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VOL. 9 | NO. 4 | Saturday, January 23, 2016

In the Game

Memphis measures local sports impact in dollars – and desire

By Don Wade

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Way back in the 1990s, perhaps before the Grizzlies and FedExForum were even a twinkle in anyone’s eye, Chris Wallace came to Memphis and The Pyramid for a preseason NBA game featuring Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

Chris Wallace
Memphis Grizzlies’ General Manager

“A legitimate hard sellout,” said Wallace, who became general manager of the Grizzlies prior to the 2007-08 season. “And every time Michael Jordan got the ball there were hundreds of flash bulbs going off. It was not an NBA preseason game; it was a rock concert. A big one, with the Rolling Stones or Beyoncé.”

By the time Younger Associates had completed an economic impact analysis of the Memphis Grizzlies and FedExForum for the Greater Memphis Chamber in 2010, basketball and concerts in the same venue – on different dates, of course – had become commonplace.

The Younger Associates study determined that the total annual economic impact on Memphis/Shelby County from events at FedExForum was $223 million. The total number of jobs supported in the Shelby County economy as a result of the economic activity generated by the arena and the Grizzlies was 1,534.

Craig Unger
Memphis Redbirds’ General Manager

And city and county tax revenues generated as a result of the Grizzlies and FedExForum operations and the related visitor spending was $5.3 million annually.

Fred Jones, founder of the Southern Heritage Classic, which will celebrate its 27th year in 2016, also was part of the NBA Pursuit Team and one of the original stakeholders in the Grizzlies. When he launched the SHC, pitting historically black colleges Tennessee State University and Jackson State University together in an annual football game, he had one major sponsor: Coca-Cola.

For 2015, FedEx was a presenting sponsor, and AutoZone, Allstate and Nike were among the other major sponsors. Malvin Gipson, executive director of the Memphis Sports Council, a division of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the SHC and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl (in town since 1959) each has an annual economic impact north of $15 million and some years as much as $20 million.

Sports is big business. Here, in little old Memphis, Tennessee.

Fred Jones
Founder, Southern Heritage Classic

“I was part of two things people didn’t think could work,” Jones said of the NBA and the Southern Heritage Classic.

In fact, the local sports landscape has come so far that Greater Memphis Chamber president and CEO Phil Trenary is very much future-focused. Worries of the Grizzlies one day up and leaving – St. Louis just lost its second NFL team in 30 years – finally have expired. The local NBA franchise has made five straight playoff appearances, helping to raise the city’s profile and embed itself within the fabric of the community.

So if you call yourself a local sports fan but don’t know that Marc Gasol is from Memphis, that Tony Allen is The Grindfather, and that Z-Bo is shorthand for Zach Randolph, you’ve just been lying to yourself.

Meantime, the University of Memphis football team reached new heights and stunned college football experts this past season by cracking the early College Football Playoff rankings and by beating Ole Miss, the only team that defeated eventual national champion Alabama.

Memphis may not have its own NFL team, but soon it will have its own quarterback when some team grabs Paxton Lynch in the first round of next spring’s draft.

AutoZone Park, which opened Downtown in 2000, underwent $6.5 million in renovations before last season and again received praise as one of the finest baseball venues in America – major or minor league. In fact, AZP got a new HD video board before Busch Stadium in St. Louis; the Cardinals, who own the Redbirds, will be updating their video board technology this season.

The FedEx St. Jude Golf Classic has been a city staple since 1958 and the Memphis Open Presented by ServiceMaster, the current name of the annual pro tennis tournament, has been around since 1976. Both events have come close to leaving, but that’s not the situation now.

“I’m less worried about maintaining what we have,” Trenary said, adding that any time a team or an event lands on national television, those sweeping aerial shots of the skyline and the Mississippi River are a recruiting moment.

“Millions of homes are looking at Beale Street,” he said. “It’s bringing companies, families and jobs. It’s very hard to measure the economic impact of that.”

Because they care

The sports industry is a different animal. Sure, the business side matters. In fact, it matters so much that the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL all have endured work stoppages because rich players and richer owners couldn’t agree on terms.

But consumers and fans are one in the same. Fans unhappy about a team’s record are not the threat to a pro team’s or college program’s well-being. Apathy is. Apathy speaks in a whisper – the emotional calls to sports talk radio that no longer come – and issues ultimatums by its absence: the seats that go unfilled, some of them already paid for.

Grizzlies’ Wallace to Keynote Jan. 28 Daily News Seminar

Memphis Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace will deliver the keynote at The Daily News’ Memphis Newsmakers seminar Thursday, Jan. 28.

Wallace, along with panelists Tom Bowen, Craig Unger and Fred Jones, will discuss the effect of local sports on the Memphis economy. A wine and cheese reception will follow.

Seating is limited. Visit
for more details.

Memphis Newsmakers: Effect of Local Sports on the Memphis Economy

Keynote speaker:
Chris Wallace, General Manager, Memphis Grizzlies

Tom Bowen, Athletic Director, University of Memphis Tigers

Craig Unger, General Manager, Memphis Redbirds

Fred Jones, Founder, Southern Heritage Classic presented by FedEx

Thursday, Jan. 28, 3:30 p.m.
to 5 p.m. (check-in: 3 p.m.)

Memphis Brooks Museum
of Art, 1934 Poplar Ave.


When Wallace joined the Grizzlies, the first playoff era had ended with the team going 0-12 in three first-round series. The season before Wallace started work, the Grizzlies went 22-60.

Meanwhile, the Tigers under John Calipari would reach the 2007-2008 NCAA national championship game. Perhaps no night in that season was more electric than Saturday, Feb. 23, 2008, when No. 1 Memphis played No. 2 Tennessee and coach Bruce Pearl at FedExForum.

“Tigers basketball was in its glory age with that Derrick Rose team,” Wallace recalled. “The great Tennessee game on national TV with College GameDay here and you couldn’t get a ticket. I just stood in the tunnel with my pass and hoped they wouldn’t throw me out.

“It was obvious this was a great sports town.”

Mark Alnutt, who became deputy athletic director at the U of M several months ago, and who had been in athletic administration at Missouri before serving as athletic director at Southeast Missouri State, says he underestimated the passion of the Memphis sports fan.

“You hear it after wins and losses,” he said with a laugh. “And that’s a good thing.”

Memphis Redbirds general manager Craig Unger has been in the market a couple of years now, but he still was taken aback by the stuff flowing through his Twitter feed during the recent national championship game between Alabama and Clemson. He basically noticed two things: One, a lot of people really loved Alabama football. And two, a lot of people really hated Alabama football.

Winning matters. So does presentation and the belief among fans that, to borrow from the Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol, the team is playing the right way.

Recently, Tigers senior guard Ricky Tarrant hit game-winning free throws against Temple at FedExForum after a collision with another player left his mouth so bloodied that the officials almost forced him to the sideline. But with an assist from the team’s athletic trainer, Tarrant continued. He swallowed his own blood, quickly opened and shut his mouth to show officials he was all right, and then went to the foul line and sank both free throws.

It wasn’t the Grizzlies, but does it get more Grit and Grind than that?

“If you put a good product out on the field or the court, then you’re going to be successful (financially),” Jones said. “The Grizzlies are going through a transition period, no question about it. I think people will stay with the product even though it’s not as good as in the past because it’s ‘our team.’

“When University of Memphis basketball was on fire, 18,000 was an afterthought. Now it’s going through that transition period. But that comes with the territory.”

Wallace says during the best of the Calipari years he did not consider the Tigers to be rivals.

“But they were overshadowing us,” he said. “They sucked all the oxygen out of the town from that standpoint and we were a distant, distant second to them.

“When I came here in 2007 the bloom had worn off the (NBA) romance, which is bound to happen at some point. Didn’t have the playoff success so we had a lot of people jump off the bandwagon back then.”

But Memphis is such a strong basketball town, Wallace added, that if you give fans anything at all to latch onto they come back.

“And they’ve come back in abundance, and the passion fans have had for this team over the last five years in the playoffs has been extremely gratifying,” he said. “The team’s been here 15 years; there’s a lot of young adults between 20 and 30 and they grew up with the Grizzlies and NBA basketball.”

What’s next?

Owners will do what owners will do. The St. Louis Rams are moving to the Los Angeles area – from whence they came, ironically enough – because a new state-of-the art stadium and more population add up to more revenue.

The lesson, no matter the city, team or event: Take nothing for granted.

“The U.S. Open Racquetball Tournament was here (but left for Minneapolis several years ago),” Gipson said. “Once those events leave, they don’t come back.”

Jones recalls that when he started the SHC in 1990, “The term ‘sports marketing’ was just starting to take shape.”

Now a team and a venue are best-served looking for all possible avenues to expand reach, which by extension helps grow that economic impact for the city. The Redbirds and AutoZone Park landed the Gildan Triple-A National Championship Game, a single-game winner-take-all event between the champions of the Pacific Coast and International leagues, to be played on Tuesday, Sept. 20, this year.

“There’s a loyal baseball following here, and that’s who we want to target,” Unger, the Redbirds’ GM, said. “There will be some strategic marketing.”

It might have to be very strategic given that school will be back in session and SEC football and the NFL will be commanding attention. In the past, the Redbirds and the city have made bids to bring in the SEC’s annual postseason baseball tournament in May – that could actually be a tough ticket depending on how things were to play out – and Gipson and Unger say the tourney is up for bid for 2017 through 2021. Gipson believes having the Cardinals and Unger to help with the presentation gives Memphis a better shot.

An NCAA men’s basketball regional also is returning to the city in 2017. Again, depending on the year and the draw, previous regionals have had an economic impact of $12 million to $14 million, Gipson says.

Over at the U of M, Alnutt says, a new indoor football practice facility and a new men’s basketball practice facility are on track to open during the 2017-18 academic year.

The city also is home to many youth sporting events in baseball, basketball, soccer and volleyball, among others. That’s worth millions of dollars, too, Gipson says, as families from out of town turn the destination of their child’s big tournament into a family vacation.

Decades ago, Memphis had more than one courtship with the NFL about bringing a team here – the Tennessee Titans stopover doesn’t count – but those conversations never led to marriage. Sit down for this, but Trenary doesn’t believe it impossible that Memphis could one day support an NBA team and an NFL franchise. Wallace agrees.

But whether that ever happens or not, Trenary is certain that a vibrant local sports market screams “quality of life” to businesses and young professionals considering where to go next.

“It all goes back to growth,” Trenary said. “Memphis is a wonderful place to live, work and play.

“To have these (sports) amenities is critically important.”

PROPERTY SALES 36 154 6,546
MORTGAGES 34 94 4,129
BUILDING PERMITS 201 554 15,915
BANKRUPTCIES 43 126 3,396