NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Standing at the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground about half a decade ago, Ian Ayre was taken aback.
For a man who has been around the globe and back, in and out of the world's most famous soccer cathedrals, that is no minor detail. The then-CEO of Liverpool FC, the club Ayre supported since birth, he had seen the peak of global soccer. As a fan, he watched Liverpool become European royalty in their glory days of the 1970s and 80s, winning trophy after trophy. He saw Liverpool's famous comeback in the 2005 Champions League Final, he endured (and is still enduring) a 30-year league title drought, and led the club as they put together many major pieces of their 2019 Champions League-winning side. Ostensibly, he'd seen it all at his boyhood club.
Well, maybe not quite everything. At the MCG that day with Liverpool for a late-July friendly in Australia, it was the first time the club had played a match Down Under. Liverpool are well supported in all corners of the Earth, but Ayre was humbled to find the MCG at full capacity, with the overwhelming majority of the 95,446 in attendance wearing red.
When the stadium stood and bellowed every syllable to Liverpool’s famous anthem – "You’ll Never Walk Alone" – Ayre was touched.
“Even talking about it gives me goosebumps,” Ayre told MLSsoccer.com from his office in a recent conversation. “Here’s a team in a country that a team has never stepped foot in, yet (nearly) 100,000 people turn up and know the words to the team’s anthem. Like, wow.”
That sense of community and identity has stayed with Ayre.
Now Nashville SC's CEO, Ayre is tasked with leading the club in their inaugural MLS campaign. He gets to build the club from the ground up and lay the foundation for a Nashville SC's MLS history. He quickly recalls himself standing at the MCG.
“What I learned is that someone had to start that somewhere. I learned identity. Every club has a unique identity, a unique set of values,” Ayre said. “I get it, when I start to wax on about the values, people’s eyes glaze over, like, yeah whatever. But it’s so important in a sports team. That identity that we create in the next year or two, the importance of setting an identity, we’re not just throwing ‘uniquely Nashville’ out there. If we get that wrong, then it’s wrong and it doesn’t represent Nashville and doesn’t create a connection with this community. We have a different set of objectives and values, but we’re trying to create our identity that people go, 'That’s cool, that’s Nashville.'"
For Ayre, the guitar-playing and motorcycle-riding executive, this is all part of the fun. And it's why he took on the Nashville project.
Ian Ayre with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp | Courtesy of Liverpool FC
Ayre initially left his hometown of Liverpool in the northwest of England to join the Royal Navy, before a career in business and soccer took him around the world once more. Community and culture are two areas he's well versed in, immersing himself in his surroundings everywhere he's been.
Sometimes the 56-year-old would be on a motorcycle "tearing around the jungle" in Malaysia, other times traveling with Liverpool FC during his time as CEO and now kayaking in Nashville. In Music City, he's even learning how to play some country songs on the guitar.
"I play guitar, but not very well," Ayre is quick to add.
A man with a wealth of knowledge in soccer, business and travel – the person who helped lead Liverpool from their nadir in the early 2010s, before recruiting andappointing Jurgen Klopp as the club's manager — is asked one question. It arises far more than any other: How's the weather?
"It’s funny, my mom used to call me and, the big thing in England, people always ask you about the weather," Ayre said with a laugh. "She’d call me every Sunday to ask about the weather when I was in Malaysia, and I’d say 'well, it’s hot and it’s going to rain in the afternoon, like every other day of the year.' Nashville heat? Not a problem. Being English where we hardly get any sun, I’m more than happy when the sun shines. When everyone else is complaining about the heat, I’m like this is great.”
He still finds the time to catch every second of Liverpool's matches, just as he did in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Germany and everywhere else his career has taken him. Now, though, he doesn't have to worry about passionate fans tracking his flights and theorizing over whom he might be signing.
"I would be leaving on holiday to Spain with my family and when I land, there's a list of La Liga players the internet thinks I'm signing," Ayre recalled.
It's that kind of passion Ayre hopes to instill in Nashville.
Ian Ayre with Nashville SC manager Gary Smith | Courtesy of Nashville SC
He firmly believes that starts with understanding the community, helping root the club in its city.
“I think the more you can integrate yourself to the culture and local community, you just open so many more doors," Ayre said. "I’ve even started kayaking. It gets you into other places. If you stick to your ex-patriot kind of channel, you miss out on so much. The fundamental part of my job is to bring people together.”
Ayre has been quick to familiarize himself with Nashville, going from neighborhood to neighborhood, giving the club's oft-used phrase "uniquely Nashville" more meaning.
“Legacy was in the top three reasons to come, if I’m honest," Ayre said. "Some people thought I lost my mind, to go to an expansion club where there’s nothing at the outset. I saw it the other way. Who gets that opportunity? Who gets the chance to build the whole thing? With great pride, I can look back at Liverpool and say seven or eight players who started the Champions League I either signed or signed to new contracts, and I brought the coach there. I feel very proud of that, but that’s not even on the same scale as saying sometime in the future here.
"That’s the legacy," he continued. "Hopefully my grandkids, in many years to come, come to Nashville, even if I’m not here, and see the whole thing. There’ll always be new players, changes to the stadium. But to say you were here when you kind of dug the hole, or signed the first player, that’s just great.”
A deep-rooted foundation that's rich in culture and community isn't the only thing Ayre is looking to import from Liverpool to Nashville.
“That, and how to celebrate a goal from Jurgen Klopp,” Ayre said with a laugh.
As we spoke in his office, a number of framed images hung on the wall over his shoulder. They're various shots of Ayre signing contracts with then-Liverpool stars like Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez, as well when Klopp joined.
“They’re doing okay,” as he paused to feign sadness, “without me!”
With that history behind him, Ayre will have plenty of new photos from Nashville to be framed in short order.