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VOL. 11 | NO. 15 | Saturday, April 14, 2018

Doubleheader

Baseball returns to AutoZone Park, but professional soccer not far behind

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These days, Craig Unger calls himself the “corporate guy.” After all, he is now president of both the Memphis Redbirds and the United Soccer League (USL) team that will share AutoZone Park with the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A club beginning in 2019.

But Unger is not one of those corporate guys who keeps himself at a distance. As the day-to-day overseer of the franchises owned by Peter Freund, Unger is on the front lines. So as the Redbirds return to play as the reigning Pacific Coast League champions and the soccer team is still kicking around a nickname – never mind played a game – Unger now can’t think of one without the other.

His task? To engineer sports synergy.

“We have to build soccer authentically,” Unger said recently after announcing that longtime USL soccer executive Andrew Bell had been hired away from the Charleston Battery and installed as USL Memphis’s first sporting director. “And to build soccer authentically, we cannot lose the authenticity we have with baseball.

“That’s my job,” said Unger. “When you come to a Redbirds game on a Saturday night, it needs to be the same great experience you’ve had for 20 years with fireworks, hot dogs and barbecue nachos, everything you expect.

“And by the way, the next Saturday night you come down here you have to feel like you are walking into the greatest soccer facility in the country with a whole different fan base and feel like, `This is my home, this is my building, this is where my team plays.’”

The first pitch at AutoZone Park for the Redbirds this season was scheduled for April 10, but the USL team’s first game on the pitch is still about a year away. In the interim, there may be an exhibition “friendly” or two at AutoZone Park to help build the fans’ appetite, and the USL franchise may be running an amateur soccer program, too.

Bell, 45, got to know Freund in Charleston, where the latter owns another minor league baseball team affiliated with the New York Yankees. A native of England, Bell says he has probably been to about 50 baseball games.

“I know a decent little bit,” he said.

Let’s see how much: What’s a hit-and-run?

“That’s when you just knock it down and run down the line … no, that’s a bunt, that’s a bunt.”

Not to worry. So the soccer guy isn’t perfect with his baseball.

No doubt, Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp isn’t perfect with his soccer.

Unger has it covered, saying, “My job is to let the baseball people be baseball people, let the soccer people be soccer people, and then figure out what is the best thing for the organization, what is the best thing for everybody.”

A NEW SEASON

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The Redbirds’ historic 2017 season is now well-documented. A total of 97 wins. A Pacific Coast League championship.

And all of it was accomplished with 62 different players wearing a Redbirds uniform over the course of the season. For his work juggling all the pieces moving up and down the Cardinals’ organizational chart, Clapp was chosen PCL Manager of the Year.

“Everybody was pulling for each other, a lot of selfless people,” said catcher and top position-player prospect Carson Kelly, who was promoted to the Cardinals in late July, but begins this season back with the Redbirds. “That’s what it takes to win a championship.”

The ballpark had more buzz than it had experienced in years. The return of Clapp, a fan favorite as a gritty player when part of the 2000 team that won the PCL title, set the tone. Then the players started winning and kept winning and fans started coming out in greater numbers.

“Putting some butts in seats is always a good thing,” said infielder Patrick Wisdom, one of the stars of the 2017 season.

There is a general feeling that this year’s Redbirds might be just as good, too.

“This team is stacked from top to bottom,” said outfielder Oscar Mercado, who is making the jump from Double-A.

Meanwhile, Bell and Unger are simultaneously going to work on establishing the framework of the soccer club. That means hiring a coach. And starting the search for players.

The USL does not have an expansion team draft, so they will be starting from scratch with players – not to mention efforts on the business/marketing side.

“The cool thing about USL – it’s a stepping-stone, right? – is if they’re coming through us hopefully they’re moving up to Major League Soccer,” said Bell. “Hopefully, one day we’ll have a player playing for the national team. But while they’re here, they have to embrace the community. The coach will be doing that and I’ll be going out there as well. This is a community club.”

The Redbirds, of course, are viewed much the same way. Over the history of the Redbirds, the most recognizable name is not of a player, but mascot Rockey the Redbird. Last year’s rebranding, which included altering the primary logo to replicate a neon street sign to call to mind the city’s iconic Beale Street, also “modernized” Rockey as an edgier character similar to the Cardinals’ “Dirty Bird.”

Change and innovation around AutoZone Park are more welcome than ever. Unger describes the USL as “digital-first” and to that end there will have to be major upgrades to accommodate the league’s HD requirements before the Memphis team begins play in 2019.

“A large, six-figure investment,” Unger said, adding that this won’t happen until after the Redbirds’ season ends to avoid potential technical difficulties.

This year, the Redbirds also made the decision to pull the radio broadcast of their games from Sports56 AM and instead will stream the games live at memphisredbirds.com. Unger believes the Redbirds are one of the first Triple-A teams to make this move, but says the timing is right.

“This is what we’re seeing in sports and media, a continued shift to a digital platform,” he said. “We see ourselves as a technology-first organization.”

To that end, former local TV sports reporter Peter Fleischer was hired as digital media manager to produce Redbirds/USL team content including everything from videos and podcasts to Facebook Live programming.

“We are our best medium to engage with fans,” Unger said. “We have to look at ourselves as a content producer. It’s not even optional anymore.”

Still, the best place for engagement is at the ballpark on game day.

“This is a great venue,” Clapp said. “The fact those guys did what they did last year, the different records that were set, hopefully it will bring more people Downtown to watch some good baseball.”

DOWN THE FIELD

It’s way too early to know how things will play out for the USL soccer team, or for that matter this year’s Redbirds. But Unger will not rule out anything with the USL team, including the possibility of a TV partner; he notes several USL teams televise games home and away.

But of this much, Unger remains certain: The Memphis sports market can support more. And success enjoyed by the Grizzlies or the University of Memphis or the FedEx St. Jude Classic golf tournament doesn’t hurt the Redbirds or the new soccer franchise. It helps them.

He uses the hiring of Penny Hardaway as the Tigers’ men’s basketball coach as a prime example. The move immediately inspired a spike in season-ticket sales and donations at the University of Memphis.

Unger also seized the moment as the Redbirds offered opening-night tickets for a penny. In 48 hours, they sold more than 5,700 tickets.

“This is good for everybody,” Unger said of the excitement Hardaway has generated in the market. “It is good for us when FedExForum is full. I’ve seen some of the numbers and everyone can do well. Everyone wins when you drive people Downtown.”

Some have suggested that even if there are enough ticket sales to go around, there might not be enough sponsorship dollars. Unger disagrees.

“On the sponsorship side, there’s a lot of untapped market,” he said. “We focus a lot on that. We’re a little different. Our job is to go find some of the other people out there, to get some of the smaller businesses involved. Engage them.

“The Grizzlies, a lot of it’s TV-driven. Ours is how we can activate them? We don’t have the TV coverage so we’ve got to cultivate a different type of sponsor. Sure, we all share the AutoZones and FedExes, all of the big ones, but underneath that are a lot people that love sports.”

To that point, he says they have fans who want suites for Redbirds games only, soccer games only, and some that want a suite for all events. Unger says they also are making a concerted effort to reach out to the Latino community, which has high numbers of fans for both baseball and soccer.

Ultimately, he envisions AutoZone Park busy and buzzing no matter which sport is center stage. No matter whether the pitch is thrown or trod upon.

“Sports is the great unifier,” Unger said. “No matter our differences, we all pull behind our sports teams because they represent the community.”

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