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VOL. 133 | NO. 14 | Thursday, January 18, 2018

Memphis Sports Landscape Getting More Crowded

By Don Wade

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As president of business operations for the Memphis Grizzlies and FedExForum, Jason Wexler is more than busy. Grizzlies’ home games. And this season, home games at the Landers Center in Southaven for G League affiliate the Memphis Hustle.

Jason Wexler, third from left, makes a point at The Daily News Publishing Co.’s  Memphis Sports Seminar last year. (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

But Wexler also wants to keeps tabs on how the city’s other sports entities are doing things. And other NBA teams, too.

“I do make sure I go by,” he said. “Usually do it low-key. It’s why I go to other arenas during the season. You can learn from what other people are doing.

“The Redbirds are really smart and thoughtful about how they do stuff, the golf tournament (FedEx St. Jude Classic) is really smart and thoughtful about how they do stuff. There’s things we can learn from all those folks and hopefully apply in our operation as well.”

Wexler is one of the four panelists at a sports seminar presented by The Daily News Publishing Co. on Thursday, Jan. 25, at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art at 3:30 p.m. Registration (seminars.memphiisdailynews.com) is required and seating is limited. A wine and cheese reception will follow the event.

Also appearing on the sports panel: Mark Alnutt, the deputy athletic director at University of Memphis; Peter Freund, principal owner of the Memphis Redbirds and the new United Soccer League team that will start play in 2019; and Darrell Smith, FedEx St. Jude Classic (FESJC) tournament director.

Freund and Redbirds president and general manager Craig Unger had been looking for opportunities to use AutoZone Park beyond the Redbirds’ 72-game home schedule. When the USL team starts play next year, it means the ballpark will be busy pretty much every weekend March through September.

“The fact of the matter is, there’s an argument to be made that baseball might do better in the suburbs,” Freund said. “But soccer is meant to be Downtown where you can pub crawl and get to Beale and you have that youthful impact. So this is prime for soccer. When USL soccer and Tim Howard saw this facility, they flipped out. They said this is perfect.”

Howard, of course, is the longtime U.S. National team goalkeeper. Memphis is his adopted hometown and he has been acting as an unofficial adviser to Freund and Unger.

“When we get marching from The Brass Door to here, banging the drums and we got the police closing the street, people are gonna want to be a part of that march,” Howard said after members of the American Outlaws fan group did just that before a recent press conference to announce the USL franchise here. “We’ll keep banging that drum till people recognize what it is.”

Unger says they will have a separate sales staff for the USL team and already deposits for season tickets are being accepted. The new soccer team also means there will be another entity in the marketplace seeking sports sponsorship.

Alnutt says more than ever companies can mix and match with the sports endeavor that works best for them: “It’s about fit, what that corporation wants to be a part of and their varying degrees of commitment.”

All the sports players are engaged with social media for marketing purposes, but it is perhaps even more important for the FESJC given that it is a one-week event (June 4-10 this year at TPC Southwind).

“Social media’s an asset, makes us more relevant on a year-round basis,” Smith said. “It’s been a huge tool.”

The Grizzlies, meanwhile, are in a new place with the team well on the way to missing the playoffs after seven straight appearances. Previously, the team could tie the next season’s season ticket sales to having priority for playoff tickets in the current season. Not now.

“It’s a place we haven’t been in a few years,” Wexler said. “But every year there are a bunch of teams in the spot we’re in and there are things we can learn from them and things we can do unique to us.”

That includes using the buzz that will accompany the NBA Draft in June. Right now, the Grizzlies are tracking for a rather high lottery pick, which could mean getting a player with the potential to have an immediate impact on the franchise.

“You absolutely can” market to that, Wexler said. “That’s a big deal and a big opportunity. There’s so much young talent coming out every year, and as fans get more familiar with it through March Madness, that dialogue naturally picks up among fans.”

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