It's springtime, and the Memphis Grizzlies are entering the really tough part of the schedule.
Not just those games against other playoff contenders and All-Stars such as LeBron James and Allen Iverson. Off the court, the lineup of formidable competitors includes Shelby County commissioners John "J-Will" Willingham and Walter "Big Dog" Bailey, the upcoming Beale Street Music Festival in April and May, promoter Beaver Productions, and the ever-dangerous duo of Motley Crue and the DeSoto Civic Center.
The issue is not basketball but the non-compete contract clause that gives the Grizzlies and their operating arm, Hoops Inc., first dibs on the dwindling number of bands and artists who want to perform in Memphis in a big arena. While Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court were preoccupied last week with Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, Willingham and others were casting the non-compete clause as a right-to-life issue for The Pyramid and Mid-South Coliseum. As Pyramid general manager Alan Freeman told commissioners, if his employer, SMG, gets a call from a promoter wanting to play The Pyramid, he must by contract immediately refer them to the Grizzlies. He can only book a show with their blessing.
"That's not happening," said Freeman, who estimated that six to eight events have bypassed Memphis due to the non-compete clause since FedExForum opened last September.
Questioned by Bailey, the commission's watchdog over the Grizzlies and FedExForum, Freeman gave a grim report. The Pyramid lost $200,000 to $300,000 in potential revenue. Two bands, Rascal Flats and aging rockers Motley Crue, booked the 9,000-seat DeSoto Civic Center instead. FedExForum has only two concerts booked for the next 90 days, and both previously played The Pyramid, so they are not new business.
As facilities managers and promoters, SMG and Beaver Productions are understandably concerned. Willingham and the four commissioners voted to keep the heat on the Grizzlies and "lawyer extraordinaire" Stan Meadows, as Willingham called him in an open letter that was alternately sassy, silly, and sensible. But there is no need for a pity party for The Pyramid or the concert drought. Concerts and shows that need an arena as big as The Pyramid or FedExForum are only a small part of the Memphis entertainment scene. Tunica casinos, the Grizzlies, the Memphis Redbirds, AutoZone Park and the Memphis Botanic Garden's "Live at the Garden" concert series weren't around when The Pyramid opened. There are more venues in the Memphis area than there are bands, teams, singers, and entertainers to fill them (see sidebar). Within walking distance of each other downtown, there are two arenas, one outdoor amphitheater, one music museum, one ballpark, and two auditoriums with a total of 60,000 seats. Plus Beale Street. On nights when three or four venues are booked, Memphis seems like a genuine big city. On slow nights, visitors must wonder what in the world we were thinking.
The focus on the non-compete clause misses the point. FedExForum wasn't built to bring more concerts and truck shows to Memphis any more than Tunica casinos were built to revive the careers of geriatric singers or increase the consumption of shrimp cocktails. Those are extras. FedExForum is about professional basketball and a big-league image. Memphis made its choice and should make the best of it. There was always going to be some collateral damage. But $300,000 in revenue, which is offset by the expenses of keeping The Pyramid open, doesn't make much of a dent in the $30 million of debt left on the building. The Grizzlies are responsible for operating deficits at FedExForum. They -- and the city and county -- need a competing arena at the other end of downtown like Senator John Ford needs another ex-wife.
If there are six or eight fewer concerts in Memphis because of the Grizzlies, there are also 50 more NBA games per year. The Grizzlies give Memphis an answer to Tunica's casinos and Nashville's Tennessee Titans. Motley Crue playing The Pyramid can't do that. The Grizzlies help keep FedEx and AutoZone happy. The headquarters of Fortune 500 companies are worth some perks. Would anyone trade them for HealthSouth and Worldcom, the corporate fallen angels of Birmingham, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi?
Closing The Pyramid won't turn off the music in Memphis. According to Freeman, the Beale Street Music Festival dries up the concert business for at least a month before and after the three-day event. Beale Street, the Cannon Center, the Memphis Botanic Garden, suburban concert halls, and scores of bars and clubs listed in this newspaper offer live music. The Mud Island Amphitheater, which is not bound by the non-compete clause, will soon announce a revived summer series of at least 10 concerts. Benny Lendermon, head of the Riverfront Development Corporation, said Mud Island's 2005 bill "will far exceed the number of concerts it has had in the past." The Orpheum plans to offer more music concerts in 2005, according to director Pat Halloran.
The Pyramid is simply an expensive skyline ornament. It was doomed as a basketball arena when the University of Memphis Tigers moved away. Its usefulness as an adjunct to the Memphis Cook Convention Center is limited to a handful of conventions such as the Church of God in Christ that require a large assembly hall.
Pierre Landaiche, general manager of the convention center, said "people will walk a mile indoors" if buildings are connected by interior walkways and people-movers but are reluctant to go outside to a separate building.
No one has come forward with a viable alternate use for The Pyramid that would shift the debt to a private developer without additional public investment. A casino, which is Willingham's choice, would require enabling legislation from Nashville and face opposition (and competition, if it ever came to pass) from the Tennessee Lottery and Tunica casinos.
"There is a difference between a dreamer and a visionary," said Beale Street developer John Elkington, who has seen his share of both in the last 25 years. "A visionary has the wherewithal to make it happen. With The Pyramid, we have a bunch of dreamers."
But Halloran, president of the Memphis Development Foundation which runs The Orpheum, isn't ready to quit on The Pyramid.
"They need to let them book shows," he said. "I understand the Grizzlies' position, but I think the city made a bad deal. It hurts the economy not to have multiple events."
Howard Stovall of Resource Entertainment Group, which represents some 50 bands and other clients, isn't so sure.
Given the competition from Tunica and the inherently "tricky" Memphis market, the non-compete clause in exchange for the Grizzlies picking up operating deficits at FedExForum is "a decent deal" for Memphis, he said.
"Four or five years ago, people were talking about the fact that concerts weren't coming to Memphis," he said. "Memphis is finicky. The sweet spot in this market is the 5,000- to 7,000-ticket concert. Things that seem to be layups turn out to be a lot more difficult. The only way to succeed is to be cautious." n