Business Executives Discuss Grizzlies' Impact

By Sarah Baker

For years, FedEx Corp. has brought in 50 of the nation’s leading MBA students to try and recruit them to Memphis.

“Our motivation is about sustained success, it’s about having the kind of players that make this community proud.”

– Jason Levien
CEO and managing partner, 
Memphis Grizzlies

After a three-day weekend of briefing those young professionals on the company and civic culture, an exit survey is conducted with those who didn’t choose FedEx. Before 2001, the No. 1 reason for why they opted out of Memphis? The lack of professional sports teams.

“Well that really made an impression on me,” AutoZone Inc. founder Pitt Hyde said Tuesday, Feb. 26, at the New Memphis Institute luncheon at the Holiday Inn University of Memphis featuring a panel of selective Memphis Grizzlies’ new owners. “We at the (Hyde) Foundation, everything we do is to try to make Memphis a more attractive place for the knowledge workers of the future.”

After persuading former majority Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley to Memphis from Vancouver, Hyde was tasked with convincing the state legislature to come up with $250 million to build FedExForum. He did this by looking at the exposure a professional basketball team brings and putting a dollar amount on air time for television, radio and print media – a “conservative estimate of $200 million” annually.

“From the beginning, they’ve been great for our city,” Hyde said. “Now, after over 10 years, I think we can all see the benefit of it. We’ve got a team that’s really playing as a team together and are in the fourth slot in the West, which is the most competitive conference in the league.”

Also important in promoting Memphis’ image and the team’s success, Hyde said, is to make sure that every seat in FedExForum is filled on game nights.

“As business people, you can always buy tickets whether you’re a basketball fan or not – give them to customers, give them to friends, go yourself,” Hyde said. “I think you’ll find it’s easy to get addicted to the Grizzlies.”

On Nov. 5, a fresh set of partners led by chairman Robert Pera officially took ownership of the team and launched a new era for the Grizzlies franchise.

Now a month after trading Rudy Gay, Hamed Haddadi, Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington and Josh Selby, and receiving Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis, Austin Daye and Jon Leuer in return, the Grizzlies have gone 8-2, including a 7-0 winning streak going into Wednesday night’s game against the Dallas Mavericks.

Jason Levien, CEO and managing partner of the Grizzlies, said the recent moves add to the team’s “grit and grind” and “selflessness” mentality.

“We’ve added players who want to put the team first, who care only about winning,” Levien said. “Our motivation is about sustained success, it’s about having the kind of players that make this community proud. We’ve actually tripled the number of players on our roster that have won NBA championships.”

Levien added that some of January’s trade decisions were made bearing in mind what’s around the corner. For instance, Tony Allen’s contract ends this year, so this summer it’ll be important that he stays on the team.

“Hopefully, we’re playing chess – we’re trying to look two or three moves ahead, see what lies there and make sure that we protect our defense and our offense,” Levien said. “Tony is a big part of that.”

Duncan Williams, CEO of Duncan-Williams Inc. and partner with the Grizzlies since November, said Memphis has “one of the best marketing tools in the world running up and down that court.”

“To see Memphis and to see Memphis winning on ESPN, CNN, Fox Sports or whatever it may be, it’s great for the city,” Williams said. “I think it also gives us a little bit more of the confidence that Memphis needs sometimes.”

Levien said the franchise is making a push to expand its footprint in the greater Memphis area. This includes broadcasting games for the first time on television and radio in Little Rock and in Nashville. It also entails busing fans into the Bluff City for home games and weekend outings.

“Really, we’re the NBA team for the Mid-South, and we want to get people mutually excited about coming to Memphis, coming to our games, and experiencing Memphis from Mississippi and Arkansas and farther east in Tennessee,” Levien said.

The new ownership group is also looking to be as “consistently competitive” as possible for the long haul. Levien said this involves creating data-driven methods for optimizing the talent of the team.

“We’re trying to follow the lead of best practices, looking at teams that utilize the salary cap very effectively, that find players who may be undervalued that we can have on our roster and can help us win more games,” he said. “One of the big things we’ve done is utilize more analytics in making decisions. We’re setting up processes by which you look at the qualitative and the quantitative and figure out how do we mesh those two together.”