Photo courtesy Eric Dorman / Nashville FC
Two weeks ago when the USL welcomed Nashville FC as the league’s newest franchise, nobody was more excited than club President Chris Jones.
As one of its founders, watching the club he helped build join the professional ranks was a dream come true for Jones, and a testament to the game’s hold on Nashville.
“I hate to keep using the word surreal, but there’s really not another word to describe it,” said Jones recently. “When myself and everyone else began working on Nashville FC, there really wasn’t any grander goals of reaching MLS. It really was just a goal right in front of us of can we even do this? Can we get a club off of the ground, and will the community support it? To go from that and to see the evolution, not only of myself and my role, but the club itself into a pro organization is pretty cool.”
Nashville FC started as nothing more than an idea Jones envisioned for years. In May, 2013, after thinking over the feasibility of building the club from the ground up, Jones and his friends formally founded NFC with little direction.
Upon founding the club, Jones knew one thing for certain: in order for the club to thrive, it had to resonate with the community. To achieve that goal, the club was built with the DNA of Nashville and its citizens embedded within the club’s fabric.
“In years past there were teams here and in other cities that struggled connecting with the community,” said Jones. “That was one of the big motivations; how do we make this club as close to the community as possible? Obviously, the fans are the most important part of any organization. I don’t care how talented your team is, or how talented your front office is, or anything like that, if people don’t come to the games, or if people don’t make the environment absolutely fantastic, then you’re not going to be successful.
“The two goals were basically how can we give the fan base and the community as much of a voice as possible, while still making the club sustainable?”
The answer to Jones’ questions was establishing Nashville FC as a non-profit club that was wholly owned by its fans. The community-owned model made Nashville FC a unique entity within American soccer, and it worked. The people of Nashville, along with people from across the United States and the world, bought into the club, and after a series of setbacks and a merger with another local team, the club took the field for the 2014 NPSL season, just a few months after Jones and his friends hatched the idea.
Since then, the club has not only grown in popularity within Tennessee, but the idea of the club has captured the imagination of fans throughout the United States.
“We expected for it to take two or three years before we would be able to support an NPSL or amateur club,” said Jones. “The fact that we were able to get a team on the field in basically eight or nine months, and then to go from that to sometimes pulling 2,000 people into the stands, to attracting local ownership and now being in the pros in that same brief three-year period, it’s mind-blowing. It just kind of speaks to how great our fans are and how great this city is.”
NFC’s path to the USL wasn’t always easy. Shortly after NFC established itself, other ownership groups and investors began scheming to establish a professional team in the city. The influx of competition spurred Jones and the NFC family into action, as they realized cementing NFC as the premier club in The Music City was going to be essential to the club’s future.
“Over the last year we’ve come to find out that there’s a lot of interest in Nashville,” Jones said. “It really made us take a hard look in the mirror. It was pretty phenomenal how the supporters and our fan base rallied behind us. It showed us that they’ve got our backs and they’ve got our best interests in mind, just like we’ve got their best interests in mind. From there we had a lot of conversations and decided to basically control our own destiny.
“It was great that we were able to partner with local ownership. In a city like Nashville, it’s a very important thing. We’re not a big city like New York, L.A. or Chicago where the owners don’t necessarily have to be from there. With Nashville it’s very important. You look at teams like the [National Hockey League’s] Predators. What turned their organization around was local ownership. This city is very big on supporting its own.”
Photo courtesy Nashville FC
By partnering with Nashville-based ownership group DMD Soccer – which included former NFC board chairman Marcus Whitney in its leadership – NFC’s current leadership was able to control its collective destiny. The fact DMD was a local ownership group was the clinching factor for Jones and NFC to commit to making the jump to the USL.
“We sent communication to the members and took their direction, and so we started down this path with DMD Soccer and USL,” Jones said. “With the amount of millennials here now, it’s very important that the ownership is also transparent and very sincere in their goals. The millennial age group will see right through you if you’re not sincere in what you say, and will not support you. That is very much in line with how this city has always been, so we were very excited that we were about to find not only local ownership, but humble ownership.
“These guys were very excited to partner with Nashville FC, and so far it’s been a great journey. It’s been pretty exciting to not only go to the pro ranks, but also partner with a league like the USL. It’s pretty phenomenal what they’ve been able to accomplish in such a short period of time, so we’re extremely excited.”
With Nashville FC now officially part of the USL, Jones is more than ready to further the ambitions of the club. Currently serving as Board President, Jones will make the transition with the club to the professional ranks, and will become the club’s first general manager. Jones is eager to take up his new role, while continuing to use the management style that has allowed the club to thrive so far.
“I think one of the things that I’ve always made sure to hold true is to know what I don’t know,” Jones said. “I’ve always made sure, as much as possible, to surround myself with those more talented than me in every field possible. There’s no reason for me to try to do graphic design. I think going forward personally for me to be successful, and for the club really, it’s going to be creating a team that has great chemistry, a team that cares about the city of Nashville, and are pros in what they do.
“I’m looking forward to working with the ownership to surround myself with people more talented than me. I think that is what makes a great organization.”
With just under two years to transition the club from amateur to professional, Jones is optimistic about both his and the club’s future, and is looking forward to further establishing Nashville FC as the club that represents and defines the Music City on a national stage.
“There’s some very close bonds there with everyone who supports the Nashville FC name, so I’m really excited to grow that family,” Jones said. “For example, for The Roadies to go from 60 people to a few hundred, or even a 1,000 people, and to help them grow. Just the entire experience. I know that’s cliché and kind of a generic answer, but anytime there’s a first of something it’s exciting. Every single aspect of our future is exciting to me, and I’m sure it’s going to be exciting for everyone else involved.”