GEODIS Park Offers The Soccer Dream That Nashville Could Never Have Imagined [Interview]

GEODIS Park. Photo: Courtesy of Nashville SC

In 2018, a small fan base of passionate soccer fans supporting Nashville’s USL team couldn’t possibly imagine what Nashville Soccer Club would grown into.

Everything–all the work, dedication, construction and wins–leads to Sunday, May 1 as Nashville SC plays its first home game at the new GEODIS Park.

Building a brand new stadium during a pandemic is already an extremely difficult feat, but building a new franchise, trying to win games and grow a fanbase is a completely different task to undertake.

“We’ve achieved so much great stuff in what has been a very difficult period to start anything,” Nashville SC CEO Ian Ayre shares with The Sports Credential. “We started and got shut down after two games in 2020, and yet we’ve built this stadium ahead of time and on budget. We’ve also finished in the conference semifinals in our first two years in MLS.”

Nashville’s success in its young MLS career has been unprecedented, including back-to-back MLS semifinals appearances, the MLS record for an undefeated streak at home, and pulling out 11 points from their first eight games, all of which were all on the road.

Ayre has been an integral part of this success.

Nashville SC CEO Ian Ayre. Photo: Courtesy of Nashville SC

A Liverpool, England native, he has been the leader of bringing this club from a USL team with some passionate fans to a legitimate MLS Cup contender with a fast growing fanbase. He stepped down as CEO of Liverpool FC in 2017 and was ready for the next adventure. However, at no point did he think that building a soccer club in Nashville would be that next adventure.

“I am a big believer that things just happened for a reason,” Ayre explains. “I got a call from a friend of mine who I’d known for many years and his company had been appointed to do the search to find someone for John Ingram and the Ingram group to run [the Nashville team]. It certainly wasn’t anything I’ve ever thought of doing, but the more time I spent on it, the more I realized what an exciting opportunity it would be not just to run a team, but to actually build the entire thing from scratch. [That is] kind of unique to do what we do in this sport. It doesn’t get more exciting and fulfilling than to create the whole thing.”

Opening Day at GEODIS Park was the hottest ticket in town, selling out within 20 minutes of general ticketing going on sale. With this brand new 30,000 seat state-of-the-art stadium, Nashville SC has solidified itself within the Nashville sports community.

Discussions of where the stadium would be and how it would look started early on with principal owner John Ingram and mayor Megan Berry before Ayre joined the club. Once the Nashville Fairgrounds were decided as the location and the team got the green light from the city, Ayre and the rest of the organization began planning what the stadium would look like in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood.

GEODIS Park while under construction. Photo: Courtesy of Nashville SC

“We worked as a group–myself and the ownership group–to look at the design with Populous, who were the main architect, and Hastings, who were the local architects. Some of the key messaging that came out of those discussions was really about the neighborhood in which it would sit in,” Ayre shares. “It was really important to make it look like it belongs in that neighborhood. Wedgewood-Houston is a very up-and-coming urban area. There are some amazing stadiums both in the MLS and around the world, and some of them look like giant spaceships that have landed from somewhere, which might be the right thing in some places. But we just felt that our design, look, and feel needed to fit.

“We’re building the biggest house in the neighborhood, you don’t want to build the most gaudy one. A lot of brick, steel, and wood were built into the design, and some of the steel work is designed with a very industrial look. I think it works perfectly for the location and what we’re after.”

The stadium is also designed to be loud and exciting, as well as give fans tons of room on the concourse to use the restrooms and concessions without ever having to leave the action.

“This is a proper, authentic soccer experience. Even if you’re on the very back seat of the back row, it’s still 150 feet from the touch line. The rake of the seats is really steep, and it has a canopy all the way around so the noise will echo. The acoustics are really well designed, so I think the noise in that place is going to be insane,” Ayre adds.

Fans at the open training session at GEODIS Park. Photo: Courtesy of Nashville SC

With the success of soccer in Nashville and Middle Tennessee, and the building of GEDOIS Park, more opportunities will arise.

The stadium was also designed with use as a concert venue in mind, fit with top of the line equipment to host musical acts. GEODIS Park will offer a midsize outdoor venue to those who wouldn’t fill Nissan Stadium but want something bigger than the Ryman Auditorium or Bridgestone Arena.

“This stadium was designed with concerts in mind in particularly,” Ayre notes. “It has all of the phase power, lighting, plugins and all that type of stuff. It’s got the steelwork in the south end built, so they can hold stage and lighting rigs. There are artists dressing rooms and locker rooms that convert into green rooms. We own our own pitch cover, so the whole thing has been designed, particularly, with with concerts in mind.”

Nashville is currently working on a bid to bring the 2026 World Cup to Music City and host a few games. GEODIS Park won’t host a World Cup game with only 30,000 seats, but the stadium shows a commitment to soccer and soccer fans which is something FIFA will be looking for. New practice facilities for Nashville SC are also on the horizon, which would be utilized by teams playing in the World Cup.

“I’ve been involved in one of these bids before, and one of the things that FIFA looks for is that most cities can put on a great soccer match,” Ayre says. “They look for cities with good energy and that can entertain people. Where better than Nashville? I could see a scenario where our stadium, if we were a host city, could become a place where we do concerts, massive watch parties and those types of things. Obviously, it would be another facility that they could tap into.”

Pictured L-R: Mary Cavarra, Brian Tibbs, CM Joy Styles, John Ingram, Michael Carter, Darrell Freeman, Ian Ayre, Eleanor McDonald at the ground breaking of GEDOIS Park

The entire process and project was a massive undertaking, but nothing could’ve been done without a great team around Ayre and the ownership group. Building a strong and competent team to help take this stadium from an idea on paper to a glorious building overlooking the neighborhood was a source of pride for Ayre.

“For me, personally, the best part was assembling the team that makes the whole thing work–building the actual staffing, both initially with my senior management team, and then all other people below them,” he notes. “We also have 30 players and coaching staff, so it’s a big organization that comes from me being employee number one, to having almost 200 people. That’s been the most exciting part for me, and the most rewarding, because anyone who’s run any organization knows that getting the right people is probably the most important, but also the hardest task.”

With the new stadium opening its doors just days from now, fans can expect a massive party hours before the game and after, including family friendly activities, a pregame concert from Breland, and a postgame concert from Judah & the Lion. It will be a celebration of not only soccer and the club, but of the community, the city, and everything that Nashville has to offer.

“We like to think of it like a festival of soccer,” Ayre sums. “If you go to a music festival, you go because you usually really like the headliner. In this case, soccer is that headliner. The 90 minutes is the headliner, but we wanted to surround that experience with all sorts of other things that people will come for, and then talk about.”

Steven Boero