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The Stage Is Set For Ayre

Former Liverpool CEO, Ian Ayre speaks to fcbusiness about how he’s adjusting to life in the US as he prepares to take Nashville Soccer Club from the USL into the MLS in 2020.

 

How are you adjusting to life in Nashville?

I’ve been here just over a year now; I arrived in early July last year (2018). It’s been great. Obviously it’s very different to Liverpool but there are similarities. It’s a city with a big music heritage which Liverpool has. It’s known for the friendliness of its people and there’s a lot of civic pride. I’ve lived all over the world from Hong Kong, Malaysia, China, Germany and Spain and this is the easiest place to move to. Not just because of the language, but because the people are so friendly and welcoming. When you’re moving your family to a new country you are making big changes and the quality of settling in makes a big difference. So far it’s been really good and I’ve settled in really well.

 

Was it what you were expecting?

I can’t say I ever spent any significant time in the south of the US and I think often as foreigners we kind of generalise about countries but when we think of our own country we know the subtle differences between the north and the south, the way people are and the culture. Prior to coming here I never really thought of that in US terms. I’d spent a lot of time in New York, Boston, LA, Chicago – those types of big cities, and I suppose from a general perspective I thought it was all the same. But it’s very different. The south is very laid back, more friendly and not at the same pace as New York or LA but there is a really great quality of life here. So I was surprised in a sense that it wasn’t what I expected in terms of my previous experiences with other US cities.

 

Does that reflect in the fan culture that exists in Nashville?

Its early days but we have great support for our USL team. I think every club, whether it’s in the US or UK has a slightly unique culture to its supporter base. What we have here in Nashville is really ardent support, great people and a really good, strong supporter base already. We broke records last year on season ticket sales so there’s definitely the love and desire for soccer. We get a great atmosphere from our supporters and when you bring a new sport like soccer to a city like this, I think even the other sports teams are kind of wide-eyed about the way our supporters act.

 

What we in England would take for granted in terms of singing, and drums, and noise, that’s not typical of American sports like NFL, baseball or hockey, so we’ve already surprised some people with that. I’ve had comments from people who run some of the other teams about how our supporters are really vocal and loud and create a very different atmosphere. It’s credit to the supporter group we have who have come together and got that going with their songs, chants, flags and marching to games, etc.

 

 

Nashville is a very new soccer club, how have you developed this fanbase?

It’s really an ongoing process. Part of the attraction and the excitement of the club for me was the thought of building a team. Who gets to do that? It’s staggering to think of when you come from Europe and England; the idea of getting the opportunity to build a whole new club is just phenomenal.

 

What we did was to start and bring in those people who already love the game, and there’s a much bigger number of people in the US than I think a lot of European’s imagine, that are interested in the game. Most people play at school then gravitate to other sports later, but there is a good solid base which we were able to attract fairly quickly and easily.

 

A lot of those people have been supporting amateur teams in the city for several years so we’ve built on that. We’ve done a lot of work around marketing to soccer fans who might not have a team yet like Nashville, there’s a lot of support for Premier League teams so it’s about trying to get to those groups and get them involved.

 

More recently we’ve tried to attract more general sports fans to come to our games and as we go further on it will be about attracting people with real civic pride for Nashville and Tennessee. That’s a big thing here, if it’s got Nashville on the shirt then they will support it because they are very proud and committed people to the state and the city.

 

So the plan has been to grow step-by-step. We had a USL game at the NFL stadium [Nissan Park} which had around 15/16,000 people there so it is growing and that’s a good start at USL level. At First Tennessee Park where we play most of our games we have good healthy crowds on a consistent basis and we’re really pleased with the progress we’ve made. In the MLS, we’ll play at the Nissan Stadium next year and the year after then we’ll move into our new stadium in 2022.

 

What are you doing specifically to attract new fans?

There’s been a big effort around community based activities which is very prevalent here. In some cases it’s about getting in amongst those fans in bars when other football is going on and introducing them to Nashville Soccer Club. They’re the purest fans, they already love the game and we’re trying to make them love us. Then for the wider sports fan and general public, there is a lot of digital marketing and community events going on. I don’t think I’ve ever done as many speeches and talks in my life since I got here. I feel like I’m on some presidential campaign but that’s all part of it. When I talk to other people at other clubs who’ve gone through the process of being an expansion club and joining the league from scratch, they all say the same thing – once you get people to come they really love it.

 

So it’s about enticing them in. It’s about asking them to come and give it a go rather than trying to get them to commit to coming every week and we’ve had great success with that. It is about being constantly in the market and constantly speaking to people whether it’s digitally or on TV or via outdoor advertising – ‘always on’ to use the term. We have to be top of mind all the time and build an energy and interest around the sport beyond the core supporter base.

 

Nashville currently plays in the USL and are about to take on an MLS franchise in 2020. Can you tell me what preparations are being made for this transition both on the playing and business sides?

In the last twelve months it’s been a crusade on all fronts around MLS to bring all the individual parts together. I define those three parts as the technical/playing staff side – hiring a general manager, a manger and coach, the technical staff that sit around that including scouts, analysts, sports science, bringing al that team together then going out and acquiring players. That’s where I started first because it takes such a long time to do all the analysis and the scouting to build a team. That was our first area of focus.

 

The second area is all about infrastructure. We’re building the largest soccer specific stadium in the US which will have 30,000 seats. We’ll start demolition on the site very soon and from there construction will start next year with completion for the 2022 season. There will also be an academy and training ground built so it’s a big infrastructure project.

 

The third part was to bring the rest of the staff together. We have around 60 staff with us now and that will continue to grow as we go through this year. It’s not an insignificant task to bring that many people together and build out the different teams such as marketing, sponsorship, operations, admin, etc. It’s a task that I’ve really enjoyed and feel really pleased that we’re in the right place with the right people and heading in the right direction.

 

We’ve brought some staff across from USL because I felt that that was important. I’m not ever really that impressed by people who go in and make wholesale changes because I think you have give people a chance and analyse for yourself what is really there rather than making some sweeping judgement. My opening gambit with everyone at the USL team was they all have a chance and all have the opportunity to try out for the big league. I’m really pleased to say that a lot of people have come across with us because they’re good people; they’ve done a good job and will continue to be a part of it in MLS.

 

In terms of the business and commercial impact on the club, is the MLS a big step up from where you are now?

Yes, it’s massively different. USL is doing well and growing slowly and purely but MLS is a long way ahead. Everything from sponsorship revenue, ticket revenue, attendances, and player costs – everything is markedly different. But it’s still growing and I think the league should be commended for the great progress they’ve made. If you look at some of the attendances around the league there’s teams like Atlanta whose average crowds are around 50,000, then you’ve got teams like Portland and Seattle and others who are pulling in regular big attendances.

 

Plans are in place to build the largest soccer specific stadium in the US to open in 2022. What kind of experience you are planning to deliver for fans?

The stadium will be built on the periphery of the city, about two miles exactly from the city centre. The city skyline is very prominent from the stadium so it’s close enough and has good transport links to and from it. It was an old fairground which also used to hold events, and some of that will continue but it’s a site that was in need of redevelopment so will make a great venue.

 

 

The stadium itself will hold 30,000 fans and will have around 4,000 in a home end incorporating safe-standing which, from dialogue with our fans, we found they had a big desire to have. We’re trying to bring that to life and are in very close dialogue with our supporter groups about what we do in there and the facilities we create for them. The stadium will also have around 4,500 corporate seats and lounges and the rest will be a typical stadium layout of four stands with good bars and food options.

 

One of the main briefs to the architect was to make the stadium uniquely Nashville. A lot of stadiums you see today look like big spaceships that have just landed but that’s just not Nashville. Nashville is a bit more country. There’s a lot of steel and brick and wood in our design because that is what Nashville is. It was really important to us to have that and the neighbourhood where we’re building the stadium is very up and coming and this design will fit well into that particular site in that particular part of the city. It’s important to be culturally sensitive and you don’t just plonk something in the middle of this neighbourhood that looks out of place.

 

Is that something you’ve been able to advise on given your experience in the game?

Liverpool has over 120 years of heritage, the stadium is in the middle of the district of L4, that’s where I grew up and I’m very sensitive to what it’s like to live on the doorstep of a football stadium and what that means to the people around it. So it was important to get those things right and be able to have a good sense of what is right for the community. But we also need to create an atmosphere and a good experience for people on matchday. I’ve lived it as a fan and lived it as a CEO, and I’m able to take the good and the bad from those experiences and create something that people will love.

 

The World Cup heads to North America in 2026. Will that help ramp up development of the game there?

Definitely, and over the next few years you’ll start to see more and more attention on US Soccer. The women’s team were very successful this year in the Women’s World Cup and that shone a light here locally on women’s football which is incredible. I think the men’s team could do well to aspire to be as good at them and that is where US Soccer has to put a lot of focus on. Along with their co-hosts Canada and Mexico, they got to not just take part in the tournament but really compete in 2026. There’s a lot of work to do but it could be a by-product of the MLS that a lot of talent coming through in the next five or six years can help shape these nations’ teams and make a big difference to the outcome of the show in 2026. 

 

Nashville Soccer Club, the Major League Soccer club is set to begin play in 2020 at Nissan Stadium, Nashville Tennessee. ww.mls.nashvillesc.com

 

Words: Aaron Gourley, Editor. agourley@fcbusiness.co.uk