NASHVILLE – All it takes is a glance in each direction for Nashville SC’s soccer-specific stadium to feel like a reality. Once little more than an abstract concept, or a pie-in-the-sky dream, there’s a physical manifestation of what will be in the not-so-distant future. Simply put, there is a stadium. While there’s plenty of work to be done, and not just finishing touches, all is on-track for an opening early in the 2022 season.
The off-field work will never truly be done for club CEO Ian Ayre. But certainly he’ll be excited to have one major infrastructure project in the books, and as the stadium draws closer and closer to a planned May opening, that piece of the Nashville SC puzzle looks and is more complete with each passing day.
“We really have been running in parallel for the whole of our time in Major League Soccer since February 29 when we kicked that ball, because we always knew that we had this to deal with,” he said of the project. “And even though it looks visually more complete and more close now, even when we were digging a hole in the ground, there was an awful lot of design work and architecture going in. So we’ve always had everybody running parallel on both projects. It will be incredible to get it open and finished, and we can really just focus season-to-season and be like everybody else, rather than this dual-edged project. But again, people have done it without complaining, they’ve done it through the most difficult year period, ever, throughout the world, and we’re lucky that we are where we are.”
Nashville SC is eclipsing nearly all reasonable expectations early in the franchise’s history. The Boys in Gold made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals in their inaugural season – despite all the difficulties that come with an expansion year falling at the same time as a global pandemic – and are on-track to return to the playoffs in 2021. The club’s attendance has been a major revelation, ranking fifth in average home attendance in Major League Soccer with 17,469 fans per match – despite having early-season capacity restrictions through the first four games – despite what you may read locally.
The next phase of the challenge is to capture a bigger piece of Nashville’s heart. Those deeply invested in the sport (people reading this site: that’s probably you!) have been on-board from the early stages. But penetrating into the broader market is a goal of the club. And it’s one that the NSC stadium will help to accomplish.
“I think people who love soccer in this city, and maybe some people who love sports in this city kind of get what we’re building,” Ayre said “They understand what having a soccer-specific venue means as a soccer fan. I think for people who are new to the sport and have not had the opportunity to be this close to this facility yet, our big challenge is to help them understand just how different and how exciting a venue this will be for our sport.
“The fact that – just for perspective – the back row of the back seat here on every level is only as far back as six or seven row back in the club section at Nissan. I think that just gives people perspective that the high seats aren’t that far away. I think somebody told me the furthest you can be away is 150 feet from the actual field of play. And that, and all of the different facilities and the incredible stuff that we want to bring to life here, I think they should all make people excited about buying tickets, getting involved. It really is going to be something special, I genuinely believe that.”
Progress on the stadium isn’t the only major event for Ayre within the past several days, though. Thanks to the good work that has been done at the club – including but not limited to overseeing various stages of the stadium process – his contract in the CEO role was extended by owner John Ingram earlier this week. Ayre will now serve as the club’s leader through the end of 2026. The potential for a World Cup match in Music City that year – and the explosion of the sport around the country as it hosts the globe’s biggest event.
As much as Nashville’s soccer project and stadium project can be seen as working in-parallel, the extension of Ayre’s contract can be seen as a tangible result of the success in getting those pieces done – itself parallel to the visible progress toward a completed structure at Nashville’s Fairgrounds.
“Personally for me and my family, it’s hugely humbling,” he said. “Particularly, I think, because of knowing that I’ll be here at least until that year when the World Cup is here. It’s such an important moment in soccer in the US, and for me to still be a part of it. But more importantly, I think the part I’m most excited about is I think we’ve genuinely assembled the most amazing team here on and off the field, and to know I can kind of lead that ship right through to 2026 and maybe beyond.
“I’ve learned after a long carer in sports that structure and organization and management of those things is so vital, and we have some incredible people involved in ensuring that we do maintain that. We have a great support from our ownership, and you want to promise to do things and deliver on them. What that means is you can keep asking, you can keep expecting your ownership to support you. If you start getting those things wrong, then things go wrong. I think that we feel good – I know John [Ingram] feels confident – that we’re doing a good job in all areas of hitting our targets, hitting our budgets, and this is the biggest investment that anyone will make in this club in anything. Getting this piece right was paramount.”
“So it’s validation for me, which is incredible, but I hope it’s also validation for the rest of the team.”
When Nashville SC first walks out of the tunnel and onto the pitch – whenever that happens in the early stages of the 2022 season – it won’t mean just validation, but a dream realized.