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EXECUTIVES & ENTREPRENEURS

Nashville SC: Building the Beautiful Game in Music City

In under 10 years, Nashville SC has gone from an amateur club to an MLS franchise with a 30,000 seat stadium. Here’s how they did it.

In 2013, Nashville had no real soccer team or presence to speak of. Nine years later, this May, Major League Soccer’s Nashville SC opened Geodis Park. The 30,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium is the largest such venue in the United States and Canada.

Boardroom trekked down to the Music City last month to check out Nashville’s nationally-televised match against Sporting Kansas City and spoke with three people who played massive roles in the team’s growth into a burgeoning professional juggernaut that was penalty kicks away from an Eastern Conference Finals appearance in 2021 — just its second MLS season.

A former Middle Tennessee State football player named Chris Jones, now the team’s senior director of fan engagement and entertainment, decided to scour social media and go to different parts of the community. He found a soccer-less void and put together a local team. Starting out with VistaPrint t-shirts as jerseys. Jones helped pull together a non-profit board and created Nashville FC in NPSL. Jones was able to secure Vanderbilt University’s lacrosse field as their home pitch for the club’s first game in May 2014 against the Atlanta Silverbacks’ reserve team.

“We thought [if] we could get a couple hundred people to show up, great,” Jones told Boardroom. “We can pay the bills and survive to next week.”

Nearly 2,000 fans showed up, overflowing from the seats and standing around the venue, Jones said, and he started to believe that he had the makings of something special.

Growing soccer in Nashville with this team’s community and fan base took on a different meaning when Jones had to help switch the club’s business model from being a nonprofit to a professional outfit. He found a local healthcare executive named David Dill, who believed in taking this club pro and gave Jones a job so he could quit his job in banking. Jones flew down to Tampa and helped get a USL team in 2016, and current head coach Gary Smith was hired as coach and technical director in April 2017.

“The transition from what we were able to do and the audience we had at the amateur ranks to USL to now is incredible,” Jones said.

John Ingram, Nashville SC’s current majority stakeholder, bought a majority stake in Dill’s DMD Soccer group in May 2017 with the goal of being awarded an MLS franchise. Jones remained the club’s senior director of fan engagement, and Mike Jacobs was hired as general manager that September. Nashville was awarded an MLS franchise on Dec. 20, 2017, to begin play in 2020 — an unthinkable rise for a city that barely had an organized official presence four years prior. To cap things off, former Liverpool board director Ian Ayre joined the club as CEO in May 2018 as the team started the first of two seasons in USL.

Within days of Ayre joining the club, the team was in court fighting for approval for a $275 million stadium at the city’s fairgrounds. But he was hired to oversee the eventual club rollout in MLS and had zero obligation to retain Smith, Jones, or anyone from the USL outfit. The best thing Ayre did in his four years with the team to date was working really hard to understand what was and is important in Nashville.

“And what’s important in Nashville is that you’re relevant,” he told Boardroom. “That you’re a good part of the community, and you’re not flash or bling. That’s not Nashville. Nashville’s very understated, laid back. We needed to be that as a brand and for the values we created for the club.”

An important decision was made by Ayre and the team to keep the Nashville SC name and its blue and gold color scheme the team had when Jones helped found it in 2013.

“If we’re gonna really believe in these values we created about being part of the community and about being respectful and intent, I said [to John], you can’t tear up everything that everyone did before and say, ‘This is MLS, here we are,'” Ayre said. “That alone started getting people thinking, actually, these guys really listened.” 

That intent extended to announcing the MLS club’s expansion picks on Nov. 19, 2019, at a honky tonk on Broadway, where it seemed like all 5,000 USL season ticket holders were somehow packed in. Their club’s original kit reveal took place at the Wildhorse Saloon and carried over to Nashville SC’s opening MLS game on Feb. 29, 2020, in front of nearly 60,000 fans at Nissan Stadium.

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The idea for the team, Jacobs said, was to be a vital institution and entity in that city like Liverpool FC is to Liverpool. In building out the roster on the pitch, Jacobs set out to be uniquely Nashville as well. He took advice from David Poile, the Nashville Predators’ general manager since the club’s first year in 1997.

There was no hockey infrastructure in the city when then NHL started expanding all over the Sun Belt; no frozen ponds, no culture, no education, really. But there were a lot of people in Nashville who grew up playing or watching soccer, Jacobs said. Ayre and Ingram were very intentional in building and developing a connection with the local fanbase. Jacobs set out to build a team full of underappreciated players — a group of misfits that were reserves on other teams who never had the opportunity to shine.

They were players with chips on their shoulders. These were the people Jacobs looked for when building out clubs for both USL and MLS. Part of the team’s strategy, Ayre said, was building a team that’s hard to beat. Not every team tries to do that. Many try to be flashy, goal-scoring machines to create that excitement and buzz early on with big-name stars, but Ayre wanted solidity.

“We always laugh about nobody ever giving us a chance at anything, which we love,” Ayre said. “And when you get into your third season, like we are now, and you’ve only lost two, three home games since you started, people start to realize that Nashville’s not an easy place to play.”

When Ingram first told Ayre his plans to build a 30,000-seat stadium, Ayre wondered why he’d propose something so large. Other MLS venues top out at 20,000 — maybe 25,000 seats.

“He said ‘I’m doing this whole thing because I believe in soccer. I want to build for where it’s going, not where we are,'” Ayre recalled.

Over time, Jones helped two or three main supporters groups turn into many more by helping create The Backline Supporters Collective, uniting around common goals and fostering an environment to attract new fans. Now, there are groups representing many backgrounds and cultures, from The Assembly to La Brigada de Oro and The MixTape 615.

Ingram’s vision now rings prophetic. Ayre said the club has 23,000 season ticket holders, and he’s considering now “closing the door” on that membership number.

“Who would’ve thought that in Nashville?” Ayre said.

Geodis Park — built on a hill with wide, inviting concourses, music and entertainment blasting from every gate — is an inviting atmosphere that has signaled the club’s true arrival in Nashville.

“We were just those guys playing in the football stadium, right? Now, our infrastructure’s in place, and we’re real and we’re staying,” Ayre said. “And everybody in Nashville is here. Every community, color, faith, age, demographic, having a great time.”

On match day against Kansas City, a disappointing 2-1 loss, there were eight musical acts taking place outside the stadium before the game, including two acoustic acts. Every “National Anthem” is a performance, as is the halftime show. Right before kickoff, there’s a different local artist who plays a unique guitar riff to get things started off right.

 “Every single part of the stadium has a touchpoint of what makes Nashville, Nashville,” Jones said.

When Jacobs first stepped foot in Geodis Park, it was a feeling he had trouble putting into words.

“It’s one of those things we hoped and believed we could do, but you just don’t know because you’re relying on a lot of other factors,” he said. “The fact that this tidal wave of support came on, there’s a love affair with the city and the fans and our club.”

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