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VOL. 133 | NO. 21 | Monday, January 29, 2018

Sports Executives Enjoying ‘Glory Years’ of Memphis Sports

By Michael Waddell

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With sports clicking on all cylinders in Memphis and a new professional team on the horizon, these days could really be seen as the glory years of Memphis sports.

That was the observation of Jason Wexler, president of business operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, who was one of four panelist Thursday, Jan. 25, at Newmakers: Memphis Sports, part of The Daily News’ Seminar Series.

Wexler was joined by Mark Alnutt, deputy athletic director for the University of Memphis; Darrell Smith, tournament director for the FedEx St. Jude Classic; and Peter B. Freund, owner of the Memphis Redbirds discussing the state of the industry at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

Freund, who owns three other minor league teams, will take on yet another professional sports franchise – a USL Soccer team for Memphis that will begin play in 2019 in AutoZone Park, home of his Redbirds.

He announced the venue’s first soccer contest will be held this summer featuring two teams to be announced.

The connection between soccer and minor league baseball isn’t new, he said.

There are several other cities that have embarked on this endeavor like Louisville and Reno, Nevada,” Freund said. “The USL has positioned itself in a way that we feel is very sustainable long-term, and we’re really excited to be a part of it.”

His research has shown that the core audience for soccer is quite different than baseball, and he expects the USL team to draw a more diverse, younger fan base Downtown that complements the millennials and young professionals who have moved Downtown.

Freund purchased the Redbirds two years ago after selling his family’s packaging business.

In that time, Redbirds attendance is up 26 percent thanks in part to renovations to AutoZone Park in 2015 and a rebrand dubbed “Authentically Memphis” that included a new team store facing Union Avenue, a first-of-its-kind partnership with Scott’s Miracle Gro for baseball’s first urban rooftop garden, and a community fund producing $125,000 each year for baseball through Shelby County Schools and other initiatives.

The Redbirds enjoyed a franchise best season 2017, winning the Pacific Coast League Championship.

“It’s been a really fun ride, and it’s been very fulfilling,” Freund said.

The University of Memphis football team also had arguably its best season ever in 2017, going to overtime in the American Athletic Conference title game before succumbing to UCF and earning its first-ever invitation to the 59-year-old AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

For Alnutt and the U of M, developing young people and preparing them for life after sports, and hopefully staying in Memphis to work, is a top priority.

“First and foremost, we work at an institution of higher learning. We’re teachers, we’re mentors. It’s all about the kids,” Alnutt said. “The thing that excites me is the job they’re doing in the classrooms, and this past semester was another record-breaking year for our student-athletes.”

The school’s 375 student-athletes achieved an impressive cumulative GPA of 3.24 last semester.

“At the end of the day, when you put academic excellence, social development like being able to give back to the local community, and competing at a high level together, it creates a great experience,” Alnutt said.

In November, the university’s new $20 million Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center opened, and the new football center received funding for development last May (with a projected opening in spring of next year).

The playbook for success is quite different for the FedEx St. Jude Classic, the oldest professional sporting event in Memphis which hosts 156 of the greatest golfers in the world for one week during the year.

Smith said partnerships are vital to the golf tournament’s success, but none is more important than title sponsor FedEx Corp., which also sponsors the PGA Tour’s yearlong playoff series The FedEx Cup.

“We’re also very unique in that we have an unbelievable relationship with our charity (St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital). There are not many tournaments out there on the PGA Tour that will have a charity in their name,” Smith said.

For the past three years, the FESJC has been the best charity integration on the PGA Tour, he said. Since 1970, the tournament has raised more than $38 million for St. Jude.

“We’re always thinking about how we can better position St. Jude and raise more money for the hospital,” Smith said.

Wexler talked about numerous initiatives the Grizzlies have going, noting that the Memphis franchise has been one of the top five NBA brands for five years running.

The Grizzlies just finished a three-year, multi-phase overhaul of its basketball operations facilities at FedEx Forum, which included private money into the publicly owned building. Upgrades have included new coach’s offices, screening room, player’s lounge, weight and training room.

“It’s really cool to see the running theme of investment and growth throughout sports in the Memphis marketplace,” Wexler said. “I think if we all step back a little bit, we might realize that we are right in the midst of the glory years of Memphis sports.”

The team is also heavily invested in sports science and nutrition.

“We’ve got chips in the players’ jerseys during practice measuring their load on a daily basis and a team of sports scientists who are analyzing the data from those chips to see how people’s bodies are performing,” Wexler said.

This season has also featured a complete overhaul of all of the digital assets in FedEx Forum to enhance the fan experience, along with a new courtside club, floor seat lounge, and terrace-level club.

“Each year we work to make sure that our fans, when they come in the building, have a sense of investment in their experience and their participation in the events,” Wexler said.

Other areas where the team is investing time and money is its digital media content company, Grind City Media, as well as its Memphis Hustle D-league team, which plays at the Landers Center.

The team’s newest initiative is Grizz Gaming, which involves NBA 2K basketball online. Interestingly, more people watch the NBA’s League of Legends online than the number who watched the Worlds Series and NHL Finals combined, he said.

“The game sold more than 9 million copies last year and has more than 1.5 million daily users, and the NBA is starting a youth sports league,” Wexler said.

There are 17 teams in the initial year of the league. Competition will narrow the field down to the best 102 players in the world, and six players will be chosen to represent Grizz Gaming.

A new Grizz Gaming studio is being built next to the team’s podcast and broadcast studio at FedExForum.

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