Friday, April 21, 2006

Perfect Storm

Redbirds are slumping, but AutoZone Park was still a home run for Memphis.

Posted By on Fri, Apr 21, 2006 at 4:00 AM

In April 2000, the Memphis Redbirds opened AutoZone Park, and nearly everything, it seemed, went right that season.

The parent team, the St. Louis Cardinals, played a weekend exhibition game in front of a packed house of 15,000 fans. Major-league baseball was on a high, centered around Cardinal slugger Mark McGwire breaking the home run record in 1998.

The ballpark was brand-new, and the Redbirds were good. With players such as Stubby Clapp and Albert Pujols, the team went to the AAA World Series and set a minor-league season attendance record by drawing more than 1,300,000 fans. AutoZone Park and visionaries Dean and Kristi Jernigan were the toast of the town -- and the Redbirds were pretty much the only game in town.

Six years later, the perfect season has turned into something like the perfect storm.

After losing Monday night, the club's record is 1-11. There are no crowd favorites such as Clapp, much less a budding Pujols.

Attendance Monday -- a beautiful spring night, although one when kids are still in school -- was reported at 6,501 but looked closer to 2,001, before fans headed for the exits. Sunday's game under sunny skies drew an announced crowd of 7,699.

There's big-league competition from the Memphis Grizzlies, who could be playing for another month if they can advance through the first round of the NBA playoffs. FedExForum is the new toast of downtown.

Major-league baseball, and McGwire in particular, have been scarred by the steroid and performance-enhancing drug scandal.

Gasoline costs more than twice as much as it did in 2000, and utility bills and property taxes have also soared. That $3.50 hot dog from the ballpark concession stand now sounds uncomfortably like the price of a gallon of regular. (Not the kind of mental association you want if you're running a sports franchise.)

An inter-family squabble between the Jernigans and heirs of Willard Sparks, whose wife Rita Sparks is head of the Memphis Redbirds Foundation, wound up in Circuit Court earlier this year. The Jernigans were dismissed from the lawsuit over bank loan guarantees, which was settled last week on terms that were not disclosed. The nonprofit Redbirds Foundation is losing money, according to its most recent tax forms.

The baseball turnaround is a reminder of how risky it is to pronounce something a success or, for that matter, a failure before it has been around awhile. The Pyramid was just 13 years old when it essentially closed. Beale Street was about the same age when it really began to take off. The Wonders Series had a run of nearly 20 years before hitting the wall. FedExForum is only two years old, and the Grizzlies, who are bemoaning a decline in attendance, have been in Memphis only five years.

AutoZone Park and the Redbirds should be okay if season attendance, which has declined every year, settles in at something like 500,000. A caveat: That must be actual attendance -- butts in seats -- not tickets sold. Sports teams that inflate attendance because everybody does it are kidding themselves. No-shows can't buy soft drinks and nachos, and that's a minor but important revenue stream.

The ballpark should rank with the reopening of The Peabody in 1981, the completion of the Auction Street Bridge to Mud Island which made Harbor Town and other developments possible, and the arrival of the Grizzlies as one of the three most important downtown stories of the last 30 years. AutoZone Park is part of a package that includes a parking garage, office building, public school, and apartments. Ten years ago, those blocks of downtown included a porno theater, parking lots, the empty William R. Moore building, and a historic mule barn. Maybe some of that would have gone away anyway because of an improving Memphis economy. Maybe downtown Memphis would have rallied anyway because of low interest rates. And maybe the Grizzlies would have come to Memphis anyway, because it's better than being in Vancouver.

But I doubt it. The total transformation wouldn't have happened without the ballpark and the vision of the Jernigans, who hit a home run in 2000, even if the 2006 season is a stinker and the financial shocks aren't over.

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