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Volume 21 No. 1
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Nashville embraced Predators; will it do same for pro soccer?

Seeing firsthand the tens of thousands of people that flooded downtown Nashville to watch the Predators play in the Stanley Cup Final, the question entered Court Jeske’s mind: Could the city do the same for a soccer match?

Jeske, a former executive for Soccer United Marketing and MLS, is optimistic that a city now awash in Predators’ gold is ready to embrace professional soccer.

“With this run that the Predators have had, you see a market that has an incredible sense of community and passion for sports,” said Jeske, who was named CEO of Nashville Soccer Club in October. “There is also an extreme appetite for soccer.”

Supporters come out to cheer on the Nashville SC U23 team. The club starts USL play in 2018.

Founded in May 2016, the club is set to launch in 2018 in the second-tier United Soccer League. But beyond that, local businessman John Ingram recently acquired a majority stake in the team and is making it the centerpiece of his bid to bring MLS to the city.

Several clubs launched in the USL and rode the wave of fervent local support to MLS, such as Orlando, Portland and Seattle. Nashville SC has that template to work with, but needs only to look about two miles east of their offices to Bridgestone Arena to see what has resonated with the city’s fans.

“I keep hearing people say the Predators are a ‘different brand of hockey’; I don’t think there is anything wrong with that,” said James Cannon, Nashville SC vice president of marketing and communications, who previously worked in sports marketing at the NBA and Octagon. “The Predators have done a great job of allowing fans to create unique traditions the way they want to, and while we want to do the basic blocking and tackling, we’re going to let fans create what the Nashville brand of soccer is.”

Both Cannon and Jeske noted factors they think will lead to soccer’s success in Nashville: a large millennial population, thanks to nearby universities but also the city’s continued growth; the share of residents born outside the U.S., 12 percent, many of whom identify themselves as fans of the sport; a lack of top-tier sports competition in the city during the U.S. soccer season; and the lack of professional soccer in the mid-South outside of Atlanta United FC.

With its USL launch still more than nine months away, the club is working quickly to deepen its roots in the city. Following the Predators’ example, it is aiming to be involved in as many community events as possible. It also launched an under-23 team earlier this year that plays at Vanderbilt University.

Nashville SC has also made some inroads on sponsorships as well, signing Nissan as its first jersey sponsor and Under Armour as its jersey and official gear supplier.

While it is still working on its stadium plans, Nashville SC has launched a membership club that provides both priority seat selection and discounts called the 1779 club, a reference to the year the city was founded as well as the limited number of memberships available. More than 1,000 people have paid the $50 to join the club, and Jeske noted that membership programs like this at other newly launched USL teams such as Sacramento and Cincinnati have seen members typically buy around three seats each.

Two big soccer events will also take place this summer at Nissan Stadium across town — two Gold Cup matches, including one featuring the U.S. men’s team, and the International Champions Cup with a matchup between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. Nashville SC is still planning its activation around the matches, but it hopes they will prove to be another sign that the city has embraced the sport.

“With all of this going on in Nashville, we want to hitch our movement to that energy,” said Jeske. “We want to tell our story, listen to fans, and have an entire community build a soccer club.”