Thursday, November 27, 2008

On Sports Survival

While Tiger basketball thrives, other Memphis teams stumble.

Posted By on Thu, Nov 27, 2008 at 4:00 AM

The golden age of sports is over in Memphis. It ended on November 17th when the Dow fell 223 points, GM and Ford begged Congress for a bailout that didn't happen, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was accused of insider trading, and the University of Memphis drew 18,000 fans to FedExForum for a basketball game that began at 11 p.m. and was nationally televised on ESPN.

The Tiger basketball team will be fine. Not so the city's other signature teams or the leagues they play in.

Sixteen hours after the Tigers thrashed Massachusetts, the Memphis Grizzlies drew about half that many fans. Last in the NBA in attendance, the Grizzlies probably won't draw 18,000 people to any game this season. Memphis can't support two big-time basketball teams, one of which consistently loses while paying its players preposterous salaries while the other consistently wins while paying its players in college scholarships and television exposure. Either Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley continues to eat the financial losses or he eventually tries to move the team and lets the lawyers sort it out.

The Tiger basketball team also managed to outdraw the Tiger football team, which played Central Florida on Saturday in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium before the "announced" crowd of 18,836. "Announced" is newspaper-speak for saying the crowd wasn't that big.

No one in a position of authority will say so, but the University of Memphis might be better off without football, which costs millions more dollars each year than it produces and requires the athletic department to spend a proportionate amount on scholarships for women's sports that produce little or no revenue.

Football is important to small colleges because it enhances the campus and attracts males, who are underrepresented relative to females, without the cost of athletic scholarships. It will always thrive at big universities like Tennessee and Ole Miss. Memphis is in some middle ground, in the heart of the Southeastern Conference geographically but stuck in third-tier Conference USA with an off-campus stadium and a coach making nearly $1 million a year.

One of the football models for ambitious have-nots is Rutgers University, which made it into the national rankings in 2006. According to The New York Times, Rutgers has embarked on a $100 million stadium expansion only to see donors and state funding vanish and public criticism mount.

After a decade of expansion in which Memphis built AutoZone Park and FedExForum, we're headed for years of contraction. Disposable income, an expanding economy, television royalties, corporate sponsorships, and new stadiums were the keys to sports prosperity. Now the sports business is about to meet the fate of the car business, the banking business, and big-box stores.

If General Motors can contemplate bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch can be absorbed by Bank of America, then we can expect to see some culling of the herd in college and pro sports too.

The flight to quality in spectator sports is happening in Nashville as well as Memphis. On Saturday, the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt failed to fill 39,700-seat Vanderbilt Stadium, despite Vanderbilt being "bowl-eligible," the Holy Grail of college football. The Nashville Predators, which started playing in 1998, are third from the bottom in attendance in the National Hockey League. The Tennessee Titans, on the other hand, are doing fine 10 years after their one-season layover in Memphis and good-riddance move to Nashville. The Titans overcame a year in Vanderbilt Stadium and the bankruptcy of their new stadium's first namesake, Adelphia, on the way to numerous successful seasons, including the Super Bowl in 1999.

On Thanksgiving, the Titans will play the Detroit Lions on national television. The once-beaten Titans are the best team in the league, and the winless Lions are the worst. In any other business, the Lions would be out of business. The team has won one playoff game in 51 years. Not coincidentally, the Lions are owned by William Clay Ford. Yes, those Fords. The Ford Motor Company or some other member of the auto industry Big Three may not outlast the Ford football team.

Banks and car companies have to beg for a taxpayer bailout. Sports teams get their bailout in television revenue and new stadiums paid for with tax money. For cities like Memphis, there's more anxiety than hope in the proverbial "wait until next year."

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