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Supporter-Owned Soccer Team Fights For Its Future In Nashville

Nashville FC is a minor league soccer club, and also a revolution in American sports—a supporter-owned, non-profit team. Now, they're fighting for their future.
July 29, 2015, 12:25pm
Photo by Todd Bilbrey

On July 3, Chris Jones had 44,835 people over to his place to watch the U.S. Men's National Team play a Gold Cup tune-up against Guatemala. As President of Business Development for Nashville FC, a team in America's fourth-tier National Professional Soccer League, it was the biggest crowd Jones had seen at the team's home field for a soccer game. "There was so much pride, and public display of that pride. I found myself wanting to soak it all in," Jones said, reflecting on it later.

Jones was not just moved by the enthusiasm; he hoped that he was seeing the future. "I envisioned that if Nashville ever made it to the MLS ranks," he said, "or even USL, NASL level, this is what it could look like on a weekly basis."

A team like Nashville FC has to dream big. But while club soccer's rapid growth in the United States makes such an ascent a possibility, Nashville FC's present is interesting enough. Nashville FC is owned and controlled by its supporters, who vote on every club decision. All of the supporters (including Jones) purchase the right to participate; it's a non-profit organization, and all the funds raised from membership fees go to build the club. There are teams like this, of various shapes and sizes, in many other countries. There is nothing quite like it in American soccer, which means that the future of Nashville FC is also the future of an idea—that something other than the top-down sports ownership model can work in the United States.

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Jones believes Nashville FC's model can work, and has ever since he…well, since he watched a video on YouTube. "Silly as it sounds," Jones laughs, "I came across a video of FC United of Manchester. And it really resonated with me, how a group of fans can walk away from a team [that] is so well-known, as well-established as Manchester United, [and start] from the ground up."

Nashville is not Manchester, of course, and does not have an analogue in town (or in the country) to Manchester United, the supremely storied franchise whose leveraged purchase by the Glazer family—owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, among other teams—inspired rounds of heated protest and, eventually, the formation of FC United of Manchester as a supporter-owned club. Nashville did have the Metros, a USL club that operated intermittently in various forms for more than two decades, highlighted by a run to the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals that featured a win over the MLS' Kansas City Wizards. But the Metros were never a big part of the Nashville sports scene, let alone a team that belonged in a sentence with Manchester United.

"I followed the Metros off and on for several years, volunteering on match days when new ownership took over," Ron Deal, now the head Nashville FC's supporters' group, the NFC Roadies, said in an email. "It soon became very apparent, however, that the new ownership, a local businessman, didn't have the long-term interest or financial wherewithal to keep making a go of it. The travel costs alone of playing in the PDL, with travel to Florida and Virginia, were killers. Plus, there was next to nothing in the way of marketing to get the Nashville community involved." The Metros finally folded in 2012, and disappeared more or less without a sound.

"There wasn't any engagement," Jones said. "You'd talk about the Metros, like, 'Oh, are they still around?' I went one day to the website and it was gone."

The famous Nashville music scene. — Photo by Todd Bilbrey

But while the Metros never caught on in Nashville, there are reasons to think that soccer could work here. Nashville ranks 29th in size among U.S. markets, just ahead of a trio of three MLS markets: Kansas City, Columbus and Salt Lake City. The state is also home to a number of large companies, all potential sponsors for a soccer team; several, including Israeli energy company Delek, already sponsor Nashville FC. And the growth and diversity of Nashville have been reflected in a massive growth in the city's soccer culture as well, something local media has noticed.

The greatest proof, though, is what is already happening with Nashville FC. The club has more than favorable demographics going for it; there is deep organic support here that predates the team's existence. "[Jones] invited me to attend a get together at Fleet Street Pub where, along with a half dozen or so other folks he explained his vision of a truly grassroots, 100 percent fan-owned team," Deal says. "His passion and enthusiasm were contagious. There was low personal risk to everyone—well, except maybe Chris!—getting in to help build something from the ground up that maybe we could all look back someday and say, 'Yeah, we built that.'"

Jones hoped that his team's ownership group would reach 150 members; last season it topped 800, hailing from 26 states and four countries. Right now, the team draws around 1,100 fans per game at Nissan Stadium, but Jones has designs on bigger things. After just a couple of years in operation, Jones has been in contact with both the third-division USL and second-division NASL about a potential move up. "We've made our intentions known," Jones said. "You could see us in the USL within the next 12, 24 months."

In the meantime, Nashville FC has had to fend off a challenge from the USL's Harrisburg City Islanders, in a scenario that's queasily familiar to any American sports fan. The City Islanders are unhappy with their current stadium, and want the local government to pony up for a new one; this may be a hard sell, given that the city of Harrisburg filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2011 and is still in a tight spot financially. In an effort to force the issue, the City Islanders' owners have looked into relocating the franchise to cities that could support a USL team. Nashville is one such city.

You can see where this one is going. — Photo by Todd Bilbrey

After repeated requests to discuss the City Islanders' interest in Nashville, or even why the team's current stadium situation necessitated such a move, Harrisburg team president Tiago Lopes wrote in an email: "I will be absolutely available if you wish to cover a story around HCI and its plans for the season. I will be dedicated to it. As per Nashville, I am not willing to talk at this point. I have [forwarded] your email to our majority owner and either me or ownership will be in touch with you once the timing is right." There was no further contact from anyone with the City Islanders, nor did they respond to any subsequent attempts to reach them.

Jones acknowledged that Nashville, as of now, isn't capable of supporting two professional soccer teams, and a transplanted Harrisburg team would offer fans entry into a league a rung higher on soccer's food chain. But while Harrisburg has an edge in resources and cache, it lacks the allegiance of a the movement that created Nashville FC.

"When the news about Harrisburg's interest in Nashville broke, a popular theme among the Roadies was #BuiltNotBought," Deal wrote. "We all got into this to support Chris and build our own team here. Taking another city's team—particularly where they are drawing fairly well, as they have been in Harrisburg—just because the owner thinks he can get a better deal in Nashville? We're really not interested in that. Harrisburg's owner would have to work incredibly hard to undo the damage he did to his reputation here by not first approaching NFC about his interest in Nashville and engaging the club in conversations about how the two entities could work together."

If that expectation sounds overly hands-on and naively human in the context of how big-time sports business gets done in America, remember what Nashville FC members are used to from management.

"We have member socials," Jones said. "We talk about the progress of the club in a very informal environment. We do have an annual general meeting in December, and at that one it's a lot more structured. You have the board up front. We go over the budget, the upcoming season. We go through what our members benefited from last year. Last year there was an open board member seat, we announced the results of that vote. We ask if anyone from the floor has anything to add—because technically, they can remove me if they want. If I'm doing a terrible job, the members have the right to remove me, or any board member."

Unflagging support you definitely see what we did there. — Photo by Todd Bilbrey

For now, both Jones and Nashville FC appear to be safe. Harrisburg's owners have put in a bid for a Pennsylvania state grant of $5 million to help finance a new stadium in the city. "We've looked around," City Islanders CFO Nick Pettis told the Harrisburg Patriot-News. "But at the end of the day, we really want to be here."

That leaves Jones and Nashville FC time to grow the club, although just how much time is hard to say. Out-of-town bigfooting efforts have recently turned Atlanta and Minneapolis from NASL markets into MLS markets, and Nashville FC's grassroots success could work against its own interest if such a group decided the city's soccer fans were ready for a bigger team. Even Jones and Deal acknowledge that once the club has proven itself ready for the top-flight, sticking with Nashville FC's current member-owned model is unrealistic.

"I think Nashville FC can continue to move up the ranks in the U.S. Soccer pyramid," Deal said. "[But] eventually USL and higher league rules will dictate majority ownership and control by an individual with deep pockets." The team already has contingency plans for that, Deal says, and is "laying the groundwork for a lower-level reserve team system in which the supporters would maintain more ownership and control, similar to how the Seattle Sounders have done it with their S2 team in the USL."

In the meantime, Jones continues to serve at the pleasure of the members, whenever he can find the time. "We are all 100 percent volunteers," Jones said. "We squeeze this in during lunch breaks and at night. And for the most part, our members have been very patient with us. We aren't paid professionals putting this on. We're a group of people saying, 'Let's give this a shot.'" It's all Nashville FC can do, until the hard economic realities of American pro sports come calling, or until enough people have bought in, literally and figuratively, that the team can fill Nissan Stadium on its own.