A Conversation With The Boss

When you ask Nashville Soccer club CEO Ian Ayre what it’s like to build an MLS “brand” from scratch, he will tell you—in the thoughtful, reasonable tone in which he always seems to speak—that you are never really starting from scratch; you’re starting with pre-existing values.

“From my experience, if you dial back on established teams, you find that every team has its own culture, and that culture is entwined with the local community.” Hence, even if you think you are starting from scratch, as we often do here in Nashville, the starting point for building the brand is the city itself. “Look at the values of the city, the values of the existing supporter group. We need to bring those together, and then translate them into everything about the team. Even the design of the stadium must reflect the values of the city.”

Ian Ayre comes to town | Photo courtesy Nashville SC

The longer you talk to Ayre, the more you hear themes emerge. He is genuinely concerned with envisioning the club as growing out of the city rather than as something built externally and then plopped down for consumption. And when we say he thinks fully about the franchise in those terms, we mean fully. Take the recent signing of Hany Mukhtar from Danish side Brøndby IF. As a Designated Player, the signing of Mukhtar is a big investment, but Ayre says the team isn’t just looking for highly skilled players; they are looking for highly skilled players who also have the reputation of being “fantastic human beings” who can fit the overall attitude a Nashville based team should reflect.

When NSC owner John Ingram met Mukhtar at the airport, Ayre sees that simple act as a reflection of the type of southern hospitality that should be one face of the team. “The owner drives out to meet you where the plane lands; that’s saying something,” Ayre says.

When the team looks at something as specific as ticket pricing, they want to make sure that, while being fiscally responsible, they are also reflecting their respect for fans at different levels. They wanted to be especially sure that the supporters groups as a whole would not find themselves priced out of attending the games. Ayre speaks very highly of the importance of those hard core fans in helping the set the mood around them team.

While Ayre thinks that the local press may at times be working to translate soccer for non-fans, he believes (and MLS data supports this belief, he tells us) that a large percentage of the fans are not cannibalized from other sports. There are enough people in a place like Nashville that have come from cities or countries in which soccer was already well established or they are young people who have been fans all their lives.

The important thing, then, isn’t using other sports to make sense of soccer but instead of finding ways, again, of reflecting Nashville itself so that the combination of the game and “festival” at the stadium will win “the hearts and minds” of supporters. “I want people to walk away and think, ‘Well, that was a great game,’ but the atmosphere, the festival, was tremendous.”

When asked how challenging he finds it to help create this synthesis between club and community, Ayre tells us it’s not as difficult as one might think. For starters, he notes (and we admit to finding this a surprising statement), there are some similarities between Nashville and his home town of Liverpool: “There is a lot of pride, happiness, and good city vibes. Nashville is in part, like Liverpool, about great music, food, togetherness.”

Ayre has already been here long enough to be conversant with the difference between “Old Nashville” and “New Nashville,” and it is in this difference that he seems to see both the biggest challenge and the greatest possibilities: “The difference between old and new Nashville spreads from country music to a wider variety of music, from traditional southern foods to a focus on a wide variety of foods and methods. New Nashville includes the influx of all sorts of new ideas that simply come with the growth of a city. But we, as Nashville Soccer Club, must connect with both old and new Nashville. We need to be respectful to those who have been here for their entire lives and the new audience, who sees things maybe a little differently. We want to be the blending of some of these ideas.”

Ayre has such an air of confidence and calm about him that we had to push in different directions to really get him to talk about aspects of the task that present a real challenge to him. He finally pointed to the fact that it has become impossible to keep a secret any longer given how fast social media operates. But even on this subject, Ayre simply says that you need to assume that everything gets leaked sooner or later, and be prepared to deal it: “The week before we launched the brand, there was a leak. And we had to be ready and reactive. We had interviews in the can, in case the brand leaked. I don’t like surprises unless it’s my birthday, and we need to have ability to see ahead, to be prepared. As we approach MLS, the margin of difference is small in every way, so the better we can be in every aspect of the club, the better we are. It doesn’t cost anything more to be prepared, so be prepared.”

Let’s face it: there is nothing the club will do that won’t meet with some critique from some of the fans. From logos to kit designs to player signings to the design of the stadium, nothing will meet with universal praise. That said, the one thing you walk away with after a conversation with Ayre is a sense of confidence that every detail was discussed and dissected. If you ever have the impulse to wonder, “Has the team thought about ______?,” believe us: they have. If they are not taking an action you would like to see them take, or if they have chosen a design you don’t like, it was not a random decision. Ayre wants this club to be part of an ongoing festival that represents the city and its fans. And he thinks hard about how to make that happen.

Ultimately, what was most striking about the conversation was the conviction with which Ayre expressed his views. We aren’t saying you should agree with (or even that we agree with) everything that Ayre says. Rather, his arguments are ultimately so compelling because the tone tells you that he firmly believes in what he’s saying. This isn’t just an executive telling you the decision that one of his employees has made. He’s a guy sitting across the table from you convincing you why his side of the argument is right.

We hope he is.

This article was written with joint contributions from John Sloop and Davey Shepherd.

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