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Do you have a sense yet for what MLS’s solution is going to be?
“Whilst we, right now, still have time to play the whole season, it’s the right level of responsibility to make a plan for all sort of eventualities, and right now maybe every eventuality. I don’t think anyone can answer the question honestly. It’s like everything that’s going on: when will we be back not locked in home? Those types of things. I don’t think anyone really knows. I, as you know, spent a long time in the military, and one of the things I learned in there was: the better the planning, and the better the foresight, the better the outcome usually. What I can say is MLS has been incredibly supportive in terms of the communication between the clubs and the league. We literally, it feels like every two or three days there’s some call at some level – if not every day – where we’re working through literally every scenario. Is it a full season as was planned? Is it a reduced number of games [from the full season] as was planned? With fans in stadiums? Is it a solution without fans in stadiums? Is it in your home stadiums? Is it in another location? I think they alluded to all of that. I think the real real sort of important part is to make sure we have thought about and planned for every eventuality, but it’s impossible to know which one it will be.”
What are the implications of playing without fans?
“I have to say as a sports fan and a soccer fan particularly, it’s hard to even contemplate. Needs must, I guess. It’s certainly – whether you’re Don Garber or Ian Ayre or anyone else – it’s not what anybody wants: I think we can all be assured of that. It’s not what anyone’s hoping for. I think if we asked anyone, if that was the only choice, would you rather that than what we’re doing right now, which is no live sports. I thin kit’s a lesser of two evils to some degree. I think if you’re going to plan for every outcome, then you have to plan for every outcome, and even the ones that you don’t really like. The one you just described, of having games with no fans, is at least a step up from where we are today. No I can’t imagine it, but I have to. It’s kind of my job to try and imagine it, unfortunately, because it may at some point be the only solution, at least for a period of time.”
What have you been doing – occupying your time – from a club perspective?
“For me personally, I’ve been as busy as ever, if I’m honest. I think that for a number of reasons. I have to say it’s interesting. I think to some degree, you find this type of operating more productive, because you don’t have any interruption. You’re either on a call or not on a call, you don’t have the kind of staff coming in and out asking questions.
“Really I’ve tried to divide my time up into three individual parts. One has been being involved with a lot of the collective league-based stuff. Whether it’s all CEOs or ownership calls, or whether it’s ticketing or commercial, tried to be involved in as many of them as possible. Tried to have regular dialogue with my own senior management team, and then less-regular but importantly to some degree regular – contact with our whole team. And then jumping on and off calls like this with media, with sponsors, with others. All of the things that I would normally be doing, just in a different form really. Then, the other thing that’s been really important to me has been trying to find ways to keep our staff and supporters engaged: keep them feeling like there’s still energy in this thing.
“I think as Chris said earlier, we started and we built up this incredible momentum, and I used this description the other day, like being a prize fighter. We thought we were just getting to the finish line, then we got knocked down by a stadium sucker-punch. Then got up from that and opening day was fantastic, and we felt like we were really winning and had all that momentum, then two days later a tornado punches us in the face in the city. We get back up from that and we go to Portland, and come back from that and COVID-19. I think, with all of those different things, not just going on for us but going on for our supporters and our fans and our staff. It’s been really important to make people feel connected, feel like we have our arms around them to a degree. And trying to really be focused on that, I’ve done some live Instagram stuff with fans, and Facebook stuff, and just came off a call about an hour ago with John Ingram and Mark Wilf, talking with all our staff to give them an insight into our ownership group. So trying to find different ways every day and every week to just keep the machine moving forward, really.”
Is MLS’s participation in the 106-year old US Open Cup in jeopardy?
“I think – I know that in the whole kind of mix that Major League Soccer and soccer across the whole of the US is considering, I think US Open Cup sits in there with other MLS-based solutions, leagues, cups, champions League. It goes back to the question earlier which is, until we know the extent and breadth of the dates and timeline we have to play with, I don’t think you can have an answer. I agree wholeheartedly that all of these competitions – and particularly the ones that have such a long-standing presence in soccer in this country or any country – are really important. I think things that we normally do and things that we normally expect and things that we all want to do and have tradition to, many of those things are kind of going out the window. I was reading recently about the NFL Draft and that being done virtually. We all know here in Nashville just how amazing that event was last year. Nobody would want to have that event in a virtual online sense. I think it’s just a different world. I think MLS has huge respect for US Open Cup, and I know that in the mix of trying to find their way through this and find enough dates, it’s definitely one of the considerations. Until we have clarity and visibility of how much time and dates we have, I don’t think anyone can say. That’s not just for MLS teams, it’s for USL and everyone else. I thin kit’s a difficult one to pin down at this point.”
What are the considerations that must be taken into account before resuming play?
“That’s been paramount in the discussions I know the league are having. There’s kind of two strands of contact with the players: the league having contact with the players’ unions that represent all players, and having a very regular dialogue with them on a whole multitude of subjects, and then there’s obviously at each club level, we have daily – hourly in some cases – dialogue with our own players, whether that’s for fitness, for training, for engagement, social media, there’s somebody talking to them very regularly. I think the single thing that I’ve heard from MLS and talking to the CEOs at other clubs, is that everybody puts health and safety at the top of the agenda for anything we’re doing. I think a return to play, which will be preceded by a return to practice, has to have a solution that makes sure that players – it’s not really just about players, it’s about players who come to a practice facility, and there’s other staff involved: there will be coaching staff, there will be other staff that need to be around, and then all of those people have to go back home to their own families. So nobody wants to do anything that puts anyone at risk. I’m absolutely certain and feel assured from the conversations that I’ve been in that any solution that is decided upon will be done so with the health and safety of the players – and everyone who has to be in and around that process – involved. Again, in the vast array of things that are pretty unknown at the moment, I think testing and the availability at that level of frequency and speed is still a bit of an unknown in lots of places. We’re still moving along that track, but what I know for certain that any solution will address testing and safety.”
Has the stadium’s progress been impacted at all?
“You know Tim, it’s been an interesting one. In a sea of negativity that we’re all in, that’s been a bit of a guiding light for us at Nashville. We obviously had our kind of roller-coaster ride on the stadium, but of late, it’s been the one thing that’s been a huge positive for us. Our demolition program – and some of the photos and videos that we’ve shared of that – that’s well on track, we’re not seeing any delays there. The sequencing on that is working well. The last stage of the design phase was completed, which was a really important step. Our contractor has reached out recently to start to engage with subcontractors. So all of the things on the timeline for the stadium remain in place. That’s good, because as much as we’re all thinking about the short-term solution to get back to soccer, for us at Nashville, it’s so important that we continue the kind of long-term infrastructure projects like the stadium and the academy, and other things. They’ll be such important parts when we all do get back to some level of normality.”
What would the financial impact of playing in empty stadiums be?
“As I’ve said before, I think we have to envision that as a potential – not because I think that’s the outcome, but because I think it’s one of many potential scenarios. It’s unthinkable to imagine it, really, as a sports fan, or as a person working in sports. But needs must be matched in that regard. What would the impact be? I think it would be difficult to quantify until we knew all of the detail. I think that obviously it would have an impact on ticketing revenue and concessions and all of the things that go in around gameday. It would still be a television product, so we would hope that we were in a good place there. We would hope that we could still deliver value for our partnerships. It’s a whole multitude of different revenue streams – as you can imagine – that build the overall solution for a soccer team. Until we know what that might look like, how long it might be fore, how many games, what the venue is: are we at home, are we away, are we in neutral locations? Again, in a big pile in a stack on everyone’s desk here, we’ve got plan A through Z pretty much. Until we know which one we’re pulling out the drawer when we get back to play, I think it’s impossible to quantify the number.”
What sort of conversations have you had with head coach Gary Smith?
“I think it’s one of the hardest positions in the club – maybe in any club right now – is the coach’s. He’s dialing in daily to a call like this where he can see all the players, and they’re doing some of the fitness program stuff on a zoom call, so he can see everybody working out. I think he’s finding it important to have that social connection with all of the players. But they’re not playing with a ball generally, they’re not playing in a group at all, they’re not talking about the tactics leading up to the game, or the tactics post a game. So it’s really, he’s probably got the hardest deal, I think, in general of anyone, because the thing he does is all about working with everybody at once, and all about pulling that together, or planning for a game, or the next game, or thinking about looking, analyzing. He’s still doing a lot of that: watching games.
“We always made a key point that we haven’t finished our overall recruitment, so that’s still going on. I know Mike Jacobs and his team are keeping Gary very involved in looking at video and other stuff for players that we might consider bringing in further down the track. So we’re keeping him to some degree busy, but I think knowing Gary as I do, and many of you do, he’ll be a bit of a lost soul not being out on the soccer pitch with his players every day, and he’ll be desperate to get back to that. But there’s also been a lot of work on – one of the things we said across the board as a new team, was you never have enough time to prepare for the start of your first season. We were pushing it uphill for a while, and then chasing it down the other saide. So there’s lots of time to work on tactics and other things that Gary would work on, and that’s the thing across the whole business: some of the things that we might have hoped to get through during the course of this first season, we’ve been able to circle back on and do a lot more planning and work to put ourselves in a better state for when we do get going again. So it’s not all wasted time, but I think in relation to the question for Gary, I think it’s tough.”
Does having just a two-game schedule before grinding to a halt hurt momentum?
“I think there is something in that. I’m a big optimist, and I always think you should take the positives from anything negative. I mean listen, our players, although they’re not together, they’re communicating regularly and they’d all literally just walked in the door six weeks or so earlier. I think we’ve got more time for them to get to know each other – albeit virtually at the moment. I think that, as you say, we’ve got time to see how the team performed in two games and in training during that period. We will get some kind of preseason again, when we’re all ready to start. Having only had four or five weeks in the buildup to the season where all the players were there together, we’ll now have another four or five weeks or whatever the deemed amount of time is. So everything that happens in that regard is an addition for us, because we were coming at it cold, unlike other teams. So I think that’s important, and I think also, as I’ve said just before, there is an opportunity for us in recruitment terms that, by the time we start playing soccer again, maybe there’s other players in our roster as well, and maybe we’ve had an opportunity to do things that we wouldn’t have been able to do immediately or didn’t choose to do. So lots of different moving pieces, and I think that – it will depend on the outcome – but I think there’s definitely some positives that we can draw from the ability to have a little bit longer before we start again.”
Has there been any indication from FIFA or USSF that transfer windows will be adjusted?
“No, it’s another area that’s being considered and discussed. Again, I think that until we know what the season is and when the season is, and how long it’s going to run and what form it takes. But it’s definitely something that they’re looking at and will address, but no mandate to my knowledge at this point that’s changed anything officially. We’re fast approaching the opening of windows in other markets, and what would normally be the end of a league in other times: leagues are coming to an end in Europe, there’s every chance those leagues are still going to be playing. So it’s going to be interesting, because players will be out of contract in some cases when leagues are maybe restarting in other countries, so I think there’s a whole minefield of work to get through, and an unenviable task for somebody, whether it’s MLS, individual leagues, UEFA, Concacaf, FIFA, all of the above at some point probably weigh in. So I think it’s going to be a difficult one.”
What was your take on the first two games?
“From a soccer perspective, from a playing perspective, we were hugely encouraged by – I don’t want to belittle the fantastic work that Mike Jacobs, and Gary, and all of the team around recruitment did to bring together the roster that we assembled, and then obviously for Gary and the coaching staff to put them on the field after just a few weeks of preseason – but you never really know what you’re going to get, right? You do that work well, and you put together a great recruitment process, which we have, but until you see them playing and until you get through a lot more games than we’ve played now, you never really know how it’s worked out.
“I would say starting out your first-ever season in any league against two teams like Atlanta and Portland – one of whom was MLS champion two years before and another trophy-winner the year after, and then Portland a long-standing member of this league, very steady-performing team, and to go away to Portland which is a hotbed of fans and support – I think to go to both of those games and come out having held our own… that game in Portland, I don’t think they had a shot on goal after they scored, and likewise at home to come back and get a goal, and obviously lose another, I think we held our own. I think we showed that with a bit more time, and a bit more time together, and a bit more work, we will do the best we can do. But I think it will be something to watch. Off the field, I just thought the spectacle on opening day was everything we could have wished for. I think a fantastic crowd, record-breaking crowd, great event, good energy, everything was with us: the energy, the city, the weather. There wasn’t a single person, including all of the folks from the media, and MLS and others – I spoke to a lot of Atlanta fans, and spoke to Darren Eales, my counterpart for Atlanta – everybody only had good, positive things to say about the day and the event in that regard.
“It’s continued, while we’ve been in this unusual phase, obviously talking to a lot of other people who do my job at other clubs. People seem genuinely impressed with what we’re bringing to the league, how we’ve shown up in our first couple of games, and how we’re sort of trying to present ourselves in the league. I feel very confident about it. We’re working from a very small sample size, but as we get more games on the road and more games at home, I think we’ll do a good job. I feel like we’ve got the right tools in the box to do it.”
Are you worried about losing the momentum?
“I think a lot of it is already lost a bit. That’s not because people don’t care, it’s just natural, you know? We’ve all done a thousand things since that fantastic evening on February 29th. We lost a lot of that momentum two days later when the tornado hit, and nobody cared about soccer – for the right reasons and rightly so. The way I look at it and the way I talk to our staff about it is: we built that thing from nothing, give or take. There’s been soccer here before, but that day and that journey for MLS to Nashville, and that energy we created and the show we put on, we’ll do it again, and we’ll have to do it again. I feel very strongly confident that people will come out and support it again. ‘Nashville shows up for Nashville’ is a phrase I’ve been using, and I’ve mentioned the NFL Draft earlier, brilliant example of that. I’ve mentioned in the past I think my very first-ever visit to Nashville, I got to go to a Preds game in the playoffs, and incredible. There we were in a big game February 29th: incredible. I think we can bring it back. I think it’s sad and disappointing that we lost that momentum at that time, but there are more important things in life than having to create another big party and as long as all of our supporters and fans and players and staff are safe and well, and we get to do it all over again, then I’m good with that.”