The Tennessean Fumbled Its Coverage of The Largest Taxpayer Handout to a Sports Team in History
The Tennessee Titans just received over $1.2 billion in taxpayer support for a brand-new stadium. The state’s largest newspaper was the deal’s biggest cheerleader.
This post originally appeared on The Scorecard.
Photo Credit: Kaldari
Nashville Mayor John Cooper and the Tennessee Titans negotiated a deal for a new $2.1 billion stadium behind closed doors and away from public scrutiny. The deal included $500 million from the state of Tennessee and $760 million in revenue bonds from the Nashville Sports Authority.
Economists overwhelmingly agree that subsidizing sports stadiums is bad economic policy that costs taxpayers more than any local economic benefits that might be created. Despite pushback from several Metro Council members and community organizations, the city rushed to approve “the largest taxpayer subsidy for an NFL stadium on record.”
Did The Tennessean, the state’s largest newspaper, conduct an in-depth investigation into how this deal was negotiated? Did it request public records to obtain communications between the mayor’s office and the Titans or ask hard-hitting questions to those involved? Did it actively reach out to independent experts and economists to provide their insights into how the deal was structured or whether the mayor’s claims about the cost to taxpayers was accurate?
Based on my comprehensive review of the coverage, it did none of those things.
As a private Nashville resident, I requested records pertaining to the stadium deal and was denied when the city raised “deliberative process privilege,” a legal maneuver that has been used and abused by the state and municipalities to avoid handing over certain records involving ongoing negotiations or policymaking. Unlike me, The Tennessean has the resources to legally challenge the Metro government.
My review found that not only did the paper fail in its duty to properly scrutinize the deal or act as the public’s watchdog, it also frequently parroted talking points from both the Titans and the mayor’s office while often ignoring (or even responding with hostility to) criticism. In doing so, The Tennessean violated basic principles of balanced journalism as well as its own ethical guidelines.
The Tennessean follows the USA Today Network Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms, which includes commitments like:
We will be honest in the way we gather, report and present news - with relevancy, persistence, context, thoroughness, balance, and fairness in mind.
We will be vigilant watchdogs of government and institutions that affect the public, fighting to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in public.
We will strive to include all sides relevant to a story . . . We also will share attempts to reach sources who add value to the story.
We will not blur the line between advertising and editorial content. We will provide appropriate disclosures, exercise transparency and avoid actual or implicit commercial endorsements by our journalists. [Emphasis mine]
Throughout its coverage, The Tennessean violated each of these ethical guidelines. It published over 65 articles from December 2020 until the council voted to approve the deal at the end of April 2023. Most of those pieces ignored or downplayed critics who raised concerns about the stadium proposal while also carrying water for the mayor’s office and the Titans.
Council Member At-Large Bob Mendes, who served as chair of the East Bank Stadium committee, was one of the most prominent and vocal opponents of the stadium. Quotes or statements from Mendes that were critical of the deal only appeared in nine out of 65+ articles. From my analysis of the coverage, I could not discern whether his quotes were things he said directly to the paper or if those articles were merely reporting on statements he gave at council meetings or from a 10-page memo he posted about the deal.
In only four instances did The Tennessean include the perspectives of economists on the impact of public stadium subsidies. When the Sycamore Institute released a report on stadium subsidies in Tennessee, the paper included one line about its key findings that stadiums don’t produce promised economic benefits. The article then immediately assured readers that stadium subsidies “can sometimes make sense due to social and cultural benefits.”
Multiple articles read like promotional press releases from the Titans or the mayor’s office, with glowing headlines promoting the benefits of the stadium and its central role in the administration’s plan for overhauling the East Bank:
“Titans: $2.2B new NFL stadium a better value for Nashville than Nissan Stadium renovations” by Sandy Mazza and Cassandra Stephenson, May 19, 2022
“How the new Nashville stadium plan is a centerpiece for Nashville's imagined future” by Sandy Mazza, June 22, 2022
“Sweeping vision for East Bank would push Nashville 'up the ranks of great cities,' Mayor Cooper says” by Sandy Mazza, August 22, 2022
Nashville's lofty 'Imagine East Bank' vision awaits Nissan Stadium decision” by Sandy Mazza and Cassandra Stephenson, August 28, 2022
Once the details of the deal emerged, the paper touted the “perks” of the new stadium and the potential for all the events that could be hosted there:
The Tennessean also devoted entire articles to how noteworthy individuals and organizations supported the stadium, including Garth Brooks and (unsurprisingly) the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce (Titans President and CEO Burke Nihill sits on the chamber’s board of directors).
To regular observers of how stadium deals like this are covered in the press, this was hardly surprising. Articles about new, flashy stadium renderings tend to attract readers and clicks while providing quick and easy content for reporters. Additionally, the cozy relationship between corporate media and chamber of commerce/business groups tends to slant the reporting in favor of taxpayer support of stadium proposals while omitting widely accepted criticisms of such deals. Temple University Professor Kevin J. Delaney and Villanova University Professor Rick Eckstein reviewed such coverage in their book Public Dollars, Private Stadiums: The Battle over Building Sports Stadiums, finding:
For the most part, local newspapers, television, and radio were editorial sycophants for proponents of new publicly subsidized stadiums and ridiculed opponents as shortsighted and selfish. This is not surprising: local media are increasingly owned and controlled by corporate conglomerates that are often part of the power structure in each city and usually agree with the definition of growth outlined by the local growth coalition.
The Hype Begins
Let’s back up a bit to before the idea of a new stadium was floated by the mayor’s office and the Titans. In December 2020, the Tennessean reported that the Titans and the city were in talks to renovate Nissan Stadium, relying on estimates that it would cost between $300 to $400 million to update the facility. In fact, Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk told the paper, “There’s never been a conversation with the city about a new building."
Meanwhile, the publication highlighted the argument that a dome was “a key feature for luring” a Super Bowl to the city. In a July 2021 article titled “Nissan Stadium overhaul could still include a roof to make it Super Bowl-ready but questions remain,” reporter Sandy Mazza writes: “Hopes are high that the extensive remodeling will include a roof to make the stadium Super Bowl-ready.”
A few months later, The Tennessean begins reporting that the Titans renovation estimates increased to $600 million. In February 2022, the negotiations for a renovated stadium are “put on pause” after a new Titans estimate found that upgrades could cost closer to $1.2 billion. The paper then reports, “With such hefty costs to overhaul the stadium, Titans and Metro officials agree that building a new facility is likely the best option.”
A Lack of Context, Thoroughness, Balance, and Fairness
In October 2022, as soon as Mayor Cooper and the Titans confirmed that a new stadium would be the plan, the paper goes into full hype mode. As I mention above, headlines mention the “perks” of the stadium like “in-seat meal delivery” and the possibility of hosting events like the College Football National Championship or WrestleMania.
In an op-ed for the publication, Mayor Cooper claims that the new stadium will “not be a taxpayer burden.” Of course, that’s not true. As Kennesaw State University economist J.C. Bradbury, an expert on the impact of stadium subsidies, points out, taxes paid in the stadium district essentially go to repay stadium bonds rather than to the city’s general fund, meaning that “lost revenue will have to be made up by Nashville taxpayers.” In other words, residents or visitors who would otherwise spend money in other parts of the city and pay taxes that would normally go to the general fund will instead pay for the stadium when they attend events there.
Why didn’t Tennessean reporters seek an independent analysis of the mayor’s narrative that this deal would create no cost to taxpayers? In fact, those claims go unchallenged repeatedly in multiple articles.
Advocates for building a new facility also argued that the current lease for Nissan Stadium required Metro to upgrade the current stadium to “first-class” conditions on par with “comparable facilities,” which would cost the city hundreds of millions, if not billions, through the life of the lease. A 2017 study conducted by Venue Solutions Group (VSG) found that Nissan stadium renovations would cost nearly $300 million.
In November 2022, the mayor’s office hired VSG to conduct a new study, which backed up previous claims by Titans consultants that renovating the existing stadium would cost the city nearly $1.9 billion. But that report did not actually evaluate Metro’s obligations under the current lease. Instead, as Jon Styf at The Center Square reported, VSG’s report was based on a 78-page conceptual design package provided by the Titans, which included all of the features the team wanted in renovations, not what the city was obligated to pay for.
Despite efforts by some Council members to conduct an independent analysis of the city’s legal and financial obligations, that never happened. Regardless, proponents continued to push the argument that building a new stadium would be a better deal for the city than upgrading Nissan.
To The Tennessean’s credit, a November 4, 2022 article by reporter Cassandra Stephenson actually mentions growing skepticism about the renovation estimates offered by VSG, correctly stating that it was a review of a renovation plan “proposed by the Tennessee Titans” while noting how the report does not show “what Nashville is obligated to pay under the city’s current agreement with the team.” Still, the article only includes one critical source: a quote from Council Member Sean Parker about how “the renovation design reviewed in the group's report includes work that Metro is ‘not on the hook for.’”
In a November 8 article, Stephenson reports on further criticism coming from Council members about the lack of an answer to the question: what are Metro’s actual obligations under the current lease? This was perhaps the most critical article about the deal.
On November 10, an article by Sandy Mazza outlines “what you should know” about the stadium deal, omitting several crucial points that were highlighted by Stephenson in previous reporting. For instance, she writes that, if the stadium is voted down, “Metro officials will have to develop a financing plan for an estimated $1.75 billion to $1.95 billion in upgrades and maintenance at Nissan Stadium through the current lease term.” But of course, that is an unproven claim since there had never been an independent analysis of the city’s actual lease obligations. She also extensively quotes Titans President Burke Nihill about why it will cost billions to meet current industry standards for stadiums. Again, not one critical source is quoted in the piece.
The reporting also contains numerous factual errors. In one article, Sandy Mazza claims that the lease agreement for Nissan stadium requires the city “to maintain a ‘first-class state-of-the-art’ NFL facility through 2038.” When Bradbury pointed out to Mazza that the lease doesn’t say “state-of-the-art,” she responded that “state-of-the-art” was her “paraphrase of the lease terms.” The online version of the article was then stealth edited to remove that phrasing without appending a correction note, yet the phrase still appeared in print the next day.
Another article by Mazza responds to reader questions, including a question from me that asked, “Why can't the Titans build a new stadium without taxpayer money?” Mazza responded that “The Tennessee Titans would shoulder the largest piece of the pie, paying as much as $1 billion.” Nowhere had it been reported that the Titans were going to contribute $1 billion, and in fact, an article that appeared in the paper the next day reported that at least $700 million would be contributed from private sources. Final estimates put private financing from the team and the NFL at $840 million.
Getting The Deal Over the Finish Line
In a February 20, 2023 article, Mazza reports on a 10-page memo released by Council member Bob Mendes, chair of Metro Council’s East Bank Stadium Committee, outlining his opposition to the stadium deal. After highlighting a few of Mendes’ points, Mazza attempts to undercut his arguments by inserting baseless speculation from supporters of the deal: that Mendes’ opposition to the deal stems from “a purely political play in his bid to win the mayor’s seat.” Except, on that very same day, Mendes announced that he was not running for mayor, yet that accusation remains in the article. Mazza continues to downplay his arguments:
Two professional venue-assessment reports estimated that maintaining Nissan Stadium will cost taxpayers nearly $2 billion through 2039.
But Mendes insists, without explanation, that it would only cost $500 million for renovation.
Notice the framing: the renovation estimates were “professional,” but Mendes’ estimates were provided “without explanation.”
Then, on March 22, 2023, Mazza publishes a piece that asks, “Are the Tennessee Titans getting a sweetheart stadium deal?” Finally! It appeared as though the paper was going to take a serious look at the economic costs of stadium subsidies and other criticisms of this proposal. Instead, Mazza writes:
The deal promises to deliver a central downtown global destination in one of the nation's fastest-growing cities. With a multibillion-dollar asset under its control, Nashville can look forward to an exciting new era of growth and development, deal-making officials said.
The article contains no quotes from any expert who could have weighed in on whether the new stadium would actually create a “new era of growth and development.” The entire piece is a defense of the deal. Mazza frames the plan as “an alternative to litigation” that will “erase Metro’s debt” and “encourage redevelopment” of the East Bank.
Things heated up leading up to the final vote. On April 15, 2023, an article from Sandy Mazza begins with the lede, “The final vote on a $2.1 billion NFL stadium proposal is expected to come from Metro Council on April 25, following a last-minute delay to dispute the extent of the deal's community benefits,” which links to Mazza’s March 22 article that defends the deal.
In a Tweet, Metro Council Member Angie Henderson argues that Mazza’s article contains inaccurate framing and calls on The Tennessean to “meet the moment, provide independent legal & fiscal analysis.” Mazza responds to Henderson with a Tweet that says, “Bless your heart.” Henderson asks what Mazza means, saying she is “genuinely asking for some more critical analysis of this deal—it’s content, framing/marketing & process—on your & the Tennessean’s part.” Mazza then claims that Henderson was “trolling” and “disingenuous” and then says that she will call her for follow up.
Henderson provided phone records showing that Mazza did call her but ended up leaving a voicemail because Henderson was tied up in another meeting. When Henderson tried to schedule another time to talk, Mazza never replied. When I asked her about the incident, Henderson told me she also believed the coverage was lacking, saying, “[t]he paper of record should have done better and tried to peel the onion of such a complex and consequential deal and its dominant (and often inaccurate) narratives.”
Mazza’s April 15th article also claims, “The new stadium and surrounding East Bank development could bring in at least $1 billion in tax revenue to Nashville's general fund over the next few decades.” She provides no source or citation for this estimate, especially considering that millions in tax revenue from the development will need to go toward the Titans.
Of course, it is unreasonable to expect that every article about the stadium would include detailed point by point refutations of the narratives coming from the mayor’s office or the Titans. But time and again, those claims are presented without including any of the numerous, credible sources who challenge them.
As I mention above, The Tennessean included perspectives from independent experts on the deal only four times throughout its coverage. An article on April 23, 2022 says that “some academic research efforts aimed at quantifying the true economic impact a stadium has on a community have struggled to find adequate data” and cites a report which finds that “economic-impact projections of stadiums and arenas are often bloated.”
On November 17, 2022, J.C. Bradbury gave a presentation to Metro Council on the issues with the stadium deal. The Tennessean mentions his presentation in one paragraph in an article posted on November 22, 2022. It also cites Bradbury’s presentation in another article published just days before the final Metro Council vote.
There were plenty of other experts who could have provided similar analysis. Only after the stadium deal passed did the paper think it was pertinent to mention that:
Economists have rejected the idea that stadiums bring "new revenue" to surrounding neighborhoods, and dissenting members of Metro Council have questioned the validity of Nissan Stadium renovation cost assertions made by the Titans and Cooper's administration.
The new Titans stadium has been approved, but with negotiations looming over a new NASCAR speedway at the Fairgrounds and the possibility of an MLB expansion franchise coming to Nashville, the state’s largest newspaper should re-evaluate how it covers taxpayer-subsidized sports facility deals. Reporters should strive to live up to their own ethical guidelines to act as the public’s watchdog, question official statements and estimates, and seek out independent experts to provide financial and legal analysis on the merits of these types of deals.
Next time, I hope The Tennessean lives up to its own standards.
Justin Hayes is a communications professional and a resident of Nashville, TN.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.