I fully expect Nashville to have an MLS franchise in time for Christmas. Perhaps even a Chanukah gift this week. It’s just incredible how fast this has happened. Maybe I’ll be wrong, but I doubt it. Don’t believe me, then ask Jeff Rueter. I’m not here to argue the good and bad of each market. That has been done many places. Instead I thought I’d give everyone a few glimpses into the crazy explosion in Nashville from no soccer to amateur soccer to MLS. While it may not seem fair to other markets, it has been quite the rocketship ride.
Much in the way Justin Brunken and the Donahoo brothers are the founders of American Outlaws, Christopher Jones in the godfather of Nashville SC. While there are many people responsible, he’s the one that got it started. I remember meeting at a Jersey Mike’s in early 2014 and hearing this crazy idea that few guys I’d never heard of were starting a team to compete in the NPSL and needed rooms to house players for the summer. I had two kids playing soccer for Nashville FC and an extra room so I said sure and such began my involvement. A polite 21 year old from England named Ben Jones stayed with us that first summer and a freshman from local college David Lipscomb nicknamed “Buddy” stayed with us the next. The coaches of the amateur team came from the youth club with Bryan Johnson heading up the team in the first year. Players were from local colleges and other random places. A few were housed by fans, like me, while others helped them find summer jobs. Attendance at games ranged from 750 to 2000. Assuming I’m right about Nashville getting an MLS franchise those numbers have to sting Cincinnati or Sacramento. If anyone has exact figures please share, but I’m pretty spot on. I was at many of the games the first year and a few the next. Games were played at Vanderbilt. The soccer stadium which provided a nice atmosphere or the football stadium which was depressing. A thousand fans in a 40,000 seat stadium isn’t ideal. A large part of the crowd were soccer parents with kids from different youth clubs. There was a small supporter’s group, The Roadies, with maybe a 100 people on a good day. The club’s revenues were made up of $75 “owner” donations and game ticket sales. The goal was always to move up an get a professional team, either USL or NASL. The only thing holding a move to professional soccer back was money.
Things changed dramatically May 19, 2016, when DMD looked to acquire Nashville FC. DMD had the money to buy a USL franchise. While I’ve never seen an exact figure, I’m confident they paid around $2.5 million. DMD ownership consisted of David Dill, president and chief operation officer of LifePoint Health, Christopher Redhage, co-founder of ProviderTrust, a health care software company and Marcus Whitney a man of many hats including former chairman of Nashville FC. What was there to acquire from an amateur team? Mainly the name, logo and color scheme, in exchange for a 1 percent equity stake in the USL team and a voting seat on its board. Really they were buying the goodwill and fanbase that Nashville FC had built the previous two years. Unfortunately DMD ran into a problem with the youth club. They didn’t want to give up the Nashville FC name. They’d been around far longer and it is the soccer brand name of choice. Lawyers got involved and DMD realized it would just be better to rebrand. So in September 2016, the USL team changed its name to Nashville Soccer Club. So technically DMD never bought Nashville FC. Instead Nashville FC, the soccer team, disbanded at the end of 2016 (the youth club still remains out at HYSA in Bellevue). At the same time they folded the club, they started Nashville Soccer Club Supporter’s Trust. The Trust was started by Ron Deal who later followed Christopher Jones into the Nashville SC front office as Director of Operations and Supporter Relations. At this time there is a the Supporter’s Trust Board in place, but DMD has yet to fulfill the original vision of maintaining 1% ownership and an advisory board seat to the supporter’s group. Though the group did reaffirm it would honor that commitment in a letter May 4th 2017 (the same day DMD was acquired by group bidding for MLS).
The bigger issue DMD faced was a group lead by Bill Hagerty that was trying to bring MLS to Nashville. Imagine you just bought a professional team and not a month later you have to take a backseat. At a Board meeting in the Fall of 2016, DMD was hoping to finalize a stadium plan by then end of the year. Hagerty was openly mocked as “unrealistic” thinking Nashville could just jump to MLS. I thought so too at the time as Nashville had no recent professional soccer history. It’s crazy to look back and realize current Nashville SC ownership and front office openly saying MLS was not possible just over a year ago. Trust me, it happened.
What I guess people didn’t know was that markets like St. Louis, San Diego, Detroit and Cincinnati (to some extent) wouldn’t be able to get a stadium deal done while Nashville had the Mayor on board to fast track it. It didn’t make sense to have two ownership groups, one for USL and one for MLS so May 4, 2017, John Ingram, under entity Nashville Holdings LLC, bought a majority stake in DMD Soccer. I would love to know the terms of this deal given Ingram is paying $150 million for an MLS franchise. With everyone in Nashville now on the same page the push for a stadium at the Fairgrounds was a lock. I’m personally surprised how fast and easy it was to get approved given what has happened in other cities. There is a racetrack on the Fairgrounds that put up enough opposition to defeat a redevelopment plan last time one was proposed in 2011. They were relatively quite this time. Maybe NASCAR fan likes soccer too? Also, let’s be honest, John Ingram didn’t need the city to give him 10 acres of extra land to develop. It’s absolutely necessary to build the retail, restaurants and bars near the stadium, but he could have afforded it. But hey, I guess making good deals is how you become a billionaire. Just surprised Nashville’s Mayor was so willing to go along. The council vote was 31-6. Nashville checked all the boxes MLS wanted. Luck and timing were on their side as well. Even the Predators made a Stanley Cup final run over the summer showing off how many fans Nashville has for a non market traditional sport. Having 50,000 people standing outside your arena is impressive for sure. Add that to good USMNT attendance numbers and Atlanta United showing there is plenty of demand for soccer in the South especially if demographics are right. Despite what competing markets wanted MLS to believe, Nashville SC won’t have a hard time filling a new 30,000 seat stadium.
So here we are. From housing and finding jobs for players in 2014 to MLS. From laughing at the impossibility of it all to a franchise a year later. It’s been remarkable. I would say I’ve never seen anything rise faster, but then there is bitcoin. So if you are enjoying a Nashville SC match in 2020 or just wondering how soccer in Nashville got going, you can thank the Godfather, Christopher Jones. I’m sure he’s gotten more out of this than he ever dreamed. I hope that includes a fat salary cause Nashville is now major league.