Nashville's Minor League Soccer Team
Last year, Nashville FC became the first supporter-founded club in American soccer—but not without dodging a few tackles. A fan-owner gives us the story behind one of the best summer sports tickets in town.
Written By: Nashville Lifestyles
Making history isn’t any fun if nobody’s there to see it. On a balmy afternoon in May 2014, players for the Nashville FC (NFC) minor league soccer team stared out at rows of empty stands inside the Vanderbilt Soccer/Lacrosse Complex, their new permanent home. The roster was built from mostly local players, with a sprinkling of former professionals as well as a foreign import. Just by playing this home opener, they’d secure a place in American sports history—becoming the first soccer team on record to be 100 percent supporter-owned—but the question on everyone’s mind was: Would anyone show up?
There are other fan-owned American sports teams, including the Green Bay Packers and a handful of baseball squads. But most of them were originally founded as for-profit enterprises—and NFC was built as a nonprofit entity from the get-go. I bought into the club as a “founder,” which means for the rest of the team’s existence I can say I helped make it happen. Part of the reason I bought in was because the membership comes with season tickets (and a free scarf, which was nice), but more than that, I wanted to be a part of something from the ground up. That’s the beauty of a membership model—it comes with literal and figurative ownership. Fans buy in at different price points, each of which comes with different perks. Most importantly, every membership buys a vote on major club decisions, like who serves in leadership positions.
And although the idea of facing an empty stadium on that fateful opening day was intimidating, for NFC, just getting to the game had been the bigger challenge. They’d already faced plenty of opposition, including some from their own backyard.
Nashville’s soccer community has a long history.
Many European clubs have local official fan clubs here. Multiple adult leagues prosper. And until 2013, Music City had the longest continuously operating soccer franchise in the whole United States: the Nashville Metros. When the Metros closed operations after 22 seasons (mostly for financial reasons), the soccer faithful lost the only object of their sporting desire.
Amid all of this, a local sports enthusiast named Chris Jones was hatching a plan for a new team. By day, Jones works as an efficiency expert for financial giant Pinnacle; he comes up with ways for the company to save money by finding better uses for technology. Off hours, Jones is a serious soccer fan. He turned to the European sport after growing tired of feeling like his interest in other local professional teams was at the mercy of fickle owners. I met with Jones near his office building earlier this spring. He’s an attractive guy—the kind who engages with the bartender in the same meaningful way as he does the writer whom he’s hoping will bring his team some publicity. He reminds me of someone who might have been the head of a fraternity in college. As we talked about the start of NFC, he launched into a tale about a revolution overseas that set in motion his interest in a local team.
In 2005, American billionaire Malcolm Glazier started buying up huge amounts of Manchester United stock. United, one of the most famous clubs in the world, has an enormous fan base. As Glazier moved in, some MU supporters revolted and eventually left the club—they went on to found a fan-owned club called FC United of Manchester. The idea of fans controlling the destiny of the team they were rooting for struck a chord with Jones. He decided to bring the idea to a few others in the Nashville soccer community to see if they could create something similar.
His seed for a grassroots movement landed in a fertile Nashville sports landscape. It was 2007 and, at the time, Predators fans were still reeling from the threat of the team nearly being sold and moved to Canada. Then, a few disappointing years later, the Tennessee Titans seemed to have little hope of making it to the playoffs (and still haven’t, since 2008).
Jones decided it was time. He got a group together and made first contact with the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), asking if they could create a new Nashville club team. Talks progressed. Jones and his group started doing the legwork to raise the $14,000 in fees that the league charges new teams. Sponsors were secured—big ones, like Delek and PepsiCo. Then, just when it seemed like their crazy idea might actually work, the NPSL sold its Nashville franchise rights to a different ownership group, Nashville Atlas FC, seemingly right from under NFC’s nose. When Jones learned the news, he was crushed. While he was busy gaining inspiration and gathering a group of people to back NFC, three other groups were doing the same thing.
Before their successful bid to become an NPSL club, Nashville Atlas FC was essentially a collection of pretty good men’s league teams. They were headed up by Nolan Pittman and had already raised the $14,000 investment required by the NPSL and secured the exclusive rights to operate a Nashville franchise. If NFC was going to exist, Jones learned, it would have to move out of town to avoid the NPSL’s non-compete policy. And if they did move, they’d have to win over a soccer audience that hadn’t yet proved it existed.
“Because [Atlas] was able to write a check, they got the charter before we did,” Jones says. “But we decided we would ride it out.” His group started putting backup plans in place to move NFC to Murfreesboro. “We even sent a message to our members saying, ‘If we move to Murfreesboro, do we want to change our name?’” he recalls.
But a funny thing happened on the way to their new home. Interest in NFC started to swell, and Jones had an idea: Maybe there was a way for Atlas and NFC to coexist—or possibly even merge. He needed to convince the group that had already won the bid to let his fan-owned team play, too. Pittman agreed to a sit-down. Jones speaks about Nashville FC with a passion that makes you believe in what he’s doing. Clearly, that’s how Pittman felt, too—the two talked through it, and NFC landed an important win.
“It was about finding a good way to have the community involved and be sustainable,” says Jones. “They agreed with us and said they’d give us the charter.”
Nashville FC ended up adding a few of the leaders from Atlas’s founding group to their board of directors and repaid a percentage of the NPSL fee that Atlas had put up. The two teams merged—and Jones’s dream lived on.
The stands at the Vanderbilt Soccer/Lacrosse Complex didn’t stay empty for long.
By the time NFC played their home opener, the team had sold more than 700 memberships. They set a goal of collecting 500 attendees at that first game (which would allow them to break even), and they blew past that—more than 1,900 fans showed up. One of them was Ron Deal, a deacon with a local Catholic church leadership who liked what he saw and quickly joined the organization as a volunteer. Today, Deal and his fellow fans hold the reins to help make some of the club’s most important decisions.
By the end of their first season, NFC sold more than 800 club memberships. They had people like Deal donating time to their cause. They regularly drew crowds approaching 2,000. And the product on the field wasn’t half bad either—they won six of 12 games last season. Just as importantly, they played entertaining soccer.
Despite last year’s success, the 2015 season isn’t all open nets and game-winning kicks just yet.
On February 11—just as NFC was just starting its 2015 membership push—The Tennessean dropped a bomb, reporting that the Harrisburg City Islanders (a higher-level semi-pro team) were considering a move to Greer Stadium. Plans were still very preliminary, but according to the article the team owner had met with the metro officials in charge of Greer’s future.
“When I first read the article I immediately felt a level of disrespect for our club and our members,” says Jones. “Then it turned to feeling sorry for those in Harrisburg who have supported that club for all those years. Leveraging a city like that goes against everything we stand for at Nashville FC, and to think the local soccer community would just turn a blind eye is a bit arrogant on their part.”
The impending threat from the North was still be hanging over the heads of NFC’s fans when the team played its season opener on May 9. No one knows whether Harrisburg’s interest in Greer is credible or just a power play to improve its own stadium situation. But even if NFC keeps its place as the only real soccer show in town, they face big hurdles, including an establishment with rules that might not permit a 100 percent supporter-owned team into a pro league.
What’s certain is that the club will put a decent team on the field and that Deal and a couple thousand of his fellow supporters will show up. I’ll be there, too, as I still can’t find a better sports deal in town for me and my kids. Plus, I like the idea of being a part of history.
To an outsider, it might seem strange that a town known for just about anything other than sports is embracing NFC. But if there’s one thing you can rely on Nashvillians doing, it’s their own thing. This town, with its unique combination of a big-time music scene with a small-town feel and a willingness to embrace the weird, is the perfect place for an upstart like Jones to make history. The fact that he’s doing it through a sport that much of the country still ignores only makes it that much more “Nashville.”