Updated: Dec 12, 2019
Nashville Soccer Club's Vice President of Communications Cristina Maíllo Belda comes across so friendly and generous that meeting her flips the chart on what one expects from someone in her position. Rather than serving as a communications’ gatekeeper, Maíllo Belda opens the doors and welcomes one to the club.
I decided to write a series of articles about the different jobs that make a club function, something of a behind-the-scenes set of stories, and I reached out to Maíllo Belda first. I did so because, well, first, I would have to speak to her before I spoke to anyone else in the organization anyway, and, secondly (and more importantly), her role is so essential in the relationship of club and community. Indeed, the three main areas of the organization that report to her are communications, community engagement and fan engagement.
So, just does that mean?
When I tried to get sense of a “day in the life of” Cristina Maíllo Belda, she made it very clear that there is no routine day in the life of a VP of Communications. Ongoing surprises and diversions are a necessary part of her job. “I could begin the day planning on focusing on a player signing for Major League Soccer only to have someone want a response to any other MLS-related topic, a sponsor or a discussion about the academy. I can plan—and believe me, we plan for almost any contingency—but I cannot control where the conversation will go or what conversations will arise.”
“With my job, however, there are a couple of keys to success: connections and preparation. The more people I know in the industry, in the community, in the fan groups, the better able I am to respond to situations and to anticipate issues or concerns. My job is to serve the media and invite people in. My attitude is ‘How can I serve you?’”
There is a sense in which Maíllo Belda was born for this job. Growing up in Béjar, a small Spanish town, she learned to be a Real Madrid fan in some of the same way she was raised Catholic. Maíllo Belda loved the game and played a lot while growing up, and she had a father who was patient explaining rules and tactics. Growing up soccer was embedded in her culture and traditions, a topic so relevant yet controversial that along with religion and politics her mother banned them from the dinner table. Maíllo Belda learned to love Madrid to such a degree that she went to bed each night wearing one of their scarves and hats.
And everything was going fine, Maíllo Belda notes, until one season when Madrid was going through a rather tough patch of results, and friends at school let her know it. Tiring of all the trash talk, she decided to not wear the scarf to bed one night. When her father asked why it was missing, she explained that she had given on Real Madrid. “My dad didn’t speak to me for a week,” she says, “I came back.”
Maíllo Belda now describes herself as “Real Madrid fan by religion and Liverpool by choice.” What is important about her “choice” of Liverpool is what it reflects about how she sees her job now with NSC. Maíllo Belda made the choice of Liverpool, she says, on the basis of what she loved about Madrid. While not so much the case now as when she was growing up, Madrid promoted a lot of the younger players from the academy to the first team. As a result, everyone felt like they were part of a large family, with everyone pitching in. For her, Madrid seemed like something more than a football team, it was a set of traditions and values, and ones that were meaningful. While she was in high school, she read an interview with former Liverpool player Michael Robinson. It was that same sense of family and tradition that “really drew me in. I loved their values. That’s what hooked me.”
Maíllo Belda is dedicated to taking this same sense of values and organic holism to NSC. Hence, when she talks about NSC, she is referring to the team and simultaneously, the larger community around it. In conversation, Maíllo Belda repeatedly refers to the necessity of the club reflecting Nashville itself. (Indeed, in an earlier interview with Ian Ayre, we noted his stress on Nashville as a value signifier). If Nashville Soccer Club is going to be “very Nashville,” it needs to reflect the humble, hard-working people as well as the spirit of country music, the spirit of Broadway. The club is striving to reflect all of the communities in Nashville. They will reach out, of course, to the multiple Hispanic communities in town, as people seem to consistently ask them, but more as part of the larger package of reaching out to everyone in the community. And while the club has interest in reflecting the entire middle Tennessee area, they feel a particular responsibility to the local community where the stadium will be built. As such, the club sees the CBA agreement to have been a strong first step toward working with their next door neighbors.
Right now, Maíllo Belda is interviewing to hire a Director of Community Engagement, and she believes it is the most important hire she will make to partner with Chris Jones, who oversees Fan Engagement. She hopes to find a Nashville native or someone with deep roots here, in order to help “create an approach that is truly about Nashville and what the community wants and needs." And she readily admits that while she wants to see the club reflect the city, she hasn’t been here long enough to have a rich and complex understanding of Nashville quite yet.
The complexity she brings to the meaning of the club is reflected in the complexity of the breadth of her job. Maíllo Belda notes that people often think about communications as what a team announces or how a team responds to questions, but her own view of her role is far more organic and holistic. Communication deals with every aspect of the club, dealing with sponsors, crafting messaging for ticketing, player relationships, legal communication, social media... Every aspect of the team is part of a very large and very complex communication culture, which is precisely why Maíllo Belda consistently comes back to the topic of relationships and connections. The more she knows about every aspect of any organization, the more she can use those relationships to better finesse the “meaning” of Nashville Soccer Club.
When plotting out her potential career in sports communication, Maíllo Belda took multiple jobs along the way to enrich her understanding of the complexity of major league organizations. After doing a year abroad in Washington College in Maryland as an undergraduate who majored in English Marketing and Communication, Maíllo Belda fell in love with the idea of living in the United States, so she applied to a linguistics Masters program at the University of Maryland. While at Maryland, she volunteered to work for D.C. United, which then turned into an internship with their Communication department, which in turn led to an internship with Major League Soccer corporate offices. From there, Maíllo Belda took a job as the press officer for the Philadelphia Union.
While taking on side gigs in addition to her work with the Union (e.g., Maíllo Belda worked the Olympics in London and Brazil as well as the Women’s World Cup in Canada), she began to understand the importance of backroom research for commentators and the need to always be prepared for any information that might be needed.
Maíllo Belda then took a side turn, working for Major League Baseball for a time, running their social media for the World Baseball Classic.
She followed this with a year and a half at Chivas USA as a Communications Director. Shortly after joining the team, they were faced with several legal matters that resulted in communications and reputation management crisis. From that moment, Maíllo Belda notes, she learned to be prepared and to know the key partners involved in different scenarios.
After Chivas, Maíllo Belda looked over her experience and looked for gaps to fill. As a result, she knew she needed to work outside of a team structure for a while but with organizations that partnered with teams. She wanted an understanding, when she returned to a team, of how better to partner with sponsors and bigger corporations to enhance the club’s storytelling. As a result, she joined Nike for a year in internal communications and then moved to adidas to take on the role of a PR lead for soccer. While happy with the job and loving the life in Portland (where she met her fiancé and Portland Timbers’ broadcaster Ross Smith), a friend who worked with Ian Ayre passed Maíllo Belda’s resume on to him. As a Liverpool fan, when Ian called, she freaked out.
Coming to Nashville to interview with Ayre, she found herself impressed with his genuine commitment to the team. Maíllo Belda claims a shared philosophy with Ayre that focuses on the local community.
By the time we finished talking, I felt I had a decent handle on how Maíllo Belda thinks about her job and what to expect in terms of how she will look at Nashville, but I wanted to know something more about what can expect in the near future. She of course holds the clubs plans close to the vest, Maíllo Belda does note that the club can use a successful run in the USL playoffs as a way of handing off momentum and meaning to the MLS side. The fact that we are less than six months away quite frankly seems to stun me a little more than it does her
I should add that Maíllo Belda and the entire Nashville SC organization will be recruiting candidates to participate in the club’s internship program. This may just be someone’s chance to make the step by step process that she herself did.
This piece expresses the views of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Speedway Soccer as a whole.