by JOHN BRANSTON
A campaign is under way to smear The Pyramid, just in case anyone is having second thoughts about its adequacy as an NBA arena.
The Memphis Grizzlies, Commercial Appeal sports columnist Geoff Calkins, and other boosters of the proposed new $250 million arena would have Memphians think that The Pyramid is, as Calkins wrote last week, "the half-baked pyramid project" and a "disaster."
The trash talk is perfectly understandable. The Grizzlies want a new building. They put out the idea last year that it would cost $190 million to bring The Pyramid to "NBA standards." But the timing is strange. The Pyramid is on a profitable roll which should continue for at least two more years. The disaster assessment is too harsh.
Let's look at the record.
For starters, the Grizzlies couldn't even be here without it. The "disaster," which is not good enough for a perennially last-place NBA basketball team that has to conjure up make-believe attendance figures to "fill" thousands of seats in Memphis and Vancouver, is apparently adequate for the Tyson-Lewis fight, a worldwide television audience, and 20,400 spectators.
The Pyramid replaced the Mid-South Coliseum, which had 11,200 seats and was too small for an ambitious, growing city. For about $75 million, including two retrofits (costing less than a third what the new arena would cost by even the most optimistic estimates), it has hosted scores of big-name concerts, wrestling shows, nearly 200 University of Memphis basketball games, one successful Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament, opening-round games in the 2001 NCAA men's basketball tournament, the Grizzlies, and in June will host one heavyweight championship fight.
The Pyramid makes good money. It made an operating profit of $357,900 last year and has been profitable in eight of the last 10 years. If the fight goes off smoothly and the Grizzlies play there two more years, fiscal 2003 and 2004 should be even better.
The Pyramid has been overhauled twice since it opened in 1991. The acoustics were improved in 1993. Last year, at the insistence of the Grizzlies, the city and county spent $7 million to upgrade locker rooms and put in a new floor. This was supposed to benefit both the Grizzlies, who are scheduled to be in the building for two more years, and the University of Memphis, once considered a long-term tenant. But the U of M now wants to follow the Grizzlies to the new arena if it is built, making The Pyramid either surplus property or competition in 2004.
Six years after The Pyramid opened, FedEx CEO Fred Smith, who chaired the public building authority that oversaw planning and construction, said this: "The Pyramid met its original goal of being a signature and reasonable public amenity. I think it's met that test in every respect but one. I suspect it has diminished attendance for University of Memphis basketball just because of its geographic location."
Attendance has improved since then, but The Pyramid has other shortcomings.
If your name is Dick Hackett, it probably forced you to change careers. Hackett initially favored expanding the Mid-South Coliseum.
If you're over five feet tall, you have possibly cursed the lack of space between the seats. When it was being planned in 1988, its backers -- overriding the explicit objections of then-Memphis State University president Tom Carpenter, who wanted 15,000 seats -- thought 20,000 was the magic number to attract NCAA tournament games. As it turned out, that is only partly true. The Final Four wound up at much bigger indoor football stadiums like the Georgia Dome and the Superdome. But The Pyramid is hardly the only arena to be trumped by a bigger or newer venue.
The Pyramid has been pretty much a failure as a tourist attraction. First, promoter Sidney Shlenker and the city and county were unable to fill the apex and the lower spaces. More recently, an effort to lure the recording industry's Grammy museum was aborted. Still, taxpayers have gotten some cultural mileage out of the extra space thanks to the Wonders series and the Titanic exhibition housed there. The inclinator was never built, but $8 million that would have paid for it was suddenly "discovered" last year and used to help meet the Grizzlies' demands just days before a key public vote.
Partly because of its location below the bluff instead of on top of it, The Pyramid never became a major landmark on the order of the St. Louis Gateway Arch. On the other hand, it is undeniably a one-of-a-kind minor landmark that serves as a milepost along Interstate 40 and the signature for numerous magazine covers, brochures, and local newscasts. If it isn't the arch, it isn't just another corporately named arena either. Had it been built on the bluff, there would be no South Bluffs residential development.
Finally, it is invariably tied to Shlenker, often by people who were not in Memphis at the time and who assume it was all his idea. In fact, the promoter (perhaps reeling from his involvement with the Denver Nuggets of the NBA) came along as it was being built and after the PBA had done most of its work. Unlike the Grizzlies and the proposed new arena, Shlenker played no role in the design or construction of The Pyramid.
All in all, not bad for a disaster. Certainly not a home run but a clean double. We'll see if as much can be said for a new arena a mile away after it has been open 10 years.