Exclusive: Knox Pro Soccer club would play home games at planned Smokies baseball stadium

Tyler Whetstone
Knoxville News Sentinel

The owners of the new professional soccer club coming to Knoxville tell Knox News they will play home games at the Smokies baseball stadium proposed for the Old City if the facility is approved.

The agreement is contingent on the stadium's approval from the Knoxville City Council and Knox County Commission, of course, and the facility won't open until 2023 at the earliest — a year after the soccer club debuts.

The group has had conversations with the University of Tennessee to use Regal Soccer Stadium, home to Lady Vols’ soccer team, though no deal has been reached. Co-owner Drew McKenna has previously said UT has been supportive of the ownership group bringing a team to Knoxville. The Knoxville Force, the city’s former semi-professional club, originally played its games there. 

Renderings of a possible Tennessee Smokies Double A baseball park in Knoxville's Old City with downtown Knoxville in the background.

Randy Boyd, who owns the Tennessee Smokies and is the UT System president, has billed the proposed stadium complex as a multisport, mixed-use facility, though what that would look like has not been announced until now.

“The design of the stadium allows for other sports, such as soccer, and multiple other community events that can fill the seats throughout the year,” Boyd said. “We look forward to meeting with the local United Soccer League group to discuss any possibilities going forward.”

Knox News originally reported that the still unnamed soccer club will be part of the United Soccer League’s League Two, an advanced-skills developmental league mainly for elite high school and college-aged players who are on a professional track.

Some 70% of all MLS SuperDraft picks since 2010 have League Two experience.

Knoxville’s club hopes to expand to the fully professional League One.

Drew McKenna holds a scarf in downtown Knoxville, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. McKenna along with four others, has purchased rights for a new professional soccer club in Knoxville.

It's common for baseball and soccer clubs to share a stadium. The Memphis Redbirds and the 901 FC both play in AutoZone Park in downtown Memphis. Until recently, the Louisville Bats and Louisville City FC also shared a stadium. Those agreements were in stadiums designed purely for baseball, though, and Boyd has proposed a stadium that is more accommodating to both.

“There are baseball stadiums where soccer and football happen,” McKenna said. “And then there are multi-use stadiums that actually are built for both. The plans for this stadium definitely fall in the latter category.”

By size and makeup, Knoxville is a League One market, which typically includes metro areas with 250,000 to 1 million people, but the club will begin as part of League Two, the right place to start to build something that can grow organically, organizers said.

From left, Mark McComas, Nadim Jubran, Drew McKenna, Kevin O’Brien, and Scott Buchanan, pose for a photo in downtown Knoxville, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. The five have purchased rights for a new professional soccer club in Knoxville.

USL’s League Two is developmental, meaning the players will not be paid. They can be elite high school players or college players on summer break. That’s not a knock on the talent — like any developmental league, this is the first step for many who make it to the highest professional levels. It allows rising stars to maintain college eligibility.

The expectation for advancement applies to the club as well as the players. The owners plan for the club to eventually end up in League One, which is more advanced and has paid players.

“There is not an existing facility in Knoxville that can house the fan base we expect to foster,” he said. “We have high aspirations for the type of support we can engender and the attendance numbers we can generate. We want that excitement to stay in downtown Knoxville. This stadium uniquely offers that opportunity.”

Project details and updates

The proposed ballpark has not come before either the city council or county commission, though the bodies have had public meetings about the project and members generally appear accepting of the idea.

As proposed, the ballpark would be the centerpiece of a massive development project in the Old City proposed by Boyd. He has said he could bring $142 million of private money to build 630,000 square feet of restaurants, retail shops and residences around the stadium if Knoxville, Knox County or both together pay $52 million to $65 million for a publicly owned stadium.

Renderings of a possible Tennessee Smokies Double A baseball park in Knoxville's Old City.

The project has the full support of both mayors, but it isn’t a sure thing. Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs is expected to talk about the possibility of the soccer club playing it's home games at the stadium during his budget address Tuesday.

Both the city and county have approved a Sports Authority and Jacobs and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon recently named the members of the committee who will run the authority. The Sports Authority will funnel state sales tax generated by the facility back to the city and county to pay off debt to construct the stadium.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee provided an assist for the project last month when he included a $13.5 million state grant to avoid having to expand the sales tax district that will collect money to pay back construction debt. The plans to expand the district caused friction in the General Assembly, but a compromise was reached to provide the grant and keep the size of the sales tax district limited.

The state's portion of sales taxes generated by the stadium on items like tickets, concessions and merchandise will flow to the Sports Authority, which will be charged with paying off the project's debt.

If, for whatever reason, the city or county fail to pass a financing plan later this year and the deal falls through, Boyd has said he would just build something else on the property, which he purchased for $6 million in 2016.

Quick primer on professional soccer in the U.S.:

  • Major League Soccer: Elite professional talent, metros like Nashville. This is America's best league.
  • USL Championship: Advanced and rising elite professional talent, major to mid-major cities like Phoenix, Charlotte and Memphis
  • USL League One: Rising advanced and elite professional talent, smaller cities like Chattanooga and Greenville, South Carolina.
  • USL League Two: Stepping-stone for rising advanced and elite talent, developmental league with unpaid players so they can maintain college eligibility. Mostly in small cities like Des Moines, Iowa, or Albuquerque, New Mexico, or a secondary club in a larger city like New York or Chicago. Knoxville’s club will start here with the expectation that it will eventually move to USL League One.