VOL. 10 | NO. 4 | Saturday, January 21, 2017
Sports Bind City
By Don Wade
Maybe it is your spouse’s Christmas party. Or a local business conference and no one else from your company is attending. When you give the room the once-over, it’s full of unfamiliar faces.
Sure, you could strike up a conversation with an observation about the crazy Memphis weather. But really, how far would that take you? And these days, the traditionally taboo topics of politics, sex and religion are more emotionally charged than ever. So you don’t want to go there.
But the turnaround of the University of Memphis football program, now under the care of coach Mike Norvell? That’s probably safe even if you’re talking to a guy wearing a neon orange-collared shirt or a woman who is a professing Ole Miss fan.
And how about the Grizzlies’ incredible comeback overtime victory at Golden State on national television? Or Tigers forward Dedric Lawson’s latest double-double? Who in Memphis can’t get behind those achievements?
“Sports is always a part of the conversation. It’s the basic icebreaker before every meeting, every conversation,” said Jason Wexler, president of business operations for the Grizzlies, and in his previous life part of the real estate development landscape in Memphis. “It’s just a way if you’re in a room full of people and you don’t have anything in common, you can always talk about the Grizzlies or the Tigers.”
Or depending on the time of year, the good time you had eating barbecue nachos watching the Memphis Redbirds at AutoZone Park; the relaxing weekend at the FedEx St. Jude Classic golf tournament; the festive end to the college football season at the AutoZone Liberty Bowl; or the world-class tennis at the Memphis Open Presented by ServiceMaster.
“Sports defines your city in a lot of ways,” said Craig Unger, partner and general manager for the Redbirds. “The mood and the ups and downs of the city go by how the sports teams are performing because it is a bond everyone can share.”
Consider, for example, how much better the mood is now than in the spring of 2016 as the Tigers’ and Grizzlies’ basketball seasons were winding down. The Grizzlies were in the process of setting an NBA record by using 28 players in a season because of all their injuries. In casual conversation, anyone noting an aching back or a sore knee was likely to follow up with something like, “I’m as bad as the Grizzlies; I hurt all the time.”
And how about the uncomfortable drama of another disappointing Tiger basketball season under coach Josh Pastner and the anchor that was his $10.6 million buyout? Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one: “I wish somebody would give me $10.6 million to go away.”
So, yes, the mood was a bit negative at times. But the conversation never stopped. That’s something U of M athletic director Tom Bowen noticed several years ago when he came here after being director of athletics at San Jose State and also working for the San Francisco 49ers. The Bay Area market was much larger, with an abundance of sports talk radio. But the conversation also was dispersed with many big league teams from all four major North American pro sports leagues and many colleges and universities, too.
Here, with multiple sports talk radio stations and programs in a so-called small market, the volume of discussion about U of M athletics and the Grizzlies is always turned up. Coaching searches that netted Norvell and Tubby Smith for the Tigers and David Fizdale for the Grizzlies were always top of mind, too.
“It’s fantastic,” Bowen said. “This is a passionate fan base. Some days it goes well and that’s great, and there are other days when they came after you.”
But never are there days when the conversation – be it on the radio, around the office or at the bar – goes silent.
“It’s a lot like Detroit was,” said Erin Mazurek, director of the Memphis Open and who formerly worked for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. “This pride, this grit-and-grind it. You spend a lot of time maybe defending your town to the outside world, so sports is your pride, our chance to show the world, `We’ve got this and we’re coming to beat you.’”
From There to Here
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the local PGA Tour stop.
Professional golfer Phil Mickelson was in the hunt at the 2016 FedEx St. Jude Classic, one of several major sporting events Memphis hosts each year.
(Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)
“We feel like we’re one of the pioneers,” said FESJC director Darrell Smith.
The golf tournament started in 1958 and predates the Grizzlies and FedExForum, the Redbirds and AutoZone Park, even the pro tennis tournament. Memphis State sports were then perceived as something more quaint and less about the necessity to generate revenue streams.
For this year’s golf tournament, Smith hopes to engage the past and bring back some of the biggest names – everyone from Jack Nicklaus to Lee Trevino.
“Bring them back and let them talk about their memories of Memphis golf,” he said.
To be sure, there must be a recognition of the past to appreciate the present. Steve Ehrhart, executive director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, remembers the entire decade of the 1990s, feeling like it had been dedicated to the failed pursuit of landing an NFL team.
The most painful insult came when Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams planned for his team to play two years in Memphis while a new stadium was built in Nashville, eventual home of the Tennessee Titans. Memphis fans grew to hate Adams so much that at the end of the first year those fans who would come out to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium booed Adams’ team and cheered for the other guys. Adams bolted and played the second season at Vanderbilt’s football stadium.
“The fact that AutoZone and FedEx have both been champions here in town is very critical,” Ehrhart said. “They both have supported every endeavor. Without them, we wouldn’t have what we have, whether it’s golf, Grizzlies, AutoZone Park or the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.”
Sports bars, like Max's on South Main, have been popular places in Memphis the last several years because there's always a game to watch ... even if the Grizzlies aren't playing well.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
The arrival of the Grizzlies before the 2001-2002 NBA season healed those old NFL wounds and forever altered the sports conversation. Currently on a six-year run of making the postseason, even more casual local sports fans may know of the “Core Four” made up of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen.
“Everybody feels like they’ve grown up with the Core Four, right?” Wexler said. “You have a sense of ownership in their lives and their success. You’re proud of them like you’re proud of family members. And that doesn’t happen in every city with every team.”
Only so Much Time, so Many Dollars
The year-old Halloran Centre opened on South Main at a time when Downtown has become a destination.
“South Main has really come online, and being at the anchor at the north end, it could not be a more exciting time,” Ron Jewell, the Halloran’s vice president of operations, told The Daily News. “But the competition for the leisure dollar and moreso for leisure time has changed over the last 20 years.”
And every sports entity in Memphis knows it.
Memphis Tigers basketball needed a late-season push in the spring of 2016 to receive a portion of a scheduled payment from the Grizzlies that was tied to their lease and attendance.
Tigers football attendance has improved in recent years as the team has have gone to three straight bowl games, but Bowen wants more.
“If you really want to support University of Memphis athletics, buy a ticket,” Bowen said. “Come to a game. I’m still struggling with why we can’t get more people to come to football games. The only way to overcome it is to keep winning, create a great game day, make it a fun day. And try not to play on Thursdays, but that’s TV.”
Bowen says they are currently sitting at 17,000 season tickets for football, but he believes 25,000 is a reachable goal for this market.
“Then we’d be fine,” he said.
The Redbirds enjoyed great attendance in the early years of state-of-the art AutoZone Park, but in recent years they have struggled and finished as low as last in the 16-team Pacific Coast League attendance standings. Under new majority owner Peter B. Freund, who purchased the team from the parent St. Louis Cardinals, there is a renewed emphasis on improving the experience and upping attendance over time.
Obviously, all the sports entities are competing for a finite number of local dollars. But Unger views the competition as not being with the Grizzlies or Tigers, but other entertainment options – including the easy allure of the huge flat-screen television now in so many living rooms.
“To me, the competition is all the other things you have to do,” Unger said. “In the summertime, it’s the blockbuster movies coming out. It’s air-conditioning vs. heat. I’ve never come across a season-ticket holder or sponsor who said, ‘I have to choose between you and anyone.’”
Said Bowen: “People will argue we’re in direct competition with one another. I’d argue we’re not.”
But the sports teams also have the advantage of offering multiple dates spread over several months.
The tennis tournament, which this year runs from Feb. 11-19 at the Racquet Club, is a one-shot window. It’s got a nice history, yes, but it has been a long time since there were rock star American tennis players who showed up in Memphis every year.
Mazurek is hopeful their “Courtsiders Club,” which includes well-known Memphians such as Mayor Jim Strickland, Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO Kevin Kane, and First Tennessee executive Bruce Hopkins, can help re-invigorate the tournament.
“They’re willing to leverage connections, to do what they can to help sell tickets,” Mazurek said. “Memphis is a very tight-knit town, a very personal town. You (do better) when you get influencers on your side. Not that I couldn’t get an audience, but it would have taken making a lot of calls without somebody making a call for me.”
Spreading the Word
If anything bothers Bowen, it’s when the national conversation about Memphis sports, and the U of M in particular, appears to take on a fictional life of its own. That happened in 2016 as the U of M, with the city’s support and the backing of FedEx founder Fred Smith, made a bold bid for inclusion in a possibly expanding Big 12 Conference.
Ultimately, the league opted not to expand now. But for months, there was talk of expanding by two schools or even four schools. In the latter scenario, Memphis was initially judged to have a very good chance. Then before the Big 12 decided not to expand, it reportedly eliminated the U of M while keeping about a dozen other schools still under consideration.
The national narrative included media reports that said the league had a dim view of U of M’s academics. Noting that 159 student-athletes just made the Dean’s List, Bowen said: “For anyone in the Big 12 to question our academics, that’s bull (crap).”
That indignity, however, shouldn’t be long-lasting. The world moves too fast now for anything to stay lodged in the news cycle. So, beyond Memphis, it’s about putting Memphis sports in the larger conversation as often as possible.
And that happens whenever there is national coverage of a Memphis event, like the golf tournament, or the Tigers or Grizzlies are on TV.
“Those cutaway shots from the games and of Beale Street that happen on every national and regional broadcast, those sell the city,” said Wexler.
For his part, Wexler believes the historical significance of the music here will always create the loudest echo internationally. But just the other day, something happened that couldn’t have happened back in the 1990s when Memphians were thirsting for a chance to join the big leagues.
“I just got a clip of a junior NBA program in Czechoslovakia, where the youth team that won was the Grizzlies team,” Wexler said. “And the video is of all these little kids in Czechoslovakia wearing Grizzlies T-shirts getting their little championship rings and holding up the trophy and going, `One, two, three, Memphis!’
“Those kinds of moments don’t happen but for the NBA.”