Golden Ticket

by Graham Hays

Vanderbilt alumnus John Ingram's vision for Nashville SC takes shape as the ‘Boys in Gold’ win over legions of soccer fans across Middle Tennessee.

The deal that was the prologue to Nashville SC’s remarkable rise as a successful Major League Soccer club was among the easiest that John R. Ingram, MBA’86, ever struck. When his  son, then a soccer-obsessed high schooler, proposed a trip to England and a Liverpool FC game as a dream birthday experience, Ingram didn’t need to make a counteroffer. He agreed on the spot.

Ingram, now the principal owner of Nashville SC, wasn’t raised on soccer, but sports and the communities they foster were an important part of his childhood. Attending Vanderbilt games at Dudley Field and Memorial Gym with his family, he had watched fans from across Middle Tennessee gather to cheer together—and sometimes commiserate together.

Yet, at Liverpool’s venerable Anfield stadium, father and son discovered a sports community that transcended anything either of them had experienced. Taking their seats in the shadow of the Kop, the famous stand that resembles a wall of humanity on game days, the two felt the deep connection that unites the club’s fans not just within its namesake city but across continents as well.

“It’s a special place,” Ingram recalls. “When they’re all singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’ and just the enthusiasm of it all—it was really something.”

That birthday soccer trip was not solely responsible for Nashville SC. Creation stories are rarely so tidy. But for the inveterate sports fan Ingram, the experience fed oxygen to already smoldering kindling.

This past May, despite skeptics, politics and a global pandemic, Ingram’s Nashville SC opened the doors of the largest soccer-specific stadium in North America: Geodis Park, a 30,000-seat facility in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood. Already a success in the league, having made the playoffs in their first two MLS seasons while playing elsewhere, the “Boys in Gold” finally have a home of their own, where they hope not only to become a community institution but also someday lift trophies.

Ingram, a longstanding philanthropic supporter of Vanderbilt Athletics and a respected business and community leader, observed soccer’s steady upward trajectory in the United States and the similar ascendance of a young, vibrant population in the “It City” of Nashville. Marrying the two by bringing Major League Soccer to town didn’t call for a salesman. But soccer in Nashville did need a steward—someone committed to authenticity in all three parts of the name chosen: Nashville. Soccer. Club.

“I wanted to build something in Nashville, with Nashville and for Nashville,” Ingram says.

Vanderbilt University Athletics - Official Athletics Website

“As far as the doubters and skeptics, we proved them embarrassingly wrong.”

John Ingram, Vanderbilt trustee and Nashville SC owner (photo credit: Karlee Sell/Vanderbilt)

Right City, Right Time

The trip to Liverpool wasn’t Ingram’s first encounter with soccer culture. While working for the European subsidiary of one of Ingram Industries’ operations headquartered in Belgium, he watched as that nation of about 10 million people turned its collective attention to the United States for the 1994 FIFA World Cup. For many Americans, the tournament was their first opportunity to see in person the game played at the highest level. For an American abroad like Ingram, who’d been raised on the staples of baseball, basketball and football, that World Cup was a firsthand look at soccer’s hold on much of the rest of the world.

“My experience up to that point with the people of Belgium was that they were quiet, maybe even a little dour,” Ingram recalls. “Then, after a victory in a World Cup match, they’re out at 2 or 3 in the morning and going as crazy as any fan group in the world.”

A few days later, at another World Cup match played in Orlando, Florida, Darren Ambrose watched the Netherlands play a knockout game against Ireland. Now in his eighth year as Vanderbilt soccer’s head coach, Ambrose was then embarking on a coaching career at Rhodes College in Memphis.

Born and raised near Sheffield, England, where the combined equivalent of nearly one out of every five residents might attend Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday games in any given week, he was struck by the antiseptic atmosphere during the 1994 World Cup. Back then, soccer was still a niche sport in the United States. And that was especially true in places like Tennessee where the other football held sway.

“Soccer in Tennessee was an afterthought,” Ambrose recalls. “It was just the other thing that you did, over there in the corner, but it was never really mainstream. It was almost frowned upon back then.”

With the 1994 World Cup as at least a convenient milepost, and likely a causal factor, perceptions and participation changed over the ensuing three decades—across the country and in Tennessee. Soccer went mainstream, with nationwide participation in boys and girls high school soccer nearly doubling between 1994–95 and 2018–19, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.

In Tennessee, the sport also has grown significantly. In 2018–19, 14 percent of all boys and girls competing in high school athletics in the state were playing soccer, up from just 9 percent in 1994–95.

Likely both feeding and benefitting from the surge in participation, professional soccer has found an audience in stadiums and on television. NBC recently renewed its rights for the English Premier League in a six-year agreement reportedly worth approximately $2.7 billion. Meanwhile, Major League Soccer, which has grown from 10 teams in 1996 to 28 teams today, agreed in June to a 10-year broadcast deal with Apple worth $2.5 billion.

Ingram watched that evolution play out on a micro level in his own family, as his son gravitated to soccer. But macro trends also caught the businessman’s eye. Soccer—a sport with a rich history and rivalries older than any in traditional American professional team sports—nonetheless turns out to be ideally suited to a 21st century audience.

“Younger generations, their attention spans are shrinking significantly,” Ingram says. “They’re not watching four- or five-hour games. They might watch Instagram clips of it, but they’re not going to sit there and watch it. Soccer is reliably two hours. It’s not the whole day. You can go do other things.”

He also realized well before a team took the field that an audience for soccer existed in his hometown, as Nashville has grown significantly bigger and more diverse over the past decade—spurred by an influx of residents from around the globe. Some come from places where soccer is embedded in the culture, while others are open to new experiences as they settle in a new place.

Ingram compares the city’s changes to standing in the surf as the tide comes in: Stand there for a minute or two, and you don’t notice a change; stand there for an hour, and you’re swimming.

“I see it when I walk around our stadium now,” Ingram says. “We’ve become a very eclectic place, with lots of different faces and ethnicities, and I could not be more pleased about it. I put faith in the fact that I thought the macro trends were strongly in our favor.”

Taking the Leap and the Lead

When members of the Nashville business community, led by current U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, BA’81, JD’84, formed an organizing committee in early 2016 to explore bringing Major League Soccer to Nashville, the trend lines gave Ingram ample reason to want to be involved. But he wasn’t looking to take the lead. He was already devoted to bringing the best out of a team in town—soon to be 17 varsity teams, in fact.

In addition to his primary duties as chairman of Ingram Industries and the Ingram Content Group, he is actively involved in supporting Vanderbilt. A longstanding member of the Board of Trust, he is an ardent advocate for Vanderbilt Athletics and contributed the $10 million lead gift to the ongoing Vandy United campaign, a $300 million investment in major facilities and operational enhancements.

“One of the things I’ve always believed is that being great academically and being great athletically are not mutually exclusive,” Ingram says.

Initially, Ingram felt that taking a lead role with the MLS effort might stretch his passion for sports too thin. Not surprisingly to those who know him, those concerns abated as the committee’s conversations picked up steam.

Without a soccer stadium or stadium agreement in place, Nashville was not an immediate favorite for expansion. The somewhat quixotic Nashville Metros had folded in 2012 after a long run as a semi-pro and pro team. And in 2016, a different Nashville group had been granted an expansion team in the United Soccer League, the level below MLS on the professional soccer pyramid.

Nashville, in even Ingram’s words at the time, began its bid as a long shot. Yet, the more Ingram thought about how well the sport fit the growing city, the more convinced he became that he would regret not putting himself forward to lead the effort.

“I know how passionate he is about all Vanderbilt sports, and that passion has extended into soccer,” says Mark Wilf, a Vanderbilt Board of Trust member who is now the chairman of MLS’ Orlando City SC after previously holding minority ownership in Nashville SC. “John was a driving force. His taking the helm of the effort really made a difference in making it happen. He has such civic pride about Nashville and Tennessee. I could feel his passion about bringing another major league franchise to Nashville and how important that was to him and his family. It really combines so many of his loves and passions about Nashville and sports and stewardship.”

In December 2016, a week after Nashville’s bid was named one of the 12 finalists for four MLS expansion franchises, Ingram became the lead investor for the new franchise. In May 2017, he purchased a controlling interest in Nashville SC, the USL expansion team, consolidating the city’s soccer efforts under one banner. All the while, he and his team were working with then-Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, MBA’93, on a public-private partnership for a new stadium.

A little over a year later, all those efforts finally paid off. On Dec. 20, 2017, in a ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame, MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced that Nashville would be the league’s 24th team, beginning play in 2020.

“Nashville is a rising city with a passionate soccer fan base, a dedicated ownership group and civic leaders that truly believe in this sport,” Garber said at the time. “Nashville continues its ascent as one of America’s most dynamic communities, with its incredible energy and creativity. For us, that makes it a perfect place for MLS expansion. John Ingram and his partners had a plan to bring MLS to Nashville during the last year, and they executed it at every level.”

Building a Home for Nashville

Heeding the advice of Nashville SC’s CEO Ian Ayre, Ingram arrived several hours early for Nashville SC’s inaugural MLS game on Feb. 29, 2020, in the team’s temporary home at Nissan Stadium. Ayre, who had once served as CEO for Liverpool FC, told him to take the time on a busy day to soak in the experience.

Even though visiting Atlanta United FC came away with the win that day, the game day experience didn’t disappoint. The crowd of 59,069 was the largest for a soccer game in state history, comfortably beating out numerous visits from the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams and a game between English Premier League giants Manchester City and Tottenham.

It would be a long time until the team had a chance to duplicate that crowd. After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nashville SC didn’t play its next home game until Aug. 30, 2020, and they played in an empty stadium until October of that year. Even the first playoff game in club history, a 3-0 victory against Inter Miami CF, was played in front of a limited-capacity crowd of 3,240.

While the short-term challenges of getting an MLS team off the ground during a pandemic were substantial, securing the long-term home necessary to put down roots in the community proved equally daunting. Although the then-mayor proposed a new stadium shortly before MLS awarded an expansion franchise to Ingram’s Nashville Soccer Holdings in 2017, turnover in city hall left plans unsettled as the USL version of Nashville SC took the field the next year.

Vanderbilt University Athletics - Official Athletics Website

"John was a driving force. His taking the helm of the effort really made a difference in making it happen. He has such civic pride about Nashville and Tennessee."

Mark Wilf, Vanderbilt trustee and Orlando City SC chairman (photo courtesy of Nashville SC)

Ingram spent many long Tuesday evenings that spring and summer making his case at Nashville’s Metro Council meetings. He was not alone, however. Yellow scarves were a fixture at council meetings long before they became ubiquitous in Geodis Park.

“Quite frankly, I appreciated them and still do,” Ingram says of the fans who attended those hearings. “They’re a large part of the reason I didn’t want to change the name or change the colors. Soccer supporters really bond with those features. I didn’t want to be that guy that got what he needed and then disregarded the core constituency that helped make this all possible.”

An innovative community benefits agreement eventually helped consolidate support for final approval of the stadium in fall 2018. The agreement included minority business enterprises, affordable housing, a $15.50 minimum wage and childcare facilities for workers drawn from the same community the stadium would serve.

As drawn out as the political process was, Ingram never needed any convincing on the spirit behind working with the community. Separate from the CBA, for example, Nashville SC selected a Black-owned architectural firm, Moody Nolan, and construction company, Pinnacle Construction Partners, for the 15-acre practice complex under construction in South Nashville.

“I’d like to believe we’ve taken it even well beyond the agreement,” Ingram says. “We’ve never been about what is the least we can get away with. This is my home, and I want this stadium to be, however possible, a model for how development and new things are introduced and built out in our city.”

Another change in the mayor’s office led to a new round of negotiations that stretched on until shortly before the club’s MLS debut in February 2020. But on May 1, 2022, the Boys in Gold took on Philadelphia Union in front of a capacity crowd of 30,109 in Geodis Park, the stadium that Ingram said was modeled, at least in spirit, on Wrigley Field and Fenway Park as reflections of a neighborhood.

“Of all the things I’m most proud of, probably No. 1 would be the fact that people have really enjoyed themselves, particularly at the new stadium,” Ingram says. “I can tell they have enjoyed it even more than they expected to. I think it’s a tribute to a beautiful, thoughtfully constructed stadium with great amenities, and particularly our supporter’s section, which is loud and proud.”

Expansion gave Nashville a soccer franchise. But the hard-fought battle to build the stadium was really what cemented Nashville SC as the city’s team.

“As far as the doubters and skeptics,” Ingram says, “we proved them embarrassingly wrong.”

A Culture Takes Root

Darren Ambrose remains a long-suffering Sheffield United fan, but Nashville is now home and Nashville SC his home team. A season ticket holder at Geodis Park, Ambrose sees reflected there what he grew up with at Bramall Lane in Sheffield and what is familiar to fans around the world.

“There is a culture that is pervasive in these places—your club is your belonging,” he says. “I think that is what is happening here. I go to Home Depot and there are guys wearing Nashville SC hats. I see bumper stickers everywhere. The genius of the people who market this is evident because they’ve created this sense of belonging. It’s a club, just like it was in England years ago. That’s how it grew. They’ve created this thing that you want to belong to.”

Off the field, Nashville SC has sought to embed itself through events like Pride Night, organized in cooperation with the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce, and “Section 615,” a block of seats given on a game-by-game basis to community groups, such as the Nashville International Center for Empowerment. Earlier this year, the club launched the Nashville SC Community Fund, through which local organizations seeking to “engage youth, promote diversity, inclusion and equity, and improve the community’s health and wellbeing” can apply for annual grants.

But as Ingram’s commitment to lift Vanderbilt Athletics makes clear, community excellence can and should go hand in hand with competitive excellence. He wants to win. Unlike some of the teams in the largest cities, he sought to avoid splashing big dollars on big names who might win more headlines than games. He turned to CEO Ian Ayre and head coach Gary Smith to bring that vision to life.

“I’m certainly a business guy, but I didn’t have any background in the business of sports—I particularly didn’t have any background in acquiring players,” Ingram says. “The talent pipeline for soccer is everywhere in the world, and there are a lot of unscrupulous agents and people. I wanted somebody to help me build this who knew how this worked and could help us avoid making dumb decisions. Particularly in Major League Soccer, where there is a salary structure, if you make bad decisions early on, you can spend years in purgatory trying to get out of it.”

Instead of purgatory, Nashville ended its first two seasons in the playoffs.

These days, Ingram still likes to get to the stadium early. He’s not quite as recognizable as Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry and actress Reese Witherspoon, both of whom are minority owners in the club, but he enjoys ambling around the concourse at Geodis Park and speaking with fans as they begin to filter in. Even if he goes unrecognized, he just enjoys soaking in the vibe. But as kickoff approaches, he returns to the owner’s box to focus on the game.

He is, in the end, a fan—for all the joy or suffering that brings on any given night.

“From the beginning, I’ve done this as much from my heart as from my wallet,” Ingram says. “It’s about both. I’m a business guy, so I want this to be done well and fiscally responsibly. By the same token, I’m a sports fan, and I want to win and compete. It’s really about both.

“My role ultimately is more about trying to be a responsible, engaged curator.”

Ingram didn’t need to make Nashville care about soccer. Nashville just needed someone to make soccer happen. And with Ingram’s help, the Boys in Gold are here to stay.

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