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VOL. 11 | NO. 3 | Saturday, January 20, 2018

What a Kick

Vibrant Memphis sports scene adds pro soccer

By Don Wade

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Peter Freund is a baseball guy. Grew up on the New York Yankees. Today, not only is he principal owner of the Memphis Redbirds, he owns stakes in other minor league teams through his Trinity Baseball Holdings and even has a small slice of the Yankees. But make no mistake, he is a businessman. And it was the businessman in him that was convinced to bring a United Soccer League (USL) team to Memphis and AutoZone Park for the 2019 season.

“I have a belief that Memphis is sort of itching for something like this and I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t believe it,” Freund told The Daily News after a recent press conference at AutoZone Park formally announcing the arrival of the minor league soccer club.

“There’s this rebirth going on in Downtown and sports is at the core of it. The lofts and the millennials … everything we’re gonna hit on the soccer side, I’m pretty bullish this will be a huge success,” he continued. “What does it lead to? Does it lead to a soccer stadium on the river for $40 million? I have no idea. That’s not why I’m in it. I’m in because I believe AutoZone Park can manage and handle what is to come.”

Freund will be one of four panelists at a sports seminar presented by The Daily News Publishing Co. on Thursday, Jan. 25, at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. The event starts at 3:30 p.m. Registration (seminars.memphisdailynews.com) is required and seating is limited.

Also appearing on the sports panel: Mark Alnutt, University of Memphis deputy athletic director; Jason Wexler, president of business operations for the Memphis Grizzlies and FedExForum; and Darrell Smith, FedEx St. Jude Classic tournament director.

In a lot of ways, the last two decades of sports history in Memphis started with AutoZone Park. It arose at what was then the intersection of Third and Union before the 2000 season. Shortly thereafter, the late Michael Heisley was moving the Grizzlies from Vancouver to Memphis and FedExForum was going up a few blocks away to become home for the new NBA team and the University of Memphis men’s basketball team.

John Calipari had started coaching the Tigers in the 2000-2001 season and eventually revived the program, taking U of M all the way to the NCAA title game after the 2007-08 season. The Grizzlies now have an active seven-year playoffs streak and the U of M football team has been to four straight bowl games, the last being the program’s first-ever AutoZone Liberty Bowl appearance.

The FedEx St. Jude Classic (FESJC) is the granddaddy of the local sports scene with its six decades of pro golf history. Joining the landscape for the 2017-18 season is the Grizzlies’ G League affiliate Memphis Hustle, which like the minor league hockey Mississippi RiverKings, plays in the Landers Center in Southaven. The USL soccer team is latest sports entry into the market.

“I’m a rising-tide believer,” said the Grizzlies’ Wexler. “The more there is to do here, the more we’ll all succeed here.

“It fills an obvious gap and fills it smartly.”


Once, a new entry into the market would not have been automatically welcomed. It took time for the Grizzlies and the University of Memphis to understand they were better off being allies than engaging in a cold war.


“Anything Memphis adds to its entertainment is positive,” Darrell Smith, FESJC tournament director, said, echoing Wexler. “Downtown will benefit greatly.”

Still, the reality in a so-called small market is sponsors are finite. Especially the largest corporate players. The pro tennis tournament had been here 41 years, but last April came the news it was being relocated to Long Island, New York. The lack of a title sponsor and hefty appearance fees to bring in the top players finally proved too much.

“The competition for sponsors is out there,” Smith said. “We play in the same sandbox, but we all want our peers to succeed.”

Said Wexler: “Being at different price points creates different opportunities. There’s a difference between being with the Grizzlies or at the FedEx St. Jude or at the AutoZone Liberty Bowl vs. the Memphis Hustle or the USL or a non-revenue sport for the U of M. There are different points of entry for different businesses in the marketplace. If all goes well, you grow those people into bigger and better partners over time.”

At the University of Memphis, the quest is as much for donors as sponsors. Yes, the university has a built-in target audience in alumni. But the school can’t stop there.

“There are people that have an affinity for the University of Memphis and they are alums of another school,” said deputy athletic director Alnutt. “But they live here and take pride in Tiger athletics. They see the value the university can bring to the city.”

Many people feel the same way about the golf tournament. It’s a civic celebration, not just four days of pros competing for paychecks.

“We’re unique in that we’re one week out of the year,” Smith said. “We don’t have to fill an arena for 41 home games (the Grizzlies), or (72) home games at AutoZone Park. We don’t have that challenge, but we also don’t have the opportunity. Our window is a little smaller.”

The tennis tournament’s demise is a sober reminder of just how small the margins can be.

“It starts with making sure you’re providing sponsors with something they get benefit from,” Smith said. “It’s 61 years in a row we’ve had professional golf in Memphis. It’s pretty special. But you can’t just sit back and assume it will be 61 more years.”


When AutoZone Park was built, there were skeptics. When the Grizzlies came to town and FedExForum was built, there were skeptics.

Truth is, neither of those stories has an ending yet. The goal, of course, is that there is never an ending. Just change, progress and additional chapters.

The new USL team doesn’t even have a name yet.

“It needs to be something authentic that speaks to the city,” said Craig Unger, president and general manager of the Redbirds and a partner in the USL team venture.

Already, there is a level of passion from a dedicated core that seems to confirm Freund’s belief that pro soccer is a thirst waiting to be quenched.

The day of the press conference, members and friends of the American Outlaws, a fan group that supports the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams, marched from The Brass Door on Madison Avenue to AutoZone Park carrying USL banners, wearing USL scarves, and chanting and singing.

They continued once at the press conference. The team might be a year away, but its staunchest supporters arrived early.

“The city will thrive with this. The soccer community is already huge,” said Jacob Pierce, 25, who coaches several area youth/high school soccer teams. “You go out to Mike Rose on a Tuesday night and hundreds of people are playing in an adult league. We just want a place to go watch pro soccer.”

Meantime, other sports entities in the market are facing attendance challenges. Yes, the Tigers football team drew well and should again. For the moment, coach Mike Norvell and his players stand atop the local sports mountain.

But Tigers basketball attendance is a major concern and with the Grizzlies on pace to finish well below .500 and out of the playoffs, their attendance also has experienced a decline.

“There’s ebbs and flows, based on performance, for all the teams,” Wexler said. “That’s not any secret and that’s not any different in any city anywhere in the country. Across all of professional sports, there may be 10 or 12 teams that are essentially immune to performance and still have the same level of engagement.”

Unger has long said the baseball team’s primary competition is not the other live sporting events that happen in Memphis throughout the year, but the other daily choices people have – everything from concerts to movies to whatever is playing on the screen in their own living rooms.

“The constant battle is how to get people off their recliners in front of their 50-inch HD TV,” Alnutt said.

Which means no one can afford to let their live sports experience get stale. Even before the football team got good again, tailgating started to be a thing outside the Liberty Bowl.

“Tiger Lane was a huge game-changer,” said Alnutt.

On the basketball side, Alnutt hopes they can gain some traction in the future by bringing in some better non-conference opponents and providing more entertainment at halftime. He knows – everyone knows – that is an older crowd that can be depended on to show up for Tigers hoops.

“We have to start with a younger base of fans, whether that’s our students here or offering youth opportunities where parents would have to bring them to the games,” Alnutt said. “We have fans going back to the days of the (Mid-South) Coliseum and The Pyramid and we love them to death, but we need to look at ways for the crowd to be more reflective” of the city.

The USL team, many believe, will capture Memphis’ diversity and also add a level of craziness that may only exist with soccer fans.

“I’ve played all around the world and sometimes the game is really good and sometimes the game is really bad,” said U.S. National Team goalkeeper Tim Howard, who has been an unofficial adviser for the Memphis USL team. “But ultimately the fans in the stadium are a spectacle to behold.”

Timing, of course, is everything.

In sports. And in business.

“You’ve seen the explosion of Downtown, how South Main has transformed,” Unger said. “It’s become young. And the continuing growth of an international and Latino community. More people moving Downtown.

“Memphis is always on these lists now – best places for millennials to get jobs, best places for people to live … those indicators are there to say, `Now’s the time and this is a great opportunity for us.’”

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