VOL. 131 | NO. 22 | Monday, February 1, 2016
Sports Community to Memphis: Acknowledge Our Value
By Don Wade
In sports, it is natural for some – maybe even many – to say what a player, coach, team or even a city can’t do. Memphis knows this well.
There were doubts about the viability of a Downtown minor-league baseball park. But 16 years after AutoZone Park opened at Third Street and Union Avenue, the ballpark is as beautiful as ever – thanks in part to some $6.5 million in upgrades following the team’s purchase by the parent St. Louis Cardinals.
Many said major-league pro sports couldn’t work here and flirtations with the NFL were just that. Then the doubters said the NBA would be a disaster. But now the Memphis Grizzlies are in their 15th season in Memphis and there is no questioning their impact or that of FedExForum, which had to be built for late Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley to move the team here.
Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace delivered the keynote address at the Thursday, Jan. 28, program “Memphis Newsmakers: Effect of Local Sports on the Memphis Economy.” And Wallace confirmed that the building of AutoZone Park gave Heisley some confidence that with a new arena the NBA could work in Memphis.
Southern Heritage Classic founder Fred Jones recalled that decades earlier, when he was a student at Memphis State, the local sports landscape was much more limited: “It was all about Tigers basketball.”
Now, the local sports market is in growth mode. University of Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen, who with Jones and Redbirds general manager Craig Unger joined Wallace on the program’s panel, said the school is pushing ahead with an athletic capital campaign that will yield an indoor football practice facility as well as a new basketball practice facility for the men’s team.
Asked by a member of the audience how he saw the athletic department’s five-year plan, Bowen said there wasn’t enough time to lay out all the details. But he did reference what seems to matter most in this day and age to any sports entity making use of a scoreboard.
“Win, win, win,” Bowen said with a chuckle.
Noting the significant economic impact that comes from not only 41 regular-season Grizzlies games, but Tigers basketball and football, and one-shot events like the Southern Heritage Classic and AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Wallace said Memphis has an advantage over most American cities: Its downtown is safer.
Wallace recalled working for the Miami Heat many years ago and how when he parked on the street his car was broken into – multiple times.
“Anyone who has any trepidation about coming Downtown, that’s a misplaced fear,” Wallace said.
Unger concurred, telling how when he moved here two years ago he lived Downtown for a while and walked everywhere.
Everyone on the panel agreed that expansion of the local sports landscape is possible. And yes, that could even mean the NFL sometime in the distant future, Bowen and Wallace said.
Asked by another audience member what they would like to see the city do to help the cause of local sports, Jones seemed to speak for all the panelists when he said, “Acknowledge sports has value.”
And it does, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact each year.
In the short term, efforts continue to lure more NCAA events – a men’s NCAA basketball regional is already booked for 2017 – and growing the teams’ respective fan bases.
To that latter point, Unger said the Redbirds are fully embracing the relationship with the Cardinals and are treating all those miles up Interstate 55 between Memphis and St. Louis as territory where they can find new visitors to AutoZone Park, Beale Street and all of Memphis.
Last Thursday’s event was part of The Daily News Publishing Co.’s Seminar Series, sponsored by Landmark.
The next three events as part of series will be Women in Business on Feb. 25; Health Care on April 7; and Money & Markets on May 5. Go to seminars.memphisdailynews.com for more details.