Nashville SC

Press conference: Ian Ayre on Austin FC match, stadium progress, and much more

Nashville SC CEO Ian Ayre met with the media today. Watch or read his full comments here.

“Firstly, good morning everybody. Huge excitement here. I’m in our offices just opposite the Fairgrounds, and we just had meeting internally. There’s so much energy, and it’s kind of strange, we’re coming five games behind us unbeaten, but to some degree, just because of the changes in capacities and the first opportunity to get closer to what we’d all, I guess recognize as some more of a level of normality, it almost feels like a season-opener again. It’s great to be back there: it’s over a year now, 14 months or so since that start that we had back in February. There’s just huge excitement.

“We did some stuff with our supporters on Monday night out at the new stadium site with some of them, and just talking, hearing from people who were there that people are just genuinely excited about the game. It’s great that it’s against the new expansion team, Austin. I was very fortunate with our owner, John Ingram, and some other people to go down to their new stadium recently, and they’ve done a fantastic job there. We see ours coming together.

“I think excitement all around about this weekend. Weather looks like it’s going to be great Sunday night. We’ll all be hopefully cheering the Predators on in the afternoon, and then focusing on soccer in the evening.”

The club will have a halftime concert from Jordan Davis. What is the excitement of getting back to a normal in-game set of entertainment options?

“You know, a lot of what we said prior to even launching the team, and a lot of what we focused on was of course is really designed to come truly into its own when we get to the new stadium. We said we wanted to create this kind of festival of entertainment on gameday, and where each week that goes by – and obviously last year was very, very difficult – but we introduced our Gibson Guitar Riff, which has been hugely popular, and I know on social media, it’s been some of the most-watched footage we’ve had for the team since we started when people like Dave Mustaine played, and others. It’s just become really popular.

And so, in that same tradition, one of the things that exists at Nissan is that stage that we do the riff from, and we thought, ‘what great opportunity to bring live music into halftime.’ And so, a really great opportunity to have him come play from his new album. Lots of his fans, I’m sure, keen to get out and see live music and live performances again. So again, combining music from the Music City with soccer. I hope it just adds to that overall entertainment value Sunday night.”

What are ticket sales numbers looking like, where do you expect them to end up, and will you have day-of-game sales?

Yep, we will have gameday sales, Tim.

“We’re really encouraged by how it’s going. it’s interesting: although, of course, with the new rules we’re almost able to open up the whole stadium, one of the things that we did consciously and communicated was that we really want to make sure that we find a solution for everyone who wants to come. What do I mean by that? I think we’re still in that place where I think it’s important to allow people to come back and enjoy sports – live sports – in a more-traditional environment. So without social-distancing.

But for some people, that’s not necessarily what they want just yet. So we’ve almost got like two levels to the stadium, which is that the club and the lower bowl, generally, we’re trying to pack everybody in to that without social-distancing, and masks are optional – but we really would encourage people to wear them, but they don’t need to if they don’t choose to. But then in the upper sections of Nissan in the 300 level, we’re providing solutions for people that want to be socially-distanced.

“I don’t know where the number will end up. Right now, I would say we’re tracking certainly beyond – way beyond – where we were on opening day this year. Our season-ticket sales this year are up 24% on last season, which is incredible, given we only really had one unrestricted game. So I think I would be much cleverer than I am if I could predict the number. But we’re very encouraged by what we’re seeing from Nashville and soccer, and again, still in this uncertain time. The vaccine’s providing a lot ofd comfort and relief to people, but it’s not completely there yet.

“I think what Sunday will do is it will show us how big the appetite is at this point in time. I think it will show us that – help us understand – how long we need to offer both alternatives: the non-socially-distanced and socially-distanced solution.”

What has happened with the concept of a vaccinated section?

“I think similar to the last question: I think events overtook that idea. We certainly did all the work for that and actually got approval for that. But in the end, it was something we moved away from, simply because we’ve seen that there is a strong demand for people to be with people, sat next to people, enjoying sports as they traditionally would.

So in the end, what we realized was that by creating vaccinated sections, we would actually have to move some people from their designated seats, if you like, to create those sections. So what we’ve ended up doing, as I’ve said, is really focusing on filling the lower bowl in a non-socially-distanced way, and then from the club [seat]s upwards, finding a solution that provides a combination of both – non-distanced and socially distanced.

“We’re fortunate that, with the vast size of Nissan, we should be able to accommodate, certainly at this point, we should be able to accommodate both of those solutions. I don’t think, in the end, the vaccinated section really offered anything that we’re not offering at this point.”

What is the progress on the stadium? On-time, on-budget?

“Stadium’s on-track, on-time, on-budget, tracking really well. I was on a call very early this morning seeing some of the latest images of that. They’re pouring secondary level concrete on the steel work on the club side of the stadium. There’s so much build-out. I mean, from when we had the media day there, it’s almost unrecognizable.

“As I mentioned earlier, we had some of the Backline and supporters group out there on Monday night to come and see it, but also to see the area where they’ll stand.

“All of the slab-on-grade, all of the concrete has now been poured in the lower sections of the stadium, so we’re feeling hugely encouraged about how that’s going. Weather’s been good, contractors been outstanding. So only good things to report.

“And again on attendance, we’ve been blown away by the interest. Premier Club sold out, loge boxes sold out, the WeHo Club and Goalpost club are the most recent premium products on sale. 40% sold out now, and that’s before they’ve even gone on sale to the general public. So it’s moving in the right direction, it’s moving at the right speed, and the energy and demand for it is incredible. So we’re hugely pleased about it.

Can you put a number to current sales for the opener?

“I was just saying before, Chris, I think that it’s hard to put an attendance – it’s a bit like that opening day. I think in the lead-up to opening day, we were at – I can’t remember the number on the four or five days before – and then we had that 60,000 figure. The walk-up was huge. We saw in Nashville that it’s a very late market to come for tickets.

I think it’s almost impossible to pinpoint it. My best guess right now is opening day this season, we were just over 15 [thousand]. We’ll definitely be beyond that. I really couldn’t – we’re beyond that now – I really couldn’t say what the number will be. What I do know is that we’ve seen really encouraging activity for our ticketing team, and we’ve seen a lot of pickup in the last couple of days, which all trends in the same way as we saw back in last February.

“So, ard to imagine. I don’t imagine that we get to the numbers we got to last February, simply because we still have some of our own making: we’re still creating some restrictions in terms of what I said before as far as offering some socially-distanced solution and some non-socially-distanced solution. But we’ll pack a lot of people in there. I absolutely believe it will feel like being back at a real live sporting event, particularly in the lower bowl, where people will feel that they’re really enjoying all of that excitement that we all go to live sports to enjoy.”

What’s the next point that you want to reach in terms of re-filling the stadium completely?

“I think we have to be realistic, and we have to be respectful at the same time, which is that through the 2021 season, I think our absolute hope has to be that – and I don’t think anyone knows enough to know right now to know what that transition period is – but certainly within this season, I would be very hopeful that what we do is, little by little reduce the numbers that we have to provide for and deliver for a socially-distanced solution, and we gradually increase the level to normality.

Within both of those constraints, we will be driving – we’re still selling, as of yesterday – season tickets week-on-week-on-week. Normally the season kicks off, and that drops away. We haven’t seen that. We’ve seen people coming back and back. I think that’s an evidence of people personally feeling, ‘you know what, I actually feel comfortable going and doing this.’ Maybe they all bought some single games and came to a couple early on, and then have made that decision, and we hope that continues as things improve and people feel more comfortable and feel safer, if you like.

“I don’t think we can pinpoint when and how. I think what we have to do is be respectful, and it’s trying to find – as I said – that combination of giving as many people what they want as possible, rather than just saying, ‘there’s no social distancing now.’ I think at this stage of the transition from lockout to where we are today, I think we really have to be respectful of the fact that different people want a different solution. We’ll continue with that as long as we feel it’s appropriate.

“But certainly going into 2022, we’ll expect to be back to normal and filling the stadium with as many fans as want to come in and enjoy it.”

How do you feel the club has penetrated the Nashville market, especially without sales in 2020 to guide you?

“That’s a great question, and usually at this point in your life cycle as a new team, you’ll be starting to understand what your average crowd might look like going forward, and what your season-ticket sales should be typically annually, and all those things. But genuinely, I don’t think we do know that yet, and I don’t think we could know that yet.

“It’s bits of what I said already, and it’s kind of generic. I think the fact that we’ve seen – again, just reiterating – we had one game last season unrestricted, and we sold a bunch of season tickets. To see a 24% increase in that number in 2021 shows you that more people who perhaps experienced that one game have stepped up and felt that they want to see more of that.

“At the same time, of those 60,000 people or so that showed up on that opening day, you absolutely have to believe not all of those people yet feel comfortable even coming in a socially-distanced environment. Then the third piece is, we still have a whole bunch of people who maybe didn’t come to that game, but have seen little bits of soccer, and we have to do the work to entice them in. Trying to do that in the current environment is much harder, because it’s still not an open society where everyone wants to go do what they would typically have done pre-COVID.

“So I actually feel very encouraged about soccer in Nashville, about the support for soccer in Nashville. I feel like we will do – as I’ve said before, we’ve only, of course, to date, sold premium products for the new stadium, but I absolutely believe we will sell all of that out during the course of the Summer, and then equally within that sort of timescale, we’ll start to place existing season-ticket holders at some point into their seats, which is right and proper that they get to go first into the new stadium. And then we’ll start to sell, really turn up the heat, to sell season tickets for the new stadium for next year. And there’s nothing going on right now – other than the uncertainty about the world – that makes me think that we won’t make a huge success of filling up that stadium for 2022. I don’t see anything other than the challenges of transitioning from where we are or where we were to where we need to get to as a community. I don’t see any challenges; I think there’s absolutely the energy and demand for soccer.”

What have you seen and enjoyed of the on-field product so far?

“Thanks Tim [u welcome]. I think it’s been great. In the offseason, it wouldn’t surprise anyone that when we’ve sat myself, Gary ,and Mike, and others and talked about our objective in the offseason – and sort of toward the end of last season as well – we always said we wanted to gradually chip away at this from a roster perspective. Rather than throw everything at it from day one or year one. You want to evolve such that you take what you take, you see what you’ve got, you analyze where you might be weaker or stronger.

“Coming into that final quarter of last year, I think we felt that offense was an area where we needed to improve and add more. Obviously we brought Jhonder and Handwalla to the group, and we saw a little glimpse of them last season, but they were almost like new signings coming in this year. Added Piñeiro and continued to look at things that – and CJ – and continued to add to that. And that continues.

“I think going in through those five games, seeing that we have more points, more goals: they’re the things that you want to see. I think even for the games – for me anyway, and there are much smarter soccer people than me to talk about the technical side – but even in those opening games where we slipped a couple of goals early in the game, I thought we looked so much stronger offensively coming back two goals in both games, but then also controlling the games.

“I think we feel encouraged that, even going at Real Salt Lake, which is a traditionally difficult place to go to and getting a point out of that. I think I heard a stat on the gameday that something like 80% of their games they haven’t lost there. I think generally, we’re in a good place, it feels great that we’re unbeaten after five games.

“I think we feel excited about coming back home to Nissan on Sunday and seeing the fruits of all that work put together against Austin, who’ve had a reasonably good start, as well. Again, I was lucky to go down there a couple of weeks ago and spend some time with their people, and the coach, they’re a good team. I personally like the way they’ve approached joining MLS, which I think has some similarities to us. We’re very different and each our own club with our own strategy, but I think it’ll make for an interesting and exciting fixture on Sunday night.”

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