Monday, September 21, 2009

Winning on Empty: The Redbirds Take the Crown

And the Tigers bounce back ... but for how long?

Posted By on Mon, Sep 21, 2009 at 9:09 AM

If you saw one of the Memphis Redbirds’ wins in last week’s Pacific Coast League Championship Series at AutoZone Park, hang on to your ticket stub. It’s a rarity.

Memo to the new management team of the Memphis Redbirds:

You’ve been hand-delivered the most priceless marketing tool in sports: a championship. Don’t miss the singular opportunity to sell the 2009 Pacific Coast League champions as you plan on filling more seats in 2010.

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Over the last nine seasons, only diehard Redbird fans — familiar with AutoZone Park’s lone red seat — could point to an indication that another championship was won by the home team, “way back” in the ballpark’s inaugural season of 2000. (Fans going to the suite or club levels, however, saw permanent reminders that the likes of Kurt Russell, John Elway, and Michael Jordan “also played,” though never for a Memphis team.) The 2009 PCL champs deserve a permanent display for making a piece of history at AutoZone Park, as do the 2000 champs of Stubby Clapp, Lou Lucca, and Albert Pujols. Professional baseball is a business, but the teams play for championships. And championships can help the bottom line.

The Redbirds averaged 4,943 tickets sold for their three playoff games this month at AutoZone Park. Prep football on Friday, the 11th, and rainy conditions for the first two games of the Pacific Coast League Championship Series certainly limited the walk-up traffic. But regardless of the mitigating factors, to sell less than 5,000 tickets for championship baseball in the ballpark voted the best in the minor leagues is pitiful. The few hundred who actually attended — it was less than 1,000 for the two championship-series games — saw crisp, terrific baseball, each game won by the Redbirds by a single run. The players, needless to say, could hear every syllable of their cheerleaders (or hecklers). Consider the challenge the Redbirds new management team — Global Spectrum, out of Philadelphia — has on its hands. If championship baseball isn’t a hook, can battling mascots and dollar-beer-nights be far behind?

Here’s a radical suggestion. The PCL Championship Series could be played in the stadiums of the teams’ parent clubs. In this year’s case, the games would have been played at Busch Stadium in St. Louis and Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. If the big-league clubs happen to be home, the PCL game could be played during the afternoon as part of a split doubleheader. This would be a considerable reward for players aspiring to make the major leagues (many of whom will not) and would certainly draw more than 5,000 fans to see its team’s top minor-league affiliate play for a championship. Proceeds from the gate and concessions would be split between the parent club and the Triple-A franchise. Ask Global Spectrum how that might boost its bottom line.

Such a move would be counter to any longtime baseball fan’s perception of a postseason rewarding fans as well as players. Had you been at AutoZone Park on September 15th, however, you’d recognize how few longtime baseball fans there are left in Memphis.

• A football coach’s job security can be measured in direct proportion to the performance of his quarterback. After two losses to open the 2009 season, Memphis Tiger coach Tommy West took the keys for his offense from senior Arkelon Hall and turned them over to dual-threat sophomore Tyler Bass. In Saturday night’s game against UT-Martin — the Tigers’ annual beat-down of Football Championship Subdivision (a.k.a. I-AA) competition — West made a point early about what the transition might mean for the Tigers’ season.

In the first quarter against the Skyhawks, Bass carried the ball as many times (5) as did tailbacks T.J. Pitts and Lance Smith combined. On the Tigers’ first touchdown drive of the game, Bass accounted for 74 of 81 yards (51 passing, 23 rushing). In the first half alone, Bass accounted for a Tebow-esque 86 percent of his team’s total offense. Just as telling, Bass re-entered the game after being replaced by Hall in the third quarter, West not comfortable upon UT-Martin closing their deficit to 17 points. Bass quickly added his fourth touchdown pass of the game, finishing the 41-14 rout with 293 yards through the air and 81 more on the ground.

Next Saturday’s tilt with Marshall at the Liberty Bowl will open C-USA play for both teams. (The Thundering Herd beat Bowling Green last weekend and will enter the game 2-1.) Bass will still be playing on a tender knee, but with an offense very much in his hands. Also in the signal-caller’s hands, it would appear, is Tommy West’s future on the Tiger sideline.

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