You could feel the excitement in the Plaza Club on that warm afternoon in March 2001, when the mayors and members of the NBA pursuit team announced that Memphis was going to get a real professional sports team at long last.
"A new beginning in the history of Memphis," Mayor Willie Herenton said. "It will be amazing how much we will have for this community," Shelby County mayor Jim Rout said. FedEx would buy the naming rights for a new arena. Not one but two NBA teams applied to move to Memphis.
What? You say the Plaza Club no longer exists? So it goes. The important thing is that the Grizzlies are still around and open their 10th season in Memphis Wednesday night. Pro sports is a gamble. Some things about the Grizzlies and FedExForum turned out well, some not so well. How did it work? Here's a 10-part answer to the NBA's ten-year run.
Memphis is major league. After 30 years of futility, the goal of NBA Now was to get a team. To ignore the magnitude of this is to forget all those Memphis teams in the ABA, WFL, and USFL. The Flyer's story on the March 2001 announcement ran next to a half-page ad for "Memphis Maniax Fan Appreciation Weekend" and the big XFL battle featuring Tommy Maddox and Jim Druckenmiller. Instead we got Pau, Kobe, Shaq, and Lebron. Enough said.
FedExForum is a big-time building. And, so far, property taxes have not gone into it. Downtown developer Terry Lynch calls it "a shining example of a public/private partnership. It's a phenomenal building. I wish we could do more like it."
The financial indicators are troubling. The recession took a billion-dollar bite out of First Horizon, Regions Morgan Keegan, and FedEx, three of our local sports sponsors, ticket buyers, and corporate big hitters. As an exercise in masochism, I compared the 2005 and current stock price of First Horizon ($33, $9.50), Regions Financial ($33, $7), and FedEx ($104, $89). We are not as rich a community as we were when the arena was built.
The attendance trend is troubling. In the financing plan, the average attendance was pegged at 14,900 and the "worst case" at 10,700. Grizzlies attendance peaked at 16,862 in 2005, bottomed at 12,745 in 2008, and rebounded to 13,485 in 2009. Those are tickets sold and distributed, not butts in seats. Not for nothing do the legal documents address attrition, buyout, relocation, and termination payments.
The Pyramid is a major-league headache. It will cost at least $50 million to reuse. Some say its debt should have been rolled in with the cost of FedExForum, but it wasn't, and now we have an empty monument at the north end of downtown that is going to be hard to retrofit.
Tiger basketball: good for FedExForum, bad for Grizzlies. John Calipari came to Memphis in 2000. From 2000 to 2009, the Tigers won an average 27 games a year, went to three straight Elite Eights, and had a .750 winning percentage. From 1990 to 1999, the Tigers won an average 18 games a year and their winning percentage was .592. The Tigers routinely sell out, and fans have gotten to see Rodney Carney, Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans.
The ripple impact was disappointing. Phil Jackson may have been harsh in his comparison of downtown Memphis to Dresden, Germany, but the fact is Union Avenue between Danny Thomas and the Peabody is bleak, and we still have a bus station, not a new convention center. Beale Street got a bump from the Westin Hotel, but Peabody Place is essentially closed.
FedExForum is a good casino fighter. At 13,000 a game for 41 pro games and 17,000 a game for 16 Tiger games plus concerts, that's a lot of money that stays in Memphis instead of Tunica.
Bonding is bull. A Final Four run by the Tigers or a playoff win (yet to come) from the Grizzlies would create excitement and warm feelings, but sports is not civics. The consolidation vote will show how "One Memphis" we really are.
The best may be yet to come. In 2001, nobody foresaw the arrival of Jerry West and Hubie Brown. If Dirk Nowitzki misses that jump shot or Chucky Atkins makes that layup, the Grizzlies break the playoff jinx and maybe things are different. It could still happen.