Before the Grizzlies began their first-round playoff series with the Clippers in Los Angeles, Dennis Flanagan looked ahead to Game 3, which was to be played on Thursday night, April 25, in Memphis.
Flanagan is controller at Silky O’ Sullivan’s on Beale Street, which a strong-armed man could almost hit with a rock, or a tightly bound wad of cash, from FedExForum’s front doors.
“You can tell the playoffs are in the air,” Flanagan said, full of anticipation. “A lot more electricity.”
Although the Clippers may have reduced the emotional wattage by taking the first two games of the series out in L.A., they could not turn the power off. Or stop the flow of revenue that runs to Beale Street and beyond.
Fans show their spirit for Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals between the Memphis Grizzlies and the LA Clippers, on Thursday, April 25. The Grizzlies defeated the Clippers 94-82. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
Signs of support for the Grizzlies are increasing around town, including a Grizzlies mural that decorates the side of Huey's at Second and Union Downtown. (Photos Lance Murphey)
“It’s monstrous,” Ty Agee, president of the Beale Street Merchants Association, said of the playoff effect. “It’s really not just Beale Street. It’s Downtown. It’s anybody doing any kind of retail. Especially two years ago, when we had (six home) playoff games.”
The Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau’s most recent economic impact study showed Memphis and Shelby County received 10 million visitors annually and that there was $3.1 billion in visitor expenditures.
More than 4 million visitors came to the Beale Street Historic District, making it the most visited attraction in Tennessee. And the average daily expenditure for a leisure tourist (calculated at 2.80 persons) is $427. How much of that business can be tied directly to Grizzlies basketball isn’t known, but the playoffs offer extra opportunities. For businesses, playoff basketball is like, well, a fast-moving motion offense. People come Downtown for the games. But first they grab something to eat or drink. After the game, they might bounce from a restaurant to a bar or a club. And if they’re from out of town, they’re dishing dimes everywhere.
“When it’s playoff time you’ve got money flying around for everybody – the teams, the restaurants, all the advertisers, the hotels,” Flanagan said. “Everybody’s getting a little piece of the action.”
It’s difficult to quantify what this “action,” this publicity, means for Memphis as a whole or Downtown in particular. But there’s no denying the power of being in the national media for as long as the Grizzlies’ playoff run lasts. Hosting a playoff game means the world comes to Memphis, at least for almost three hours of TV time.
As the broadcast comes in and out of commercials, the TV audience is given a panoramic view of the city. It’s an ad campaign with built-in drama, if the games are good, but without the accompanying bill.
“Everybody loves seeing the Downtown skyline, having the nation’s eyes on us,” said Jonathan Lyons, a spokesman for the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.
And what of that Grizzlies logo, that blue bear staring back at the world? He’s the face of Memphis, or at least the one without the jet-black hair and white jumpsuit.
“It’s an opportunity for us to be on the national and international stage,” said Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien. “The view of Memphis is shaped by the Memphis Grizzlies’ performance and how they conduct their business. (People) know Elvis, they know FedEx, and then for a lot of people the Grizzlies are the link to the city.”
Consider Matt Hird, 37. He’s from the United Kingdom. He’s a soccer fan – “Liverpool,” he said with pride – and he has been in Memphis for about three months with his partner, who works at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. A couple of days before the playoffs started he was on the plaza out front of FedExForum picking up a free poster and headband, getting in the spirit.
The Memphis Grizzlies beat the Los Angeles Clippers Thursday night, cutting the Clippers’ playoff series lead to 2-1. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
However, upon arriving in Memphis, Hird said, “We didn’t know the Grizzlies and Tigers were in different leagues.” Now, though Hird still doesn’t know the players or really grasp the NBA, he happily describes the experience of going to a couple of games and getting to know Memphis in a new way.
“It’s racially mixed,” he said of the FedExForum crowd, adding they also enjoyed the Grizz Girls and Grizz the mascot. “It felt really lovely, friendly.”
It’s also probably more than coincidence that this season, when the team won a franchise-best 56 games, they also averaged more than 16,600 fans per game – the second-best average in the team’s Memphis history.
“That’s a testament to the connection between the team and the city,” said John Pugliese, the Grizzlies’ vice president of marketing communications and broadcast.
Pugliese, who has been with the Grizzlies since they moved from Vancouver, believes the team-city bond reached a new, deeper level two seasons ago when, as the West’s No. 8 seed, the Grizzlies upset No. 1 seed San Antonio. It was the first time the team had ever won a playoff game – the first three years they made the playoffs they had been swept each time – and it was the first time they had won a series.
“We truly became Memphis’ team,” Pugliese said.
That’s when “Believe Memphis” started. “Grit and Grind” came out of Tony Allen’s mouth that same season and grew into both the unofficial mantra and a well-used marketing slogan.
Scott Osborne, 46, now a Web designer at Baker Donelson in the First Tennessee building with the “Go Grizzlies” sign, had moved here a few years earlier. The team wasn’t very good and Osborne was not especially interested in basketball, so there was no reason for a relationship. Then the Grizzlies beat the Spurs and played a rousing 7-game series, albeit losing, against Oklahoma City. The Grizzlies were the talk of Osborne’s office and the city.
“I became a fan,” Osborne said. “It was a little bit bandwagonish, to be honest with you.”
Osborne’s growing fandom – he now follows the team daily, listens to games on radio, brings his kids to a couple of games each season – coincided with a larger change among the fan base. Gradually, when the NBA’s glamour teams came through town – the Los Angeles Lakers, the Miami Heat, the Boston Celtics – the number of fans in enemy jerseys began to shrink. They’re still there, still clearly visible, but no longer does FedExForum feel like it has been invaded and captured.
Grizzlies players took notice.
“That’s always nice,” said center Marc Gasol, who last week was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. “You truly play with a chip on your shoulder when you’re playing for all the people.”
Of course, this season has been full of changes: new ownership under 35-year-old Robert Pera, founder of Ubiquiti Networks, Inc.; the trade of Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors; and the strong desire from the faithful to right the wrong of last year’s playoffs when the Grizzlies had home-court advantage but blew a 21-point fourth-quarter lead in Game 1 and ultimately lost Game 7 at home to the Clippers.
Asked just before the start of this year’s series if the Grizzlies would win, Kimberly Taylor of Frayser was offended by the very question.
“Of course!” she shouted. “C’mon!”
And her feelings about Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the rest of Lob City?
“Really?” she asked. “Really? You can put whatever you want down for that one.”
So the passion is present. And the new ownership group has started trying to push that passion outward, to make the Grizzlies the Mid-South’s team, in part by getting some radio and TV broadcasts into Little Rock and partnering with a radio station and Nashville to bring down two busloads of fans for a late-season game. On this expansion plan, the CVB and Grizzlies are in harmony. What’s good for the Grizzlies is good for Memphis and vice-versa.
“We want to encourage these people not just to attend a Grizzlies game, but to spend time in Memphis,” Pugliese said, adding, “Winning opens a lot of doors.”
For everyone. Which is why Agee is rooting so hard for the Grizzlies. The Saturday, April 27 mid-afternoon game at FedExForum, sets up perfectly for a win-win situation – provided, of course, the Clippers cooperate.
“There’s lunch, there’s dinner, and then people stay there and party. I’m a huge Grizzlies fan,” Agee said, “but I also make money off them doing well.”