John Ingram can pinpoint his first real interaction with soccer. It was the year the global game came to the United States for the 1994 FIFA World Cup™. Yet Ingram was following it from abroad, while living and working in Europe.
“I was an American in Belgium but watching and dealing with all these different European countries and just seeing how much it mattered to them,” Ingram told me from his Tennessee home, where he’s been working through lockdown.
“I was travelling to Ireland for some work that we were doing and you may remember in 1994 Ireland qualified and also England didn’t and I’m not sure which the Irish were more excited about, the fact that they qualified or that England didn’t and it was just such a source of conversation and passion, I always took note of it,” he admits.
The Nashville SC majority owner can still hear the sounds of car horns honking at 3 a.m. as the often more reserved Belgians celebrated their own successes in the tournament. “It was like ‘wow’ this is really amazing how important this is to each of these countries, even countries that don’t seem to care about it a whole lot,” he remembers observing.
It might have been a soccer awakening for Ingram, but he was already a big sports fan. “I grew up playing a bunch of sports, I still do a lot of competitive showjumping, equestrian, so I know what it is to compete, relatively speaking, at high levels,” he explains.
One thing is crystal clear in chatting to the Nashville businessman: His sporting heart is in Tennessee. Ingram has been a long-term supporter of the sports program at Vanderbilt University and currently chairs the Athletic Committee. When it came to soccer, the chance to help bring MLS to his home was the key factor.
“I really wouldn’t have considered or been interested in doing this somewhere else,” he explains. “I thought that it was an interesting time to be catching soccer in this country. The demographic shifts were changing...younger people growing up in the country weren’t bonded to the typical American sports like they traditionally have been.”
So it brings us to a moment of history on February 29th, 2020 at Nissan Stadium. The re-airing of Nashville SC’s first MLS match on Fox 17 has stirred recent memories while the community is starved of sports.
For Ingram, opening night started early. “I went to the stadium probably three hours early... so much work had gone into getting ready for that night, I saw so many people and I was just determined I wanted to go early. I just wanted to soak in it and I wanted to go thank our fans and supporters for what I knew was going to be magical....it was almost surreal, but it was something I’ll never forget.”
There was to be no settling back into his seat once the game began. Ingram, like almost every other fan in attendance was on his feet wanting to kick every ball. So when Walker Zimmerman pounced to score Nashville SC’s historic first goal in MLS the reaction was no different. “I think I reacted like a fan, jumping up and down, screaming, hugging, I don’t even remember who, but whoever I was next to, but it was wonderful and I look forward to many more moments like that,” he says with a smile.
The result didn’t go Nashville SC’s way that night, but the authentic Music City welcome endures in Ingram’s mind. From super fan Soccer Moses to the tifo tribute to Johnny Cash, it was a unique MLS debut which draws heartfelt thanks to the 59,069 fans who set an attendance record for a soccer match in Tennessee. “I’d first start by saying thank you, we had faith in you that you would show up and you did,” says Ingram. “I felt it was what Nashville is, it’s who we are and that’s what I wanted.”
The following months would bring unprecedented challenges, from tornadoes to the current COVID-19 pandemic. A soccer club normally builds its way into a community, Nashville SC has had to hurl itself in headfirst to play a role. My conversation with Ingram occurs on the morning that players reported back for individual training, a welcome diversion and a small step toward soccer’s return.
“My analogy is a little bit like in Noah’s Ark,” says Ingram. “When the dove showed up back at Noah’s Ark with the little branch in its mouth, it’s a sign that we’re coming back. I think this club will be an important source of community for the community and I think that’s one of the wonderful things about sports in general is to belong to something that’s bigger than yourself... it’ll be a great diversion as we fight our way back from the ramifications of this virus and the tornado.”
Short term challenges remain, but Nashville SC’s owner is still looking long term, reminding him of why he first came on board with the successful bid to join MLS. “I’ve got children that are really passionate sports fans and I thought it would be really something that would be fun to do with them for the rest of my life and hopefully something that I could pass along to them,” he says.
And for the fans and partners? It’s a simple message, inspired by the lyrics sung on that magical Music City night in February: “Like our anthem says, you know we’ll never give up on you and we hope you don’t give up on us. We’re going to get through this, we’re going to come back and we’re going to keep working to build a successful and sustainable soccer club here in Nashville.”
When soccer returns, you sense Ingram for one, will be honking the horn of his car in celebration, just like the Belgians were back in 1994.