As Ian Ayre sat down for his latest in a series of virtual chats with sports media members in Tennessee and beyond, he did so donning a Nashville SC baseball cap and a fluffy white beard that is growing undeniably longer and fuller than when the public may have seen him at the expansion club’s home opener six-plus weeks ago.
There was a hint of Santa Claus about it, or as they’d say in his native Liverpool, Father Christmas.
It was an appropriately optimistic look for the man who has spearheaded the business side of bringing MLS to the Music City, a destination once thought inhospitable to the world’s game. And it was hope he brought again to the discussion more than a month after MLS suspended its season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
It started with his assessment of the club’s stadium construction situation, which hit overcame a substantial roadblock earlier this year and is now proceeding on schedule within local law enforcement guidelines. The expectation is for the facility at the Nashville Fairgrounds to be completed by mid-May of 2022.
“It’s been an interesting one, because in the sea of negativity that we’re all in, that’s been a bit of a guiding light for us in Nashville,” Ayre said. “We obviously had a kind of dark, rollercoaster ride on the stadium but it’s actually of late, been the one thing that’s a huge positive.”
There was also his assessment of how on earth the club could regain the momentum that had naturally been lost in the time since the club’s fantastic home opener, played before a state record for soccer of 59,069 fans at Nissan Stadium.
“The way I look at it and the way I’ve talked to our staff about it, we built that thing from nothing,” he said. “I think it’s sad and disappointing that we lost that momentum at that time, but you know, there are more important things in life than having to create another big party. And as long as all of our supporters and fans and players and staff are safe well, and we get to do it all over again, then I’m good with that.”
Of course, Ayre conceded as many around the league have in recent days that league play might resume before fans would be allowed back to games. He more or less echoed the common sentiment around the league there, saying if it’s the only way to return for now, then the only choice is to embrace it.
“I think it’s the lesser of two evils for some degree,” Ayre said of playing without supporters. “If you’re going to plan for every outcome, then you have to plan for every outcome, and even the ones that you don’t really like. But the one you just described as having games with no fans, it is at least a step up from where we are today.
“No, I can’t imagine it, but I have to. It’s kind of my job to try and imagine it, unfortunately, because it may unfortunately be the only solution at least for a period of time.”
As for trying to endure a break with a yet undetermined ending? Even that had its benefits, Ayre said, especially in the context of getting an expansion team off the ground.
“One of the things we said across the board, is that, as a new team, you never have enough time to prepare for the start of your first season — we were pushing it uphill for a while and then chasing it down the other side,” Ayre said. “All those things that we might’ve hoped to get through during the course of this first season, we’ve been able to sort of circle back on and do a lot more planning and work and put ourselves in a better state for when we do get going again.”