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In Conversation w. Nashville SC & MLS

In Conversation with Teresa Tatlonghari from Nashville SC and Amanda Kicera of Major League Soccer On Brand Passion in Soccer

Athletics welcomes you to our Spring/Summer 2022 edition of In Conversation, our series of discussions with colleagues and friends of the studio. We’re joined today by Teresa Tatlonghari, Vice President of Marketing at the Nashville Soccer Club and Amanda Kicera, Senior Director of Club Branding at Major League Soccer.

Teresa led the marketing strategy for the top three attended Major League Soccer openers in the league’s 25-year history and is deeply focused on driving brand relevance and culture at Nashville SC.

As Senior Director of Club Branding, Amanda collaborates with all Major League Soccer teams to deepen the relationships between fans and clubs.

Teresa and Amanda, thanks so much for joining us today. Before we jump in I’d love to know how both of you came to work in soccer and what drew you to the beautiful game and its teams.

Teresa Tatlonghari: Well, I came to work in soccer about 12 years ago. I was working for an advertising agency out of Orlando Florida, and my client was the Orlando City Soccer Club.

And they were in the United Soccer League [USL is the Division II league directly below MLS] at the time and had big aspirations for getting into Major League Soccer. Over the course of six to nine months, I worked with the President of the team and he ended up bringing me on board as a full time employee to spearhead the marketing for the club.

I was a part of the journey for that team from the USL through to the MLS and building their stadium there. 

Amanda Kicera: I started at MLS five years ago. As a brand strategist at heart, I love figuring out how organizations can stand apart and build brand love and stickiness. So what could be better than doing that for the world’s sport. For me, getting inside the minds of soccer fans was really appealing as soccer evokes such incredible passion and emotion in people.

I was also attracted by the opportunity to work for a progressive, ascendant league like Major League Soccer, and to have the real ability to help grow the game in North America.

Matt Owens: Amazing! Amanda how does the MLS work with clubs on brand development? What do teams look to your group for and how do you collaborate with the clubs?

Amanda Kicera: We work with our clubs in many different ways, some look to us for support in identifying what makes them special and different, and figuring out how to articulate that. Others want to explore how best to evolve their identities or are just entering the League and need to create new identities from the ground up. We may be asked to take the lead on certain tasks or the club may bring in an agency. It really varies, but we always stay close throughout the journey and have built some flexible processes as no one size fits all when it comes to brand development. It was great collaborating with Athletics on the Nashville SC brand identity.

Matt Owens: Teresa, Nashville SC joined MLS in 2020, but the city has a long professional soccer history. With Nashville SC’s new 30,000 seat stadium opening this month, what’s the energy like in the city? How have you seen Nashvillians respond to the growth of the team over the last two years?

Nashville SC

Teresa Tatlonghari: There is so much excitement here in Nashville for the soccer club! I think GEODIS Park has definitely done a lot to ignite that excitement, but I also think there’s been a tremendous work that the club has done throughout its existence to embed ourselves in the community. Our fans are so reflective of our community and now we have this opportunity to bring everybody together in our own home. It has been a very exciting process for me since I arrived in 2019.  

I felt last Sunday [Opening Day of GEODIS Park], it all really came to life in our own home. You could feel the pride that fans who have been a part of this journey for so many years, which culminated on opening day. They were coming home to this beautiful new place that we are going to have forever. It was very exciting and gratifying to be a part of bringing this to life, and I’m very happy for Nashville to have GEODIS Park.

NashvilleSC Collage

Matt Owens: It’s the culmination of years of work and a big exclamation point, in a way.

Malcolm Buick: I get jealous about that space! There is a beauty to it. Like honestly, it’s a beautiful space. It’s a stadium where you actually want to hang out. There are some you want to get out of really quickly, but others where you just want to hang out, and it feels like that experience.

Teresa Tatlonghari: Absolutely. I was a part of executing a lot of the visuals but give credit to the ownership and to our CEO for the vision for the stadium.

We have different club spaces, with different themes that are very in line with the Nashville brand and vibe. GEODIS Park is designed in a way that fits with the neighborhood, using steel, brick, wood and other materials that are consistent with the area. So it really does all come together, and I’m very excited about the way that the branding within the stadium emulates what you see throughout Nashville.

Matt Owens: Totally. Now that the stadium is done, it’s all culture building. The city is going to be embracing it now and into the future, so it’s just an amazing inflection point for you guys. It’s been three years in the making so it’s awesome.

Teresa Tatlonghari: Something for Malcolm and your team to be proud of came during one of the biggest moments of the stadium construction process. We have these milestones during construction, and one iconic moment was when the giant “N” that hangs at the Northeast corner of the stadium was installed and lit for the first time. We’ve used the image of that corner in most of our marketing throughout this process.  It took about a week for the construction team to hang that structure from the stadium, and the day they hooked up the electrical and flipped the light switch on was massive. We could see it from our office, and our social media went berserk! It really was an iconic moment. This location in the stadium is one of the most popular spots to take a photo. The “N” monogram is a part of our crest that our fans have really latched on to. They identify with it as it reflects the love that they have to the club and Nashville.

Nashville Sign at Night

Malcolm Buick: I may be biased here but I’ll go out on a limb and say that I think it’s the best logo in the league. And I think the way that you’ve activated it, and specifically that center point because it’s right where you walk into the stadium, it feels like you’ve come to the Church of Nashville football, right here. It’s a really powerful moment. We got super excited because when we saw that, we were like, “That’s beautiful.” I’ve done a lot of things, record sleeves, music, arts, and culture, but probably one of my top favorite moments was seeing that light up.

Teresa Tatlonghari: You said a church of soccer, and Ian [Ayre] [CEO of Nashville SC] calls it, the spiritual home for Nashville SC fans.

Malcolm Buick: We may have shared some stories, because when Mr. [John] Ingram [owner of Nashville SC] and I were working together in his office, it was really energizing! He was so up for it and I left so energized by the experience. We couldn’t have asked for a better collaboration between ourselves, Mr. Ingram, and MLS. It was really fantastic. Anyway, I digress. I could talk all night about this!

Matt Owens: When we think about MLS as an organization and, of course, Nashville SC as a team, we instinctively recognize that they are distinct from other organizations. What’s unique about North America and its soccer teams? What stands out about the culture and philosophy of MLS and its teams, Amanda?

Amanda Kicera: From the League perspective, we have the youngest and most diverse fans in North America, which is incredible. They’re really helping us shape our own soccer culture, our own version of the global game. 

Teresa kind of touched on this a bit. All of our clubs are different, they all stand for different things, they all tap into their own local culture in different ways. They all have their own style, their own unique rituals and traditions, and that’s what we want. It’s reflective of North America and of who we are as a brand. We want to do things differently.

Matt Owens: Nashville SC, as we’ve said, is native to the environment. Every club is about the uniqueness of that locale.

Amanda Kicera: Exactly, I think the Nashville SC brand captures the spirit and vibe of that city so well.

Matt Owens: When it comes to brand passion and soccer, fans experience all the dimensions of the sport. The talent and personalities of the players, the coaches, the stadium, management, the brand, traditions, and the community of fellow fans. What strategies and creative outlets are you using to showcase all these different sides of the experience?

Teresa Tatlonghari: I can speak for our team. Especially on our social media, website, and any of our own platforms, we really try to highlight all aspects of the experience. Not just what’s happening on the pitch, which is very important, but also open the door so the fans can see a little bit behind the curtain as far as personalities of players and getting those moments on video, or even unique photography that we can show the fans. 

Something that our team is doing more and more, is showing the fan’s perspective of what they’re seeing and feeling on game day. Our team, unbeknownst to me, actually pulled a ton of social media comments and posts and put them in articles on the website or put together social videos that highlight different fans that recorded the moment of our first goal in our stadium. I think that is something that’s very unique to our sport, not to Nashville necessarily, but definitely to the sport of soccer, by embracing the fans and what they bring to the environment. How we amplify these moments is really important to growing our brand.

Nashville SC Stadium

Matt Owens: Totally, and I’m sure that philosophy is shared within MLS as well.

Amanda Kicera: It is. The fan experience is core to everything that we do, so all of those dimensions are critical to the strategies that we create across the League. From the way that we think about content and storytelling to the types of events and experiences we create. We are fan-first. We want to be a platform that helps strengthen and amplify the experiences Clubs and fans are creating in their markets.

We also aspire to be one of the most creative leagues in sports so we’re constantly looking for new and better ways of serving things up to fans. A  good example is our recent partnership with a social personality, Noah Beck. We named him our first “social playmaker” and he’ll be responsible for creating content for us on TikTok this season, engaging with the league in different ways, and ultimately delivering a unique experience through a different lens. That’s an interesting one for us.

Matt Owens: I wanted to talk a little bit about the clubs and how they reflect the community that they are part of. We’ve kind of touched upon this, but how do you see the inner connection between the teams and the larger community that it supports? How does the passion for the team reflect the passion of the community, and vice versa? Is there this dialogue between the teams and the larger community?

Teresa Tatlonghari: In our case, yes. Obviously we see what people are saying online and the conversation happening there. I always say if they’re not talking about us it’s not good! We do a lot on our end to reach out to the community through our community relations team and the outreach they do into some of the underserved parts of Nashville. We ask, “how do we highlight that and show what we’re doing?”

Another example is how we work with the arts community. Nashville is a very creative market and we’ve done a lot in the past few years to reach out to the arts community and include them in what we’re doing. We have over 70 artists that have participated in some piece of art in the stadium currently, and we made sure that everybody that we have used is local. We vet it out, we make sure everybody’s in middle Tennessee, and make sure we are also looking at diversity in age, race, and gender. All of that is a part of the consideration when we look at who we’re going to select for certain pieces in the stadium. 

Our fan engagement team has worked with an endless number of musical artists to provide live entertainment on game days. Our guitar riff is something that’s very reflective of the community and is a symbolic moment at every match. They do a great job of booking these artists to participate and shine a light on the music community in Nashville. We do a lot to reach out because there’s a sense of “we need to do that!” because it is a big part of what Nashville is.

Matt Owens: Given how the identity has been embraced by the community, and now the stadium has as well, I just wanted to get a sense of where you see the team in the next two seasons. What’s the ambition now that the stadium has been completed and the brand has been embraced?

Teresa Tatlonghari: Never stopping right? Constantly being relevant, working and making sure that we are listening to our fans and responding to what they’re looking for, but also continuing to reach out to new communities and bringing them into the fold. “Everyone N” is our motto. We use that for a lot of our marketing. Everyone is welcome! There’s something for everyone here and we have our arms wide open for any fan that wants to participate. That is part of who we are, and we will continue to do that. So for me, it’s continuing to grow the brand in Nashville. We still have work to do. I don’t think we’ll ever be at a point where we don’t have work to do. Growing that brand and doing things that increase our relevance, and have people talking about us, that’s always going to be the goal here.

Nashville SC fans

Matt Owens: The job is never done, of course. Amanda, can you tell us a little bit about what MLS has planned this year into the next? Specifically, any details around Charlotte FC’s debut this year, and St. Louis joining the league next year?

Amanda Kicera: We have lots of exciting things going on! The culture and atmosphere Charlotte FC’s been building has definitely been a highlight, including their record home-opener that drew almost 75,000 fans. They have some great rituals they’ve built from the ground up that have been successful so far, so that’s awesome too.

St. Louis CITY SC has ambitious plans ahead of their entry into MLS, with a big focus on technology and innovation. I was able to see progress on their new stadium recently, which was super impressive and will be a model in MLS. Similar to GEODIS Park, which was definitely another huge moment.

There was also good news out of Miami recently. They’re able to bring a world class soccer stadium to their city. And can’t forget the Seattle Sounders recent CCL win – it was a major milestone for both the club and League. 

Lastly, the MLS All-Star Game is going to be in Minnesota in August this season and we have some really cool things planned.

Matt Owens: Amazing, so much afoot the next 12 to 18 months. It’s going to be awesome.

I had a final question for both of you. Since we’re, of course, a design agency: from a design perspective, can you share any branding highlights, either logos or experiences, from your respective times at MLS and Nashville SC that really stand out?

Teresa Tatlonghari: I think I already gave mine away! That moment, where the light was turned on, was a massive moment for us. Seeing that iconic “N” monogram lit at the stadium is the moment that everybody wants to see. That really brought things to life for everybody. I remember sitting in the office, and we could see it across the street and everybody was almost cheering, they were so excited.

Amanda Kicera: To be honest, working with this group on Nashville SC was one of my favorite experiences to date. It was a lot of fun being in the market talking to fans, learning about the DNA of the city, working with leadership and helping the team bring all of that energy and creativity together to form the foundation of the brand. The strategy is strong and the visual system is a great expression of it. Teresa and team are doing a fantastic job bringing it to life every day, which has been exciting to see.

Matt Owens: That’s great to hear. For us, because we’re huge soccer fans, and having worked with MLS as well as Nashville, we know that brand passion is what drives great soccer teams, and it’s brand passion that drives what you guys do. We really appreciate your time today. Do you have any parting thoughts on brand passion?

Teresa Tatlonghari: I just love being a part of, and working in sports because of what we can do as a brand for our communities: to bring people together, to reflect our communities, and make people feel more connected to their homes. It’s something that’s really important to me and it’s really kind of what drives me. I love that piece of it, and having worked in traditional advertising, when I got into sports, I realized “oh this is so different,” because they’re seeking us out, rather than us constantly going after every customer we could. In many ways we still do that but there are a lot of followers that really seek out the club and watch everything we do and hold us accountable for what we do. So that’s what drives me.

Amanda Kicera: The strongest clubs and the strongest sports teams around the world achieve passion by having a really clear sense of purpose and rooting their brands in the values and beliefs of their fans and communities. They stand for ideas that are bigger than the sport itself, and when they can do that, there’s so much greatness that comes from it. 

Malcolm Buick: Working with MLS and getting the opportunity to be part of the growth of soccer in North America and beyond is just massive. For me, I grew up playing soccer so to get an opportunity to “badge it,” you know, has been amazing. Whilst I can’t do a full 90 anymore, because of my aging body that I carry around, I’ll give it my all when it comes to design and branding and certainly for soccer because it’s a first love and a first passion.

Whenever we have opportunities like this we are very much up for it, so we’d love to continue our relationship with Nashville and hopefully we can get down there and see a game. It has pride of place on our website, we love talking about it, we love showing it. It’s one of our favorite pieces as a studio and agency. Teresa, when that light went on and the social media around that, the lights went on for us as well. It was a great moment. Thank you, and thanks for your time. Appreciate it all.

 

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