NASHVILLE – With their stadium deal in place as of last week, Nashville MLS CEO Ian Ayre is ready to start building out his organization ahead of their 2020 move to the league.
The former Liverpool chief, who was hired in May but only arrived in Tennessee on Aug. 1, has plenty of items on his to-do list. In addition to his duties overseeing construction of their new stadium at Nashville’s fairgrounds a few miles south of downtown, Ayre is in charge of developing the club’s MLS brand, hiring their technical staff, fleshing out their front office and ensuring that they build on Nashville SC’s ongoing expansion season in USL before they begin life as an MLS team in 18 months.
Though he’s only been on the job for a little more than a month, the Englishman has already made some significant progress, particularly in his search for a general manager. Ayre told reporters at a media roundtable at the trendy Pinewood Social hangout ahead of Tuesday’s US-Mexico match at Nissan Stadium that he’s down to “a couple of” GM candidates and that he expects to announce a hire in “4-6 weeks.” He said that current Nashville SC technical director and VP of soccer operations Mike Jacobs, who was hired from Sporting KC last October and has built the club’s roster during their inaugural season in USL, is in consideration for the GM job.
“I’ll have overall responsibility for both technical and business sides in the organization, so what I’m looking for is to have somebody who understands this market, that’s key. Somebody who complements some of the skills that I might bring to the area of the business, I think we want somebody that has a good knowledge of the various different markets that we’ll go scouting in, so a real mixed bag,” said Ayre.
The eventual GM will work with Ayre to hire Nashville MLS’s first head coach, who Ayre wants to have in place by the end of the first quarter of 2019 so that they can assist with player recruitment next summer. Gary Smith, who led the Colorado Rapids to the MLS Cup title in 2010, is currently managing the team in USL. Like Jacobs, he’ll have a chance to keep his role when the team moves up to MLS, though Ayre said the club has a responsibility to evaluate other options in addition to the former Rapids boss.
Of course, the caliber of candidates Nashville will attract will depend on what they’re willing to spend. Recent expansion clubs Atlanta and LAFC have spent significantly on their rosters, technical staffs and facilities, and they’ve both had immediate success in MLS. Ayre, who is longtime friends with Atlanta president and fellow Englishman and ex-Premier League exec Darren Eales, is well aware of that, but he wasn’t committal when asked what kinds of resources Nashville will have when they join MLS.
“That’s a conversation for myself and the ownership to settle on. That’s not something I’m going to discuss publicly, now or probably never,” he said. “But the one thing I would say is that part of my decision to come here was about what do we want to be and what do the owners want from this opportunity. We didn’t just come to take part, we’ve come here to compete, so I expect us to be a team that can assemble a team both on and off the pitch and in the sort of things that go with it that can compete.
“What does that mean? Well, it means we will take the budget that we’re allocated when we get to that, when we get to the heart of that, and we’ll do the best we can do. Even at the highest level, in the Premier League, if you’re Liverpool the budget wasn’t the same as Chelsea or Manchester City or Manchester United, but you don’t take that as being any lesser. You take it as you have to go and build something and compete with the budget that you’re working on. So, we’ll work hard, we’ll compete and I think we’ll create something that the people in Nashville can get behind and be excited about.”
Choosing a GM and coach will be critical, but the hires are far from the only tough decisions Ayre will have to make. The club is in the process of determining their brand identity for their move from USL to MLS in 2020. It’s conceivable that they could keep the “Nashville SC” name, blue and gold color scheme and crest that they’re using in USL, though other options will be considered.
Whichever route they choose, Ayre said that the organization’s decisions will be driven – at least in part – by supporters. Ayre has already met twice with fans during his five-plus weeks on the job to get their input on club identity and other matters, and he said he expects to continue dialogue with them and other local “influencers” to develop an organization that he hopes will feel “uniquely Nashville.”
It’ll likely help that he won’t have to create a club culture completely out of whole cloth. Nashville SC have been well-supported in their first-year in USL. According to a club spokesperson, they set a record for USL expansion teams by selling 6,200 season tickets, are averaging 10,176 fans per home game and have had capacity crowds for every match they’ve played at First Tennessee Park, which they share with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds. They’ve also drawn over 18,000 fans for both matches they’ve played at the Tennessee Titans’ Nissan Stadium, which the club is hoping to use as a temporary home venue in 2020 until their $275 million, 30,500-capacity soccer-specific stadium is completed in 2021.
With the team at capacity at First Tennessee Park, the club can’t exactly build on their attendance numbers next season. They can, however, work to get new fans in the building for their first match, something that Nashville SC CEO Court Jeske, who was hired to run the USL team in 2016 and will most likely work under Ayre once the organization transitions to MLS, said the club is focused on.
“We’re going to tailor a lot of our packages to allow more people into the venue to experience the environment,” Jeske told MLSsoccer.com in an interview at his office on Tuesday. “We have some programs in place to allow season ticket holders to put their tickets on the secondary market with ease. We also have a pass it forward program that allows people to donate their tickets to community organizations that can use them and redistribute them. Again, it’s about allowing more people into the venue than we are limited by the fact that we’ve got a capacity crowd at each game.”
“Nashville, as much as I’ve experienced it so far, is a very vibrant, exciting and inclusive city and we want to build a team that kind of emulates all of those things, whether that’s on the pitch or off the pitch,” added Ayre. “We want to be exciting, creative and all the things that Nashville is and is known for.”