Guided by over two decades of experience in the sports and media industries, Ian Ayre now commands Nashville SC, as the MLS expansion franchise builds its organization, brand, and stadium from the ground up.
Editor’s Note: Executive Fishbowl is an unfiltered, minimally edited interview series, in which the ALSD travels across the sports and entertainment landscape to bring the industry's top decision makers out of the corner office for open, candid conversation about their venue’s big headlines and fine print. These exclusive insights inform the holistic picture and provide context for disruption in the venue marketplace.
Soccer is the world’s game, and you come to this role with a worldly perspective and a lot of global experience. Can you briefly catch our membership up to date on what that experience is that you’ve brought to Nashville with you?
I’ve spent around 20 years in the sports and media industry. Initially on the media side of sports, I was the CEO of a big electronics company that served the broadcast community, so I saw the value and demand for sports. And then I transitioned into being the CEO, shareholder, and chairman of Huddersfield Town Football Club. So I’ve worked around the world in various different roles, managing media rights and online platforms.
Most recently prior to [joining Nashville SC], I was CEO at Liverpool Football Club and then subsequently for a short period of time at 1860 Munich in Germany. I then found myself here in Nashville, enjoying US life, enjoying the approach to MLS, and enjoying everything we’re doing here in Nashville.
Every time I visit Nashville, it seems like the tower cranes have multiplied. The growth is incredible. There are four professional teams here now. The corporate community seems vibrant and growing as well. Can you fill us in on the demographics of the city, focusing on the corporate community and how it can support all of those sports and entertainment properties?
We’re building a sports franchise from the ground up. This was very much a blank sheet of paper as described by our lead owner. And when you do that and you’re considering that opportunity, you have to first and foremost consider the environment you want to build in, and Nashville has all those raw ingredients, among them is a vibrant, fast-growing business community, and community generally.
“This was very much a blank sheet of paper as described by our lead owner. And when you do that and you’re considering that opportunity, you have to first and foremost consider the environment you want to build in, and Nashville has all those raw ingredients.”
– Ian Ayre, Nashville SC
I read a statistic recently – two-percent unemployment in Nashville. And it feels like every couple of months, you read an article about this big organization moving its headquarters or a big expansion. Amazon, most famously, with 5,000 new jobs.
And what that means is you have what I continue to hear described as old Nashville and new Nashville. Old Nashville being all those great things that make Nashville uniquely Nashville – country music and great food and southern hospitality and all of the good stuff. But then what you’ve had is all these, kind of like myself, transplants move to Nashville, become Nashville.
When you come to Nashville, you have to get on the train because everyone wants to continue to make Nashville great. And in that mix of transplants like myself, you have a really diverse population of people from all over the world, different cultures, different food choices. And when we started out on this journey for MLS for Nashville, we thought they were all great assets to build on. It’s such a great environment to build this in.
It’s not quite a blank sheet anymore, and I’m specifically referring to you signing a jersey sponsor recently. What details can you tell us about that? What does that mean to the club at this stage to have secured that sponsorship? And why do brands want to partner with Nashville SC?
You’re right, it’s very much not a blank sheet of paper. We have offices. We have about 70 staff members now. We have some players already signed. And as you said, a really landmark positioning for us in signing Renasant Bank as our jersey partner.
“It’s relatively easy to sit down and choose a set of values that you want to attach to your organization, but it’s more challenging and more important that you then go out and live those values.”
– Ian Ayre, Nashville SC
For us internally, it was such a big milestone because we have an awful lot of great people here who’ve worked really hard over the last 12 months or so in trying to engage the business community.
We started by building a general vision and a brand and some values and shared those in the community. Everybody’s been excited about MLS coming, but really, you’re trying to sell a dream to commercial partners. Of course, you can refer to what’s gone on in other teams and in other sports and in other partnership deals, but in reality, everybody just like us is taking a leap of faith. We’re building something that doesn’t yet quite exist, that doesn’t yet quite play, so you’re having to do a little bit of conceptualizing and blue-sky thinking today.
It was important to find a partner that saw the energy that was in and around the team we’ve assembled, started to meet and understand our senior management and our ownership, started to share our vision, and for us reciprocally, to see the same about their organization. And in Renasant, we found an amazing partner who has been around over 100 years or so, but really still sees themselves as a fast-growing, challenging brand in the banking community, shares a lot of the values we’ve set for Nashville Soccer Club, and wants to be a big player in this market just as we do, so it felt like a marriage made in heaven in many ways.
It was another one of those landmark moments when they told us they wanted to do the announcement by putting the announcement up on the Nasdaq building in New York, just another big milestone and a great way to start what I’m sure will be a long-running and reciprocally rewarding opportunity.
What are some of those like-minded core values you found synergy in?
Authenticity was one, and integrity. You’d like to hope that most banking partners would have integrity. It was mostly around their view of community. Community is one of our values. Unity. Inclusion. These types of values. And I’m a big believer, as is my team, as are our owners, that it’s relatively easy to sit down and choose a set of values that you want to attach to your organization, but it’s more challenging and more important that you then go out and live those values.
When we had a number of great organizations at the table to make a decision, we really went out to make sure we chose a partner, and the partner chose us, that shared as many of those values as possible because if we’re going to live and be true to everything we keep saying about our organization, then right at the outset is probably the most important time to demonstrate that. We chose them largely on that position and feel really good about the relationship.
It is still relatively early in the process of designing and building a new stadium, but I want to ask you a few questions about the venue. Are there any signature features that are known today that will distinguish your venue as your venue?
The site where we’re building our stadium is right across the street from our offices here in a place called Wedgewood-Houston in the fairgrounds. People who know Nashville or have been to Nashville know that area is an up-and-coming area, a lot of vibrancies, quite a bohemian feel about it. And for that reason and for the history of the fairgrounds itself, it was important to us and part of our brief with the architects that the stadium has to look like it’s always been there.
It will be fantastic visually with a lot of brick and steel and wood, which are very Nashville but also very of that neighborhood. And as you go back to values again, we’re going to have the biggest house in our new neighborhood, but we’re going to have to hang out with our neighbors, and we want our neighbors to like us just like we all would wherever we live. And so, we want to build a house people don’t feel is obtrusive and different from everything else there. And we want to make the place feel welcome.
Watch Part Two of our exclusive interview with Nashville SC CEO Ian Ayre.