MEMPHIS: GOOD ENOUGH 

MEMPHIS: GOOD ENOUGH

I remember my first date with the girl of my dreams, when she finally decided to give me a try and took me up on an offer for dinner and a movie. I remember how indescribably afraid I was, petrified of being on the verge of successfully embarking on one of the major goals of my life -- a date with destiny. Sound familiar? It should. The city is on the cusp of something big in the form of the NBA dribbling at the chance of calling Memphis home. Are those NBA owners shooting at the wrong goal? Let’s see. Corporate support? Check. Big enough community to support it? Check. Enough citizen interest? In Memphis? Basketball popular here? Double check. A community that believes it not only can have a professional and successful sports franchise but that it deserves a franchise ... Um ... well ... Not really. In all the talk of referendums, what we really should be doing with our money, and the potential pitfalls of a new stadium, no one has stepped back for a moment and said, “Gee. This is really friggin’ cool.” And it is. Forget about all the negative publicity. Forget all the doubts and the what if’s and the maybe’s. Just for one moment, forget about all of the bad things that could be said about the NBA. Now, remember what it was like in 1974 and again in 1993 when the NFL said that Memphis wasn’t good enough. Remember Nashville getting not one, but two professional teams. Remember W. Bush calling Tennessee a “minor league” state [before Nashville’s successes]. Take all that memory ... and throw it away. Push it off the counter. Flush it. It’s all gone. Memphis has pulled off one of the major coups in professional sports history by luring not one but two franchises from the same league to its doorstep. The NBA wants to give us a try. Are there major questions to be answered about funding? Sure. Is the matter of building an arena downtown without a formal referendum a valid one? Absolutely. And the big question: Should there be skepticism that Memphis cannot or does not deserve a professional franchise all its own? Absolutely, certainly, most definitively not. Not convinced? Need some numbers? Fine. Let’s look at numbers. In February, 2001 the Memphis Chamber of Commerce (MCC) issued a report titled “Memphis and the NBA.” Among many findings, the report showed that Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal demonstrated Memphis’ ability to support an NBA team. In comparison, St. Louis and Nashville, both cities with their own professional teams, scored a 71 percent and 7 percent respectively. Though Memphis’ population of 1.1 million would make it the NBA’s smallest market, it has experienced a 10.5 percent growth since 1990 (very large in comparison to national numbers though Nashville’s growth was bigger). Looking past just the people who live here, according to the MCC, Memphis hosts 8 million tourists a year who stay at least overnight for a total of $1.8 billion annual revenue. The Travel Industry Association ranked Memphis tied for 5th in destinations for people traveling to see a sporting event in 1999. Even with the delayed improvements to the Memphis Convention Center, Memphis is considered one of the top 10 growing convention destinations by Successful Meetings. While Memphis has an average family disposable income comparable to or surpassing many of the other cities the NBA considered for relocation ($27,511), it also has the lowest cost of living (10 percent below the national average). That means that we make as much money on average but have less costs to spend it on. That per capita grew 69 percent in the last 10 years -- a bigger growth than Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Indianapolis, Louisville, or Birmingham. The Memphis Business Journal reports that Memphis had 41 billion dollars in total personal income in 1997. Taking into account Memphis’ love of U of M basketball (i.e. accounting for the money that flows there), that 41 billion is 40 percent above the base level of income that NBA owners want to see. Memphis also showcases four of the top 50 wealthiest city neighborhoods in the country: Central Gardens, Galloway, River Oaks, and Chickasaw Gardens, and is ranked 8th among America’s top-40 real estate markets. In terms of corporate money, Memphis has 143 businesses with over 100 million in sales and another 105 between 50 and 100 million. Memphis’ three biggest corporations, FedEx, AutoZone, and International Paper are all Fortune 500’s. Memphis has one of the biggest banking operations in the country, with more total banking assets than Dallas or Atlanta. And Memphis’ businesses are growing with Inc. magazine voting Memphis the 7th “Best Place to Start and Grow a Business” and ranked 3rd for most improved business climate among large metro areas. Research by the Brandow Company rates Memphis first in tech start-ups in the last three years, possibly because of Memphis’ status as one of America’s largest distribution centers. All this adds up to the Sports Business Journal naming Memphis as one of two top NBA sites (Norfolk, VA was the other). And apparently the city wants a team. According to Scarborough Sports Marketing, 14 percent of the adult population in Memphis is “very interested” in the NBA. The national average is 11 percent. Among those cities with more reported interest are San Antonio (28 percent -- increasing from 19 percent during 1999 title run. Like Memphis, it’s the only game in town), Indianapolis (24 percent), and Salt Lake City (24 percent--a singular pro sports entity). In other words, Memphis is a potential vacuum waiting for a sports team to fill it up. Head spinning yet? So were the heads of NBA commish David Stern, Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley, and Hornets owners George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge. The point of all of this is that Memphis deserves an NBA team. It deserves to reward itself. Yeah, this is a rosy view. But is it really so hard to believe? Memphis’ dream date is at the door. The question now is whether the city will go out for a night on the town or hole itself up watching old movies of things that might have been. Regrets of the past and uncertainties of the future are truisms in life, an opportunity like this is not. Memphis must take advantage of the good things it has done so that its success continues.

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