NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chris Jones had a dream, and if you listened to him back in 2014 — just six years ago — it may have sounded like a long shot: He publicly stated his wish to see the minor league, supporter-owned team he co-founded in Nashville reach second division status by 2019.
Well, he did one better.
Six years plus a letter change later — Nashville FC was modified to Nashville SC — and the club that played its first-ever game in front of 1,800 fans is expecting more than 50,000 for the team’s inaugural MLS match this Saturday against Atlanta United (8 pm ET on FOX).
The jump from supporter-owned NPSL club to MLS is like a plan to rent your own place in five years and turning it into buying an entire real estate agency. It’s surreal for the people involved, and everyone who watched you do it would probably admit they’re shocked you pulled it off.
Birth of a club
In 2013 Jones worked in banking. He didn’t even really have a soccer background. Like a lot of us, Jones latched on to the sport through playing EA Sports FIFA with buddies and then picking a team — in this case, Chelsea — to spite said buddies who supported Manchester United. But he was soon drawn in by the atmosphere generated by a group of fans a little closer to home: He took notice of another team’s atmosphere that drew him into MLS. Yes, the Seattle Sounders invented Jones’s MLS fandom.
The Seattle Sounders didn’t become his team the way Chelsea did, but they did show him that soccer in America could produce a culture he wanted to be a part of. When Nashville’s long-running USL team, the Nashville Metros, folded and left a soccer void in the city, Jones and friend Robby Johnston decided that since there was no atmosphere to be a part of locally, they would make their own.
Which sounds ambitious, and maybe just a little foolhardy. Go tell someone close to you that you’re going to start a soccer team and they’ll assume that you’re going to go join a rec league and, if they’re cool, maybe ask you if they can join or bring snacks for halftime. But the goals were loftier here: A real, high-level club owned and run entirely by the fans.
Fortunately, that ambition had precedent.
Jones looked at the ownership model of teams like the Green Bay Packers and then discovered a fan-owned team in England with the excellent, entirely non-copyright infringing name “F.C. United of Manchester,” a club born in 2005 out of disillusionment when all-conquering Manchester United were bought out by the Tampa Bay Buccaneer-owning Glazer family. With a vague plan in place, Jones began filling empty and not-so-empty hours with raising Nashville FC from the ground.
“It was something I did in lunch hours. I’d be up late stuffing flat rate envelopes at midnight and my wife would be telling me that stuff better be out in the morning when we wake up so we could get the kids ready for school,” Jones said.
Through some late nights and missed lunches, Nashville FC slowly became a reality. People, literally, began to buy in. A grand total of $40 got you an ownership stake and the right to vote on the future of the club. Eventually, enough people bought in to create one of the rare supporter-owned clubs in the country.
Nashville FC began in 2013 with a group of friends wearing Vistaprint t-shirts for jerseys and competing in a local tournament — that they lost— both literally and in a more metaphorical fashion sense. The numbers on the back of the shirts didn’t even match the style on the front.
In 2014, Nashville FC played its first game as a member of the fourth-tier NPSL in front of over 1,800 fans at Vanderbilt Stadium.
Just three years on from those humble, yet impressive, beginnings, the ownership group for Nashville’s newly awarded USL team bought the club in May 2016, exchanged "football" for "soccer," and altered the crest. But, crucially, the overhaul wasn’t total. The colors stayed the same, and the many owners of Nashville FC maintained a small stake in the USL club.
Just a little over a year later the announcement made it official: Nashville SC became the 24th club in Major League Soccer.
The big decision
Selling the original club to new owners didn’t come easy for supporters. But when a path appeared to create something bigger than anyone originally imagined, nearly everyone knew they had to take it.
“Through that whole process we had to have some hard conversations amongst ourselves. We love what we're doing, but this, there's so much potential to do more and be bigger and grow,” Jones said.
“We said, ‘Alright, is there a risk of losing who we are about moving up?’ Lucky for us, we had these community sit-down meetings, we had heart-to-hearts, we had votes and I think the two votes we held had 95 percent and 98 percent approval. It helped having people like David Dill, Marcus Whitney and Chris Redhage [the USL investors] that were going to take us to the USL level. They just sat down, had a drink and said ‘What are your concerns in making sure we didn't lose that spirit?’”
The same conversations happened when John Ingram became the owner of the future MLS team. At each level, the people at the top have worked with the original owners to ensure that the spirit of the NPSL team remained intact by involving supporters in decision-making processes. And current owners make it a point of simply being one of the crowd.
“It really is a collective of people from all kinds of different backgrounds. They represent our city. And that relationship is bleeding into the front office as well. You see Ian Ayre [CEO] doing a shot of Fireball with the supporters and you see John Ingram going up and giving people hugs. It really is a cool kind of relationship that we have together,” Jones said.
In many ways, it’s still the same club. Heck, the club still uses the original Twitter account that Jones and Johnston used to launch the team in 2013.
Well, here we go. #GetReady— Nashville SC’s MLS Debut is THIS SATURDAY (@NashvilleSC) May 9, 2013
Check the date on that tweet. If that’s not an indication of continuity in 2020, what is?
Most importantly though, the people who were there from the beginning still feel the club is theirs. Just a bit grown up.
“It's surreal,” founding member and president of Nashville SC supporters’ group, The Assembly, Jennifer Rochelle said. “There's people that were there at our first game as the NPSL team and when we started USL two years ago — we looked at each other and were like, 'I cannot believe we're here.'
"Because back then we were just happy to get a certain number of people. We were happy anybody cared because at the time we were trying to just get everybody to get into a van with us. Like, ‘Hey, you play soccer, let's go to the game.’ We were driving up van loads of kids.”
The Music City's team
For many of the founding members, the meteoric rise to the top tier of the soccer pyramid mirrors the growth of the city. Nashville’s population has boomed over the last decade and those who have seen it happen feel like Nashville SC is the next big step to showing the nation what the city has become.
“There are people like myself born and raised in the area my entire life,” Brandon Rochelle of The Assembly said. “I've seen the evolution of this city. We've gone from a relatively small city on the national stage to a major player. We're on a stage and now our little soccer team that we had -- where we celebrated a thousand people in the stands just a few years ago – is now on the national stage ready to bring the same passion for the Predators [NHL] for the Titans [NFL] on Broadway. That's all going to be on display now. I couldn't be more excited.”
Going from 1,800 on opening day to a near sellout of an NFL stadium in seven years is nothing more than absurd. Heading into Nashville’s MLS opener against Atlanta United there is a genuine city-wide buzz around the team in a way there’s never been before.
It helps to have someone in the front office who maybe understands better than anyone how to get Nashville to unite around soccer. Jones is out of the banking world now and is Nashville SC’s Senior Director of Fan Engagement.
“I think what really helped us so much was the fact that we were community-owned and because it was a family, it was a community. And that really helped us rally together when we have some of these hard moments like with getting the stadium built,” Jones said.
“Whether it’s rallying people to show up to games when there was an international match or whatever it may be, to show like, ‘Hey, we're Nashville, don't tell us we can't do something. We'll do it.’ It's very stubborn. I'm born and raised here, so I get it. I think that that spirit has kind of carried us through this whole process.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: J. Sam Jones is a soccer writer and columnist and regular contributor to DirtySouthSoccer.com. You can listen to him stumble through discussions about Atlanta United on the Dirty South Soccer podcast network and follow him @J_SamJones if you don’t mind occasional ALL CAPS YELLING about American Football and Pitchfork reviews.