titans a devoted fan base in Nashville and throughout Middle Tennessee. Tickets for Titans games, which could hardly be given away in their first season as the Tennessee Oilers, are now the hottest commodity in the city. There is a growing waiting list for season tickets, and Nashville has embraced NFL football to a degree few expected back in 1996.