While Liverpool and Nashville are rarely confused, soccer is a star in both cities. CEO Ian Ayre is best-positioned to shed light on this.
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00:08 - 00:42
Welcome, everyone to The Big Stage podcast, where we talk to athletes, entertainers and executives about leadership, legacy and impact. I'm your host, Adam Sansiveri, managing director here at Bernstein and co-lead of Sports and Entertainment. Today, we're actually doing something a little bit different. We're recording in front of a live audience, and I'm equally excited by our guest that is with us today, Ian Ayre. His extensive career has spanned the world of sports, media and technology, without question today and has one of the top executive sports resumes in the world, I would dare to argue.
00:42 - 01:25
Ian is the CEO of Nashville's soccer club, Major League Soccer's 24th club, which debuted in February of 2020 at Nissan Stadium and then opened its soccer specific stadium in Nashville's Geodis Park in May, following ten years of active military service in the British Royal Navy and professional experience in consumer electronics. He was involved in the takeover of Huddersfield Town Football Club, serving as chairman and chief executive for the English Football League's championship club and became the founding managing director of Premium TV Ltd, a digital sports media company which secured the digital media sports rights of all 72 football league clubs and a host of Premier League teams.
01:26 - 01:59
On leaving premium TV and went to Asia to help build the Asian sports marketing organization Total Sports Asia. And then as probably we are all aware, and became the Liverpool Football Club's commercial director from 2007 until 2011 before being promoted to managing director. He then served as Liverpool's Football Club's chief executive officer from 2014 to 2017 and in the final year was named CEO of the Year of the English Premier League. Wow. And I'm sure I missed stuff, But Ian, thank you so much for being here with us today. It's an honor.
01:59 - 01:59
02:04 - 02:24
So we are sitting right here in Nashville, and I want to start with that leap of faith, as I would call it, the story of bringing MLS to Nashville. You've said that your biggest motivating factor was the unique opportunity to be at the start of an organization from a blank sheet of paper. What was most exciting to you about this prospect of a clean slate?
02:25 - 03:02
Yeah, well, good morning, everybody. So if you do what I've been doing for, I guess, the last 25 years in sports, when somebody approaches you, John Ingram, who's our lead investor, approached me with this opportunity literally to build everything I was employing, number one. I remember asking him, What do you have? You know what? Where do we start? In any piece of paper that you had from Major League Soccer that said, I get to build the 24th franchise and we've kind of got money and we've got a piece of paper and. And that was the big attraction, I think, in any business or any industry.
03:02 - 03:46
You know, a lot of my life and I think for a lot of people, you go into businesses and you really fix it in somebody else's mess. You know, you're arriving and there's all these sort of legacy issues. And that was the case at Liverpool. You know, I got there. It was 123 years old, I think, when I arrived. 27. And, you know, it was an incredible opportunity. But you're trying to change course of something that's been around a long, long time. And that's so difficult, whether it's people or process or existing relationships. So here it was, you know, you set the course, you draw the blueprint, if you like, literally for the stadium and then take it forward. Then that was almost five years ago.
03:47 - 04:00
That's great. Well, you certainly got it right so far. Three years running, three playoffs for the team. I think all of us Nashville Lions are very impressed. I'm curious, how did you home in on exactly what you wanted to build once you decided to do this?
04:01 - 04:45
I think when you build a team, unlike building a business in a different country, particularly with sports, you have to make it fit the place it's in. So, we started with basically going out and listening and talking to people like the oldest pro sports team, say the Predators and the Titans. And they were hugely helpful. But what was common was that Nashville wants to be entertained in a certain type of way, and soccer's the world's game, right? It's the number one sport in every other country. And that was part of the vision for John was I want this to be for the new Nashville, not the Nashville I grew up in, you know, 50, 60 years ago. But this Nashville today, which is all these different cultures and lots of people coming in from all over the world like myself.
04:45 - 05:07
And so, when we talk to people in communities, a lot of it was about what's the food going to be like? I mean, it wasn't it wasn't how good the team going to be, what's the food going to be like, and will you have my food and my choices and my genre of music? And they seem like kind of crazy things to start with, but it's really been part of the bedrock of our success.
05:07 - 05:27
Well, you've built a lot of things in your career, and specifically building a team is something that many leaders probably in this room have done or are focused on. So, I'm curious, your initial focus on creating the DNA of the team that you put together, creating an identity, if you will. What steps did you take to do that authentically and how did you think about it?
05:27 - 06:20
It's interesting to use the word authentically, and the first thing we did was create a set of values for the organization. And we really talked to a lot of people, people in the sport. When you think of Nashville, what do you think people in the city, people you know, around the sport of soccer, around the world. And we came up with different values, authenticity being one of them or authentic. And once we had that, we talked about, okay, how do we live those values? And then we actually employed somebody whose her actual title really should be the Values Police, because really, you know, whether it's our comms team or our digital marketing team, right. In a piece of content to go out or a press release, it all goes through her desk and she kind of says, okay, is this how we want to be perceived relative to our values? You know, is this who we really want to be?
06:20 - 07:09
I think in any business, and particularly in sports, and it was never more evident to me than when I was CEO at Liverpool that, you know, if you don't control the message, if you don't control how you speak and how people perceive you, then you can lose so much opportunity. And some people don't really focus enough on that. I think that we can all do great marketing and build great teams, but if there's a media story that kind of leans a completely different way, you can really lose control of all that hard work. So, we started with that and then we started hiring people. I was employee number one. I was I was working out of John Ingram's offices. I remember closing the door on the first day. He's like, Welcome, you know, this is your office computer, you know, and close the door. And I was like, oh my God, what have I done? And I'm.
07:09 - 07:10
07:10 - 08:03
We've got like 20 months before we start. And I literally had nothing. But as I started to hire people, I made the decision sometime back that I never read resumes. And there's a reason for that is, is that almost always when you're recruiting, you know, use a lot of agencies, recruitment agencies. So, I take the view that they've already done the work to tell you if this person has the skills and capability of doing the job. And so, what I'm really doing is actually finding out who they are as a human. And so, I really just like to disarm people to some degree by just making them feel very relaxed because I think you find out who the real person is. They'll come in and I'll just talk about the most random thing, like, you know, did you see this yesterday on TV, or we watched Breaking Bad? What do you think? And they're like, Who's this guy? You know? And I think it really serves as well.
08:04 - 08:05
That's really great to hear.
08:05 - 08:14
Under your leadership, Liverpool transformed from a club that was on the brink of bankruptcy to one that enjoyed strong financial and operational health. What do you attribute all this success?
08:15 - 08:52
Well, we had a very rocky ride in those ten years. I got the 2007 and the team at the time A just been purchased by two American owners, George Gillette, and Tom Hicks. And, you know, in a world where leveraged finance was pretty easy to come by and there was great history with both of them of doing that. But what was happening or perceived to happen behind the scenes was they were leverage in lots of all the businesses that they owned, really to come to Liverpool and bought the club continued to leverage finance against the team.
08:52 - 09:40
And then in 2009, you know, got into that difficult period with the markets the way they were and the way the world was and, you know, started to default on loans with the bank. And the way the structure of those loans was that the bank called in the loan and as part of the default could take away some of their votes and gave them to myself and the chairman, Martin Broughton, and empowered us to go sell the team from under our bosses, if you like, our owners, which is very, very tough. I got sued, as did mine, for $1,000,000,000 each for that, which is a pretty tough day at the office, let me tell you. Well, let me just say, if they can find $1,000,000,000 in my account, they can take 90%. And I'm good.
09:40 - 09:40
09:42 - 10:27
So. But what do I attribute it to? We sold the club subsequently to Fenway Sports Group, who hopefully many of you know, they own Boston Red Sox, Roush Fenway and NASCAR Nason, the Sports Network, incredible group of people. And the success for me was that we set a plan, we made a plan, and we set a course. And having set the course, you know, we were being bombarded by fans, the media and the UK media and European media for soccer. It's like football here is relentless. And so everything you say, everything you do is analyzed and twisted and commented upon. And it's so important to be able to some level to block that out and keep the court.
10:27 - 10:48
So we genuinely had a plan that was five, six years that we would borrow away and we knew that it would go kind of a little bit backwards before it came forwards and that was the case. Markets change or situations change, but the core plan was the same one we scratched out in 2009 ten and just kept going with.
10:48 - 10:51
That's an amazing look behind the curtain. Thanks for sharing that.
10:51 - 11:10
Now we've established you're from Liverpool, but through the course of your career you've worked in Asia, obviously the UK, briefly in Germany. You mentioned to me that you spent time in Spain and now you're in Nashville. How does this global perspective or worldly experience inform your outlook in the work that you do?
11:11 - 11:56
Yeah, I've been blessed, honestly. I've four kids and I've encouraged all of them to travel. I take as much opportunity to travel and and if you get the opportunity to work overseas, you should really consider it strongly. And the reason is that I think you and I came to Nashville, you know, I was given a vision by our lead investor that he wanted to build this team in Nashville for the new Nashville for everyone in Nashville. If you look at our audience, it's people from every culture, country, ethnicity, which was the intent. But in order to get that right, you have to understand and be able to, to some level immerse yourself in their culture or what their needs or wants are what they like differently.
11:57 - 12:35
You know, I lived in Malaysia. It's the favorite place of all the places I lived around. The world. China, Hong Kong spent some time in Japan, Thailand, Spain, Germany. It was my favorite place and the reason was it was the one place I. Wens Well, first of all, I was the ethnic minority in a country that's 98% predominantly Muslim, but has this real mixed melting pot of Indian and Chinese and all sorts of other cultures that that manifests itself in the, in the food and the way of life and the laws and all of the different things that go on.
12:36 - 13:05
I really loved that. I loved kind of understanding how when I wanted to go get a sausage sandwich, it's an English thing. Love, sausage. You can't buy pork sausages because it's a muslim country, Right? And so it was like you got to find a way around what you're used to and adapt. And I purposely made the decision to live in a predominantly Malay area and not where all the expats live. And I did the same in Shanghai.
13:05 - 13:59
And so when I came to Nashville, of course it's very different and you know, it's America. But the audience that we were trying to attract was all of those cultures that I experience. So it was it was really useful. And I find it now, I think, even in the way you manage people or customers. So if you if you know anything about Asian culture, you never bowl somebody out in Asian culture, in sports, you see all these movies and videos about the coach and he's screaming at the players even at high school. And and it's kind of we got away with it and, you know, and individually like dressing down a player. You can't do that in certain cultures has the opposite effect. And so having this perspective is, okay, everyone we hire, we have to think about who they are and what their response is to certain ways of being managed. And so, you know, I brought all of that with me.
13:59 - 14:05
Well, on the other hand, what's the biggest difference about working in Liverpool versus Nashville?
14:06 - 14:39
The people speak funny here. I mean, it's mostly if talking about the teams. But secondly, the city is actually not dissimilar. They don't look anything like each other. But but, you know, both music and culturally driven, Liverpool and Nashville. So I see a lot of similarities there. But terms of the teams, it's actually with the exception of time and legacy type stuff at Liverpool, the job is the same. It's just scale. We never had to sell a ticket to Liverpool in my ten years.
14:39 - 15:15
At one time we did a huge reconstruction of the stadium over about three years and they're doing a second phase of that right now. But at the time that we started that sort of expansion, we had 40,000 people on the waitlist list for season ticket and some people on the season ticket waitlist were about 160 years old because they never give them back because it's like dead man's shoes, you know, like nobody's getting in. So that passed down in families. It's like they read in the will out in Liverpool and they're like, who's who's getting the season ticket? You know, it's like they're more interested in that than the money.
15:16 - 15:47
And but it was scale. It was scale in the sense that, you know, when I bought Roberto Firmino, the Brazilian player who plays for Liverpool still we paid €35 million for him, 35 million and MLS would be the biggest transfer ever. So it's just scale we might have. Honey. Mukhtar will probably be the MVP for the league this year, and he was closer to three and a half million. But it's the same process. It's the same negotiation with the agent for the players deal, the same with sponsorship.
15:47 - 16:31
When I was at Liverpool, I did the time it was the largest Jersey sponsorship in in soccer world soccer, £60 million, sponsorship with a bank, Standard Chartered Bank, an Asian bank. And it was it was a huge deal, you know, in the newspapers all over the world. And here at Nashville, we did something very similar two years ago with Renaissance Bank, who are our Jersey partner for, you know, 10% of of that over the deal. But it's about scale. It's not that the process is the same. The reward feels the same. It's it's just as exciting and important to find the right partners and everything's been like that. The fundamental difference, I guess, was just starting from zero and growing from there.
16:31 - 16:44
And well, it's an incredible story, really, and watching it all happen. For those of us who are here in Nashville, you know, we're so grateful to to John and to you. And it's been come such an awesome part of our culture. So thanks for sharing all that.
16:44 - 16:58
I want to shift gears towards leadership lessons, given that we've got a room full of business leaders here and start with a simple question that maybe one of the hardest questions what's what is one of the most important lessons that you've learned as a leader in your career?
16:58 - 17:37
For me, leadership really came from my military. Time in the military, you go through a process which is I always call it like, like extreme training, right? So it's leadership management, team management, because literally if you get that stuff wrong, you don't listen. People die, right? So so it's very extreme, but you really learn a lot in an almost subconsciously to some level when you live on a ship for three months at sea and you share a Mastec mastec room with 20 other guys, like there's nowhere to go subconsciously at that time.
17:37 - 18:11
I know now, but I didn't realize at the time that what I was doing was learning how to kind of understand how to navigate around certain people. And if you think about team building and leadership, that's what it's about, right? You're assembling a group of people that you want to bring together to achieve an objective for your business, but you really have to understand how to make all that work. They can't all love each other or all be perfect together. And so you have to treat people individually to get them to be collectively the solution. And and so I learned that a lot from the.
18:11 - 18:36
And then the other thing that was really stark for me was perspective, which I think is a really important trait in a leader even watching soccer. I mean, when we score a goal, I'm jumping up like everyone else, but most of the time I'm very calm, I'm very measured, and it's kind of like I'm thinking about it in a broader sense. And when people come to me with a problem, you know, often they're quite animated about a problem.
18:36 - 19:34
It might be a story in the media. This happened a lot in Liverpool, where it was a famous incident of a player. We had Luis Suarez, the Uruguayan player, was brilliant, brilliant talent. We kept biting people like on the field, like really, I mean, like it was a global story and the media in the UK was killing us and killing him. And it was huge. I mean, like off the scale as a media story. And I remember being in the tunnel at the game, having watched in Bite a Player in the game. And I was thinking, this is like what my kids did when they were like four or five, right? My son would buy his friend and then I'd end up having a conversation with his friend's father about why is like, you know, why is this such a big deal? And so everyone else is going crazy. And I'm like, is better. Like, let's so, you know, apologize like, you know, your kids and like, slap his hand. And it really was like that.
19:34 - 19:59
And I think as I go through my business life now and my career and to some extent, you know, my personal life, having perspective is such a wonderful thing. And so I drag our average age of our team up by about 20 years. So I have a lot of experience. But, you know, younger people that come with perceived problems and challenges and they are real. But when you give them perspective, I think it really changes the direction.
19:59 - 20:48
It's like, well, okay, let's take a step back. What happens with this if we don't solve it and why are we panicking? And let's take it easy. So. So a very recent example. It won't seem like a big deal perhaps, but our opening day at this part this year, in May, ten days out, everyone was saying this is going to be a disaster from a parking perspective because we don't have enough parking. We're still in construction. In some parts. It's going to be awful. I said, okay. And you know, the ops guys and the media people, the PR team are like, Oh my God, it's going to be terrible. And I was like, Well, let's just tell everyone it's going to be terrible. And they were like, What's it like you've been saying? Like, Well, if we tell everyone is going to be terrible, we're being honest. And secondly, it probably won't be as bad as that anyway. And that's literally what we did.
20:48 - 21:31
We started a narrative about ten days out of, Look, please come early because you're not going to know where you're going. Which was true. And there will be lots of additional parking, but nobody kind of knows where it is. And so we just painted this very bleak picture, which the media kept so wrong in that story. But people came out early and afterwards people actually it wasn't that bad. And so that very negative big problem was just that perspective. And we said it is bad, let's say it's bad and let's deal with it. And and I think that's one of the traits I'm most grateful for, you know, for having. And it comes from some very tough times in the military, but turn it around to be something very positive.
21:31 - 21:35
Brilliant example. So lessons can also stem from mistakes.
21:35 - 21:41
And given your vast career, I'm curious if there were any leadership mistakes you made that stand out that you learned from.
21:42 - 22:21
I made a lot of mistakes, so I don't know about leadership mistakes. I think one of my biggest mistakes was I worked in the electronics industry at a company called Pace Micro Technology. And so I was CEO of that business in Asia in the nineties, and two very entrepreneurial guys developed the technology, which ultimately ended up being the set top box technology that you see in Direct TV Sky in the U.K., all these broadcasters around the world. And I run the Asian business and a lot of the manufacturing then took in all the ones from the from the big telco in Thailand, who were actually one of the first companies in the worlds of digital television.
22:21 - 23:07
And I wrote the order down. I put an extra zero on the order by accident and ended up ordering 400,000 set ups instead of 40,000. And this went to manufacture, went into the system. My boss was called in. I killed a man. Well, Don sent me to Japan for a meeting about these 400,000 chipsets for these boxes. But I'm thinking like you made that in yen or something. And. And I literally had this cold sweat run through me. I was like, Oh, my God. And I thought, what do I do? So the only thing I can do is just be honest. And I called my boss and told him I was like, silence. And he said, okay, I'll call you back. Anyway.
23:09 - 23:46
You know, one way or another, we were able to kind of change some stuff, but they still had this exposure on on the deal. And I get the next phone call I get was, you know, don't bother flying back to Hong Kong, come to the UK, which is where their head office was. So I'm getting fired. I went in and gave me an envelope and I opened it and it was cheque and it was a cheque for the deal for 40,000 a commission. I was like, I don't understand. I said like I screwed up. And he goes, It was an honest mistake, you said, And I just want you to know that we'll always back you if you're honest with us. And it was a huge mistake.
23:46 - 24:31
Over time, the company just utilised the components because they were committed on components. But but I just love that it's important to be able to make mistakes. It's important to be able get things wrong. Maybe not, maybe not that big, but I don't want any of my staff to listen to a podcast and go, It's cool. I learnt a lot from that and I've always tried to take that view. You have to have the ability to give people a chance to be wrong and a lot of time people are wrong because they really try. And if you're going to run a business as I do, where I empower my senior staff, you've got to let them be wrong. Because if you don't do that, you know, they'll always want to come back for the answer and then, you know, you're really not empowering them.
24:32 - 24:33
What a great example. Thanks for sharing that.
24:34 - 24:41
I want to switch gears as we get towards the end of our discussion today. Can you touch on what moves you philanthropically?
24:41 - 25:32
It's a number of things, really. I grew up in a very, very poor neighborhood in Liverpool, and when I think about my kind of childhood and my mum and dad worked, you know, almost never saw them, they were both working the whole time. And I always thought that, you know, I didn't have kind of new clothes at one set of clothes for school and one for Sunday school. That was it, literally. And so when I first started to make money that I actually thought that, you know, you've made it in life if you own like five sets of clothes in your wardrobe. And I thought I was like, really cool. And I thought those things were important. And I thought again, as I got further and further down the track that materialistic things were important, but then realized I had this sea change moment where I realised that actually experiences are the most valuable thing, that the ability to tell the stories I'm telling you today, you know, for me they're like life changing things.
25:32 - 26:17
And, and so at some point I sort of realised that actually what's more important is doing stuff that really gives other people the opportunity. I've found these opportunities in certain ways, but they always came because somebody gave me a chance. And when I was in Malaysia with the company. Tell us about Asia. We started a program with orphanages in Malaysia and we would take our stuff every other Friday. We'd give them the day off on a Friday and we'd all go and hang out with these kids and take them on trips. And and I saw I realised that, you know, whether you whether you're working with non-profits or whether you're working with different organisations, actually if you do that in your organisation, with your staff, you suddenly create this much greater bond.
26:17 - 26:58
We're doing something here with Nashville where we're working with a lot of educational type programs and we're doing a similar project that we had when I was at Liverpool, where there are so many broken families and kids who come home from school and nobody reads with them at all. And so we have our staff go into the schools and read with kids in the school before school starts. I get more out of that than I do, than anything I've invested in or anything I've worked in. And so I'm genuinely I'm more focused on those types of things these days than than anything else. And it's so rewarding if you don't do it because you want to be closer to your staff, but you just see it and feel it.
26:58 - 27:04
Has not gone unnoticed in the Nashville community. The work that you and the National Soccer Club have already put in. So thank you.
27:04 - 27:17
One question we like to ask all of our guests, given their perspectives as public figures in these industries, is what is the best piece of financial advice you would either give or that you've ever received?
27:18 - 28:06
That's a tough one. Don't put a zero on then. Honestly, you might not like this answer, but I was listening to a podcast with a guy who founded Press about his name now, and he made this comment. I mean, he's like a billionaire. And he said, I never I never really in all of his businesses and all of his success, he worried less about the money. And that's a very flippant thing to say. I think his point was when he made it was if you really think about the customer and the experience, of course you need a good CFO or finance person to make sure you're not hemorrhaging money somewhere, but that really will drive the quality and the viability of the business.
28:06 - 28:58
And there's a very exciting. In a piece of news that's out about Major League Soccer, which is that in 2023, the media deal for Major League Soccer will be with Apple. And we got to meet with the very senior leadership of Apple and ask the question financially, what is this opportunity? Why did you do this and how many subscribers do we need to get in? And it's interesting. So here's the you know, one of the biggest if not the biggest company in the world. And Eddy Cue, who's one of the real drivers in that business, said, yeah, we're not interested in how many. We don't need to sell any subscriptions. And it was like tumbleweed. You know, everyone was like, What? And he said, Apple's philosophy is everything we do. We want to create the best possible experience for the customer, and the money will take care of itself. And he said that.
28:59 - 29:19
The deal that they did with Major League Soccer, they could never have done with any sport in any country in the world that they did with MLS. And the reason was when I got here in 2018 and was starting to negotiate deals, you know, locally for media or radio. League said you can do whatever you want, but you can't do anything past 2022.
29:20 - 30:04
And so Major League Soccer was able to go to the table, ended up paying with Apple and say, we have every right in every category, in every market in the world and build this product now where when nobody else can do it. And they want to create the greatest sports experience and they believe that if you give people that and you create it and you make it so good and so much better than anything anyone's ever seen for any sport. They only to worry about the finance. And I say as I say, I'm not being flippant about you don't need to care about funds. Of course you do. But I think if you just think about making payroll and making this look like you'll lose sight of what you're trying to achieve. For me, it was one of the best pieces of advice.
30:04 - 30:06
If you build the value, they will come.
30:06 - 30:07
I believe so.
30:07 - 30:18
Okay. I've got two final questions for you. One of them's really hard. One of them is really easy. You can decide which. If you had to say what you wanted your legacy to be, how would you answer that?
30:20 - 30:23
Building great teams of great people who do great things.
30:24 - 30:27
Great answer. Now you can decide if that was the easy question or the hard question.
30:27 - 30:27
I was worried.
30:29 - 30:31
And our final question is, what's your favorite Beatle song?
30:34 - 31:17
That's quite easy for me, actually. It's come together. The two greatest things I have to spend any money on. One was, is a painting about 12 feet by eight feet of John Lennon. And I would never sell it, but it's just crazily valuable. And then the second thing was I bought an original sketch by John Lennon, like just randomly at some I was at some event like this and somebody auctioned it. And it's a Valentine's card that John Lennon drew for Yoko Ono, and it's a little scribble of him. And then it's just got a heart around it. And obviously it meant a lot to him and to her. The picture that he drew is called Come Together. And so it always reminds me of the song.
31:17 - 31:21
Amazing Ian Ayre, everyone, thank you so much for joining us on the big stage.
31:26 - 31:45
Thank you all for listening. This has been the big stage. If you enjoyed this episode, if you'd like to subscribe, please go to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Please email us your thoughts, questions and any feedback to insights at Bernstein dot com and be sure to find us on Twitter and Instagram at Bernstein. P. W. M.