- Expansion team’s entry into Major League Soccer overshadowed by stand-off with city major
- Club will play at Nissan Stadium until 2022 while 30,000-seater venue is being constructed
- Stadium saga was “frustrating, unnecessary and very costly,” says chief executive Ian Ayre
After the city of Nashville was awarded a Major League Soccer expansion team in December 2017, to the surprise of many at the time, the Tennessee capital’s preparation plans have been anything but straightforward.
Earlier this month – and just a few weeks before Nashville Soccer Club was due to begin its inaugural season in the league – the entire $500m project appeared in complete jeopardy. MLS even indicated that it was prepared to terminate its agreement with club owners Nashville Soccer Holdings, which had paid a $150m expansion fee.
At the root of the problem was Nashville SC’s planned 30,500-seater stadium at The Fairgrounds Nashville in the city’s artistic Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood.
In November 2017, under the leadership of former Nashville mayor Megan Barry, a deal was reached to approve financing for a $275m stadium at the site following a 31-6 vote by Metro Nashville City Council. It was in large part the securing of this stadium deal – as well as the backing of billionaire businessman John Ingram, the lead owner, and the Wilf family, which owns the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings – that resulted in Nashville being awarded an MLS expansion slot just a month later, ahead of Cincinnati, Sacramento, and Detroit.
However, Barry’s resignation in March 2018, weeks after admitting an affair with the police officer who ran her security detail, unwittingly derailed Nashville SC’s preparations plans.
In September, 2019, John Cooper was elected mayor after defeating incumbent David Briley and one of his first acts was to halt demolition at The Fairgrounds Nashville site. Cooper decided to go back on the previously-approved deal, with the aim of saving the city money and reconfiguring the project’s design, specifically regarding the area between the stadium site and the motorsport racetrack Fairgrounds Speedway, which he is keen to transform into a Nascar venue.
For months, the construction process halted to a standstill as talks continued. Eventually matters came to a head on January 30 of this year, when MLS and Nashville SC issued an angry public statement designed to pile pressure on Cooper and get him to act quickly.
“During today’s meeting, MLS commissioner Don Garber made it clear to Mayor Cooper that Major League Soccer would not have awarded Nashville an expansion team without the commitment made by the city to build a soccer stadium at the Fairgrounds,” the statement said.
After two weeks of high tension, a revised deal was eventually struck on February 13, in which Ingram agreed pay up to $54m in additional costs. He had already agreed to pay all the overrun costs on the stadium, which is now estimated to cost $335m.
Considering all the preparations that Nashville SC has had to undertake to get ready for life in MLS, having played in the second tier United Soccer League Championship for the past two seasons, the four-month stadium delay was the last thing that club executives needed or wanted.
“I guess the word I would use to describe [the experience] is frustrating,” Nashville SC chief executive Ian Ayre tells SportBusiness. “We thought, with a very long to-do list to build a team and get going, that one was in the rear-view mirror way back in early 2018.
“Having a new mayor arrive – who I don’t think anybody in our organization believes that he shouldn’t have the right to try to re-open a discussion or have a good-faith discussion with anyone about anything – really shut us down in terms of progress on demolition and ultimate construction didn’t feel like the right way to go about having that conversation. But, in the end, our owner is a great guy and is very committed to this [project] and this city and decided to help…get us to the same position we were at before, which is moving forward,” Ayre says.
Uncertainty took its toll on Nashville SC staff
MLS commissioner Don Garber was clearly dismayed by the whole process. “We came to Nashville because we believed so much in this city and what this city represents. It was disappointing that it wasn’t the Nashville we knew,” Garber said at an event in Nashville in the immediate aftermath of the stadium deal being reached.
“Never dealt with anything like this before,” added Garber, who has led MLS for over 20 years, and over those two decades seen many an aborted stadium deal. “I look at this as an outlier…when commitments are made you expect for those commitments to be followed through so I don’t think that this is something that would happen again.”
Ayre, the former chief executive of Premier League giants Liverpool FC, says he was always cautiously optimistic that a deal was going to be reached but he was acutely aware that MLS’s threat to take the team away if a stadium solution could not be found was real.
“Whether not finding a way forward with this would have taken [the team] away or whether we would have had to move in an alternative direction, I don’t think any of us will ever know,” Ayre says. “But it was a very real issue and as such a very real concern and potential threat.”
The uncertainty, Ayre adds, took a huge toll on Nashville SC’s 150-strong staff, many of whom had moved to Nashville with their families to work at the club.
“It’s just human nature that it’s worrying: ‘Am I going to have a job? Am I going to be able to pay my mortgage? Am I going to be able to put my kids through school?’… whatever it is. It doesn’t matter if you work in soccer or any business when things start to circulate in the media both locally and nationally that cast doubt over anything that affects your business, it’s disruptive,” he says. “Fortunately we have good staff who are committed and we got through it together and we’re very excited about where we’re headed,” he says.
Looking to the long term, Ayre hopes that Nashville SC’s venue becomes one of the best soccer-specific stadiums in the United States. It is also hoped that the multi-purpose facility will also host college and international soccer games, as well as music concerts.
“We’ve already had discussions with the big [music] promoters who feel that a 30,000 outdoor venue with people on the field that there there is a big gap in the market for that type of venue in this town,” Ayre says. “Nissan Stadium is 60,000-70,000 capacity, Bridgestone Arena [the home of the NHL Nashville Predators] is an indoor arena and there are lots and lots of smaller venues. But there isn’t in that mid range and certain bands and certain acts fit well into that.”
Playing at Nissan Stadium for at least two years
Until the team’s stadium is built, Nashville SC will play at Nissan Stadium, primarily the home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. For now, this is scheduled for the 2020 and 2021 seasons, but this could extend into 2022 if construction is delayed.
“Over the next few weeks, we’ll understand what the implications of the four-month delay are,” Ayre says. “It’s possible we will have a delay as such that we’ll have to play on the road for a short period of time at the start of the 2022 season and then play our first home game at the new stadium, which has happened in MLS before. If it is longer then we will have to play some games at Nissan. It’s all possible and unknown at this point.”
Nashville SC played four USL games over the 2018 and 2019 seasons at Nissan Stadium to help prepare the players, fans, and front office for the temporary move.
“We obviously knew that that was the direction that we were headed in when we started our MLS team. Obviously fans transition from USL to MLS so we thought it was appropriate to go try it out and get used to being in that venue,” Ayre says. “It’s hard to take a USL team with relative support to a massive venue but it gave us a really good insight into what works and what is really challenging and how we bring someone else’s venue to life for us.”
Ayre says both Nashville SC and the Titans will share in match-day revenues for the team’s games at the venue. The MLS team will explore marketing to Titans fans as well if there is a significant crossover in demographics.
Ayre concedes that playing at the 69,000-capacity Nissan Stadium is not an ideal scenario for Nashville SC as there are likely to be a number of empty seats at games. The team averaged 6,999 fans per game at the 10,000-capacity First Tennessee Park last season while, according to The Athletic, the team had only sold around 5,000 MLS season tickets in December.
Nonetheless, the team’s home opener against local rivals Atlanta United on February 29 is poised to attract a 40,000-plus crowd.
“We are selling a lot of tickets every day, both season tickets and single-game tickets. Atlanta are a great team, a good neighbor they will be a great rival. The energy we’re seeing isn’t just about that game, it’s about our team in general. I think that we’ll have a really healthy [ticket] base,” Ayre says.
“But we’ll have to work hard in adding people and keeping people interested…as [American] football stadiums are not the best venues for soccer. Everyone knows that but it’s about us putting the best show on in that venue and getting people to see that what you’re buying into is going to be in this soccer-specific stadium in a couple of years and you should come along for the journey,” he says
Looking to hit high notes in Music City
Nashville SC is embracing the city’s rich history of music in a number of ways.
The team’s logo includes lines which are meant to evoke sound waves, while its colors are “acoustic blue” and “electric gold.” The team has also collaborated with Nashville-based rock band Judah & the Lion to create an official club anthem Never Give Up On You, which will be played live ahead of the home opener against Atlanta United.
In partnership with guitar manufacturer Gibson Brands there is also the “Gibson Guitar Riff,” a pregame ritual in which different performers throughout the season will aim to get fans pumped up by playing a customized Gibson guitar right before kick-off.
“Music is at the heart of this city, wherever you go there is live music or some tribute to music and it would be ridiculous not to embrace that as part of who we are. If you’re in the music city, you need your own song,” Ayre says. “It’s almost like trying to create a festival-type atmosphere about games, that it’s about music and food and the headliner is the soccer match. In a market where there is a lot of entertainment and a lot of choices to spend your entertainment choices, it’s important that we put on a show.”
Nashville SC’s front office personnel has grown immensely since Ayre joined the club, expanding from 24 on staff to more than 150. The team has close to 30 corporate sponsors including jersey and banking partner Renasant Bank, The Westin Nashville, BodyArmor, Captain Morgan, Fat Bottom Brewing Co., Gray Line Tennessee, Middle Tennessee Hyundai Dealers, Nashville International Airport, GMC, and Dex Imaging. A stadium naming-rights partner is the next main commercial goal, as well as a sleeve sponsor.
Nashville SC already has a team in MLS’s esports property eMLS and has launched a youth academy. Ayre, meanwhile, says a USL affiliate team and a National Women’s Soccer League team are being considered. For now, though, the main aim is to get the stadium built now that permission has finally been granted.
“[The stadium saga] was frustrating, unnecessary and, in relative terms, very costly. But we are where we are,” Ayre says. “Hopefully, it is now in the rear-view mirror for good and our focus is now on starting demolition, starting construction and opening our stadium as planned.”