It’s been a little longer than six years, and yet some of the memories of the first meeting to organize what would become Nashville Football Club are already hazy and debatable. The one thing certain, however, is that Chris Jones, NFC Member #1, who was the impetus behind the whole thing, remembers that he had no clear idea what he was getting into.
What I discovered in this first attempt to write about the origins of what has evolved into the Nashville Soccer Club, is that, as is true of most narratives, if we rely on memory alone, history is a tricky thing. And while there is some solid evidence to tie down parts of this story (e.g., twitter conversations from the time, some material archive information, news reports), a lot of it is only clarified—to the degree that it can be—when different parties agree to tell the same story. Moreover, while I planned to focus in this article solely on the very first meeting to organize NFC, there was no way to do so without telling parts of the story before and after that meeting.
In the years prior to the creation of NFC, Chris Jones had occasionally attended Nashville Metros games. While he has massive respect for the folks who pulled the Metros together, e found the games poorly attended and without much strong support. While Jones knew the Metros have a long and notable history in town, he was coming in toward what would turn out to be their final years of existence. Wanting a local team to support, Jones reached out to the club informally several times to see if there was anything he could do to help. While he was not a soccer player and wasn’t quite sure what he to offer, he was passionate and found it unfathomable that a city this size didn’t have more support behind their only team.
So, I stress, he volunteered to help however he was needed. No one responded.
When the Metros finally collapsed, Jones at first thought someone would rush in to fill the void. When that didn’t appear to be happening, he decided to see if he could force the issue. Without a firm goal in mind other than keeping a soccer team active in town—certainly not the goal of heading up the charge--he sent out a tweet from his personal account, asking if anyone was interested in talking about organizing a new local team. While there was some small reaction to his tweet, only one person, Robby Johnston, agreed to meet up with him that week to kick around ideas.
Meeting at the Pharmacy, Jones and Johnston talked about the model that had saved Portsmouth FC from bankruptcy, when a coalition of fans bought the team, making them, at the time, the largest fan-owned club in the world (they have since been bought by a Michael Eisner owned investment company).
“What if,” Jones asked, “we asked people to buy memberships and use that money to help fund a team?”
They both liked the idea. That day, they talked about the things they liked—a community supported team, a team with a committed fan base—as well as the things they didn’t know about organizing a soccer team (practically everything), and what their next steps would be. Robby was cautiously committed at the time, saying that he thought he could help out in his spare time. Chris seemed ready to go. Both of them thought, given that the Metros had just collapsed, it was going to be a long hard struggle to get people interested in their idea. But now, they had the idea, a twitter account, and a Facebook page.
They set the date for the first organizational meeting for May 13, 2013. The meeting was organized solely through relying on friends to tell friends on twitter. Jones had a friend who was managing at Bar Louie in The Gulch who allowed him to have one of the private back rooms for the meeting. He and Johnston went that night having no idea how many people to expect. It wouldn’t be the last time they had no idea what to expect.
Johnston took the role of live tweeting the meeting (which was how I “attended”). Jones and Johnston estimate that there were 10-15 people at that first meeting, including Roadie legend, Caleb Hanby. While they had no team and weren’t quite sure how to field one, the group made a lot of decisions that night. After asking what they thought people would pay to join, they settled on $75 and limited the memberships to 150 (this would cover the cost of the fee to join NPSL and give them a little cushion). They settled on the club's colors, basing it on the Nashville City flag (rather than copying the Nashville Predators, which has become the widely-held belief). They debated going with a traditional name for the club or naming it after a mascot, and obviously they eventually settled on the traditional name.
The next day, they set up a PayPal account, tweeted out that memberships were available, and, within 48 hours, they had 75 members. The members were given numbers based on when their payment came in, so Jones made sure he put the money in the account first. Even with the Paypal account building, Jones notes, he was afraid to touch the money because he had done no paperwork, and had not established anything other than the social media and Paypal accounts. In effect, the money was going into an account on nothing but good faith. Until Jones had made it official, that money stayed put, and Jones purchased anything the club needed out of his own account.
“I thought at the time that it would take so long to build support,” Jones says, “that we would field an independent team in 2015 and try to get some nearby NPSL teams, like Chattanooga or Knoxville to play us.”
Instead, within a couple of months, he had to ask the current members if they would agree to remove the 150 members cap. Nashville FC, a non-existent team, had reached the limit quickly and were having requests for memberships from around the nation and the world. Stories were coming out about the club in the soccer press, and that publicity drew more numbers. Indeed, by the time it was over, NFC had members from 26 states and 4 countries.
While all of this growth was exciting, it meant that there was a lot of work to do, and it was all being done by volunteers. Jones himself was doing a massive amount of the labor. Indeed, when I ordered a T-shirt from the club, Jones himself drove it to my front door.
“I was just trying to help when I could,” Johnston says, “Chris was basically working two full time jobs. He worked at the bank and then spent 45 hours on the team.” After about six months, with a changing job and family situation, Johnston told Jones he no longer had time to put into the club and dropped back from his role. When he tells the story now, he does so with shades of regret.
But the work the followed the initial meeting paid off quickly, more quickly than Jones expected, almost too quickly for him to be ready. After working hard to secure partnerships and sponsors throughout middle Tennessee, Jones found himself trying to build an NPSL team for the 2014 season rather than an independent team for 2015. There were bumps along the way, of course, some major and some minor. Of the major variety, NFC found that another group, Atlas FC already had been awarded the NPSL franchise for Nashville, meaning there would have to be a merger or NFC would have to relocate some 30 miles away (they merged; see the links below for a fuller telling of the story). Of the minor variety, Johnston tells a great story about the first batch of “Founders” scarves coming in with the word “Our Club, Our Town” rather than “Our Town, Our Club.” And there were plenty of times that Jones wasn’t sure they were prepared for the growth they were experiencing. For example, when NFC played the Silverbacks reserves at the first game at Vanderbilt’s soccer field, Jones arrived wondering how many people would show up to watch. He dreamed of a thousand people but expected far fewer. When ticket sales were counted, there were almost 2000 tickets sold.
“Are we ready for this,” Jones kept asking himself. Having gone from the person volunteering to help the Metros to being the person in charge of a new team with an energized fan base, he knew that that he would have to answer yes.
When, several years down the road, Nashville Soccer Club has its MLS cup in hand, I hope we all pause again to thank Jones for getting the city back on the soccer path.
MLSSoccer.com on Nashville FC's initial membership drive.
MLSSoccer.com on the creation of Nashville FC.
NOTE: In the interest of accuracy and filling in details, I have tried to reach out to some others who were at the initial meetings. If you have memories of your early experiences with NFC (especially in the steps prior to the first season), please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org . Further, if you played a significant role in any aspect of the first season, I would love to hear from you.