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VOL. 132 | NO. 110 | Friday, June 2, 2017

Southern Heritage Classic Founder Touts Value of Annual, One-Off Events

By Bill Dries

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When he came up with the idea of an annual football game in Memphis between the teams of two historically black universities with large alumni bases locally, Fred Jones had two primary goals for what he called the Southern Heritage Classic.

Southern Heritage Classic founder Fred Jones says civic and business leaders, and Memphians in general, should recognize the value of annual events such as his. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Those goals? “Prove that I could do it, and prove that it could be done in Memphis too,” Jones said as he prepares for the 28th annual classic at the Liberty Bowl in September. This year, it’s set to include 10 events over three days, including a three-day tailgate party at Tiger Lane – all built around the Jackson State University vs. Tennessee State University matchup and its halftime show.

Jones had been told by some “emphatically” that such a game wouldn’t be a success in Memphis, and he heard the same of part of the group that pursued the Memphis Grizzlies’ relocation from Vancouver.

“It was always the question of, ‘Can this be done in Memphis?’ and I wanted to prove that it could be done in Memphis,” he said. “Twenty-eight years later, we are still doing it in Memphis. But having said that, you are at a point now where you need people at all levels – political, business and the community at large – to view this as something that has become an asset to the community for various reasons.”

Jones isn’t just talking about the Southern Heritage Classic. He’s talking about the full range of annual events, from the just-ended Memphis in May International Festival to the upcoming FedEx St. Jude Classic, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and the St. Jude Memphis Marathon.

“These events come every year and they have a definite impact on the community economically, socially and everything else,” Jones said.

He noted that the ranks of those institutions – with the golf classic being the oldest at 60 years this year – no longer include The Memphis Open tennis tournament after 41 years. Its out-of-town owners are moving it to Long Island, New York.

And Jones says the causes aren’t as important as the exit of the tournament from a group of events that have “one big common denominator.”

“They all say Memphis,” he said. “That’s the part where it all kind of manifests itself into one. With the tennis tournament, when it goes away for whatever the reason may be, it becomes a negative as far as Memphis is concerned.”’

But until or unless that happens, Jones says, the events aren’t widely appreciated beyond essential support from corporate giants like Memphis-based FedEx Corp., which is a top sponsor of the Southern Heritage Classic.

Jones cites Memphis in May as an example.

“People look at them and say, ‘That was a great event and things went well.’ That’s all they can relate to,” he said. “But they never can relate to not only the preparation to get there but also the impact those few days make on the community. That’s the part that I think gets lost. They come and go, so it must have been easy unless something happens – there’s a traffic jam or God forbid, someone gets hurt.”

Each of Memphis’ various events is unique. But Jones says civic and business leaders as well as Memphians in general should have an appreciation for what they contribute to the social fabric and business life of the city.

“If you have successful events in your community, other people are going to view them as well,” he said. “You are not working in a vacuum. … That’s a plus for the city, and people are going to view that in a positive way.”

The economic impact for the events is starting to be measured in different ways beyond simply the visitors who come to the city.

“With the classic, local people are spending a lot of money because of the event,” he said. “So as much as you love to have visitors come – they stay in a hotel, they are doing all of those kinds of things – but local people are doing some of the same things. So they have a number assigned to local people, like they have assigned to visitors. The impact locally can’t be as big as an out-of-towner’s, because the out-of-towners obviously are spending more money. … But it’s still a factor nonetheless.”

TSU and JSU each have their second-largest alumni chapters in the country within Shelby County. And Jones’ contacts constantly include business leaders or connections telling him about alumni from each school that work within local businesses.

“It feeds on itself,” he says of the effect.

Even as Jones talks of a more vocal backing of the events to overcome some individuals’ perception that “things don’t happen in Memphis,” there are some moves to bring other events to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

Memphis City Council member Frank Colvett wants the Liberty Bowl to return to a calendar that includes summer live concerts at the stadium, something that hasn’t happened since U2 brought its Pop Mart tour to the stadium 20 years ago.

Since then, summer stadium tours have gotten bigger – bigger stages, more tractor-trailer rigs and different economics for one-off events.

Aside from being one of countless Memphians with fond memories of concerts at the stadium and nearby Mid-South Coliseum, Colvett wants to see architectural studies or at least some kind of feasibility study for $100,000 in the city budget for the coming fiscal year, which cleared the council’s budget committee this week.

“Back in my day, it was 10 tractors-trailers and that was a huge show,” Colvett told council members at Tuesday’s committee session. “Today it’s 45 tractor-trailers. They can’t make money if they can’t get the tractor-trailers right there.”

By his math, a sold-out concert at the Liberty Bowl, which seats just over 60,000, is “bigger than FedExForum four straight nights.”

The effort drew support from city councilman Martavius Jones, who notes the stadium has nine events a year – seven University of Memphis home football games, the Southern Heritage Classic and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

“They have a half a million dollars a year of utilities,” he said of the city property and the city’s upkeep of the stadium. “And they are trying to spread those costs over those nine events. … We have to bring other things to that venue.”

Jones began as a concert promoter and producer in 1971 before adding the Southern Heritage Classic to his business in 1989.

“The football game wasn’t viewed as entertainment,” he said of the late 1980s environment.

“The NBA and NFL came later where they viewed their product as entertainment,” Jones added. “I wanted to broaden what I was doing. And the way I felt to do that was to take this game, which the schools desperately wanted to continue. I told them I thought I could do it but I needed to change the presentation. I wanted to show that it could be done in Memphis.”

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