Hoop Dreams 

Local leaders express varied opinions about a possible NBA franchise.

Call it Nashville envy. How else to explain the surprisingly warm reception that greeted the news that the Vancouver Grizzlies, one of the worst teams in the slumping NBA, is flirting with Memphis?

What about the NBA? Would it be a good fit with Memphis? Could the Grizzlies coexist with the University of Memphis, which is trying to achieve national prominence itself? And what about a new arena, price $250 million or so, U.S. dollars, of course?

The Flyer posed those questions to Memphis political leaders, executives, coaches, boosters, agents, and promoters who have been closely involved in pro sports, from buying and selling luxury suites and stadium naming rights to negotiating multimillion dollar contracts.

Our sampling is anything but a cross-section of Memphis. Many a fan on the street and, more important, many non-fans think it is ridiculous that people are seriously talking about replacing the 10-year-old Pyramid with a new arena that could cost $250 million, especially when property reappraisals and utility bills are soaring. Popular AutoZone Park, after all, cost "only" $72 million, and most of that was privately financed.

But without a new arena, the discussion is probably moot.

"No one should kid themselves," said Steve Ehrhart, the general manager of the Memphis Maniax who has been involved with pro sports here for two decades. "They are not going to move here for The Pyramid."

Memphis lacks at least one other important element this time around. Even if the Grizzlies are there for the taking, no one seems ready to play the part of Grizzly Adams. There is no prime mover to do what the Jernigans did for AutoZone Park and the Redbirds, what Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen did for the Titans and Predators, what Billy Dunavant did for the Kroger St. Jude tennis tournament, and what Fred Smith and Dunavant did for the failed NFL drive: publicly take charge. Project-by-committee has not worked well in Memphis, witness the Grammy Museum, consolidation, and the riverfront.

Smith, CEO of FedEx, said he has "no inside information" and has not seen the numbers on the Grizzlies. And AutoZone Park, with $400 season tickets, was embraced because it is the antidote to major-league greed. As for Mayor Willie Herenton, he told the Flyer he was involved in the talks with the Grizzlies but agreed to keep them secret for now.

On the plus side, the Grizzlies are going somewhere and have to say where by March 26th, the NBA's deadline. One theory has it that Memphis is the stealth candidate because it is what Nashville was four years ago: virgin territory. Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, not given to wild speculation, puts the odds on Memphis at better than 50-50. And U of M basketball coach John Calipari says Memphis should go for it, even if it means more competition for him.

Every time a major-league team flirts with Memphis it touches a nerve. The debate is not just about sports, it's about the future of Memphis. So read on.

Fred Smith, chairman and CEO of FedEx: "I'm not close enough to it to know whether refurbishing The Pyramid is enough or you would have to build a new arena. A certain amount of skybox leases, club seats, and season ticket sales is needed however you get there.

"I have not seen the marketing studies. I am too much of a numbers person to voice an opinion as to the likelihood of success without seeing the numbers. If the numbers support it, I think it would be terrific. But I have no inside knowledge.

"FedEx would look at anything they wanted us to do but that doesn't mean we would do it. The economics are different here than in Washington, D.C. with FedEx Field. That particular stadium has a tremendous amount of national prominence. I can't remember how many times we were on Monday Night Football, but it was a bunch."

U of M basketball coach John Calipari: "How can you raise the quality of life? You've got to raise the image. FedEx has trouble sometimes hiring people. We have problems attracting students. Why? Because they don't look at Memphis as a big-time city. It is a big-time city. We just have to get a professional franchise here to prove it. Will it help us in recruiting? Absolutely it will. Will it hurt my endorsements? Absolutely it will. And the university will have to make it up. Right now the responsibility of the university is not what it has to be in Louisville, Cincinnati, or some other place because you can go into the private sector and make it up. But if that doesn't happen -- whether it's me or any other coach -- the school will have to step up.

"How do you afford to build a new arena? You do it. Because if you don't do it, Louisville's going to do it or someone else is going to do it and then you're done. I've been to Louisville and Memphis is a much better city. Much better quality of life here, in my opinion. Get a pro team here and see what happens to downtown then.

"Now if I am selfish, I don't want an NBA team here. I don't want any more endorsers here. I haven't taken full advantage of that here. I've only done one or two things here, but if I wanted to, I could be selling chips, popcorn, pizzas.

"What's good for the city of Memphis is good for the university. What's good for the university is good for the city. Whether we want to be or not, we are arm-in-arm."

Shelby County mayor Jim Rout: "It's nice to be pursued instead of being the pursuer. Everything indicates Memphis is either at the top or near the top of the list. It's exciting that we're being courted and that our growth rate has not gone unrecognized.

"As far as a new arena, it would depend on the package that can be put together that includes things like the state sales-tax rebate, maybe tax-increment financing. No one knows where it would be or what it would cost.

"I think the odds of the Grizzlies coming here are better than 50-50 but I don't know how much. I would say about 60-40."

Fred Jones, head of Summit Management and founder and promoter of the Southern Heritage Classic: "I want to buy the first skybox. The NBA will work in Memphis because Memphis wants it and needs it. I think people want to dispel the notion that there are too many poor people here to support anything. Memphis is much bigger than that.

"If people get the sense that a new arena is going to be successful, that is going to be different from when we built The Pyramid or Mud Island, when we committed these public dollars and we didn't seem to get it done right. Then I think people will be more inclined to get behind it.

"I have been very successful, but when I walk into a room in Memphis I am still just a black man, regardless of what I can bring to the table. As I travel around the country, where most of my business is, I run into people from Memphis enjoying themselves away from Memphis because they feel like people really don't care.

"Because most of Memphis is African-American and there's a lot of poor people here, everybody is lumped into that boat. There are a lot of poor people everywhere -- New York, Chicago, Atlanta -- but they still manage to get the people involved that have a few dollars. They don't treat all African Americans as if they don't have any money."

"The economics of the black community always comes up, but the reality is we have the wherewithal in the black community to do whatever we want."

Kevin Kane
Kevin Kane, executive director, Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau: "We don't have to look any farther than 200 miles to see the impact of major-league sports on a community. What the Predators and Titans have done for Nashville has had a dramatic positive impact on their self-image and national image.

"The regional appeal of the NBA would be such that we would probably receive some additional tourism impact, more so than Chicago or Los Angeles where the local population supports those teams. It's expensive, but every major community that has lost a franchise has gone out and spent more money to get it back, two examples being Houston and Cleveland. There must be some tremendous value there.

"From the university perspective, I think the U of M has such a solid foundation that the NBA couldn't undermine it. The two can easily coexist. If you love basketball you can support both. If anything, I think it probably helps recruiting to have an NBA franchise.

"The time is now. When people are yelling that is when you should be selling and when people are crying that is when you should be buying. The NBA is down but it will cycle back up."

Allen Morgan, chairman and CEO of Morgan Keegan: "The demographics have changed in the last 10 years in Memphis. There's no question we can support a major-league team, especially the NBA. We [Morgan Keegan] would help any way we could. The mayors, I think, are working out what makes sense, whether you build a new arena or upgrade The Pyramid. One of the keys there is the University of Memphis supporting it, and it appears they do.

"AutoZone Park successfully selling 45 corporate boxes should be an eye-opener as to what kind of support you can get if you have a good marketing program. That's the key to somebody coming here, no question about it. If the mayors get behind it, I think the odds are high."

Rick Spell, past president of the Memphis Tigers booster club: "A pro team could effect the resurgence of the U of M basketball program. Memphis basketball dominates the Memphis media. An NBA team could take the spotlight off the U of M to the new show in town and to visiting teams with name draws like Vince Carter and Shaquille O'Neal. Expect talks around the water cooler to shift to the Grizzlies.

"Calipari set a Pyramid attendance record but I'm sure he would admit that the last 3,000 seats are soft sells that will not return if the team doesn't perform or attention shifts. Does that make it easier for him to consider another college offer? We all know he will be receiving offers. It's not worth the chance. And don't expect Calipari to say this in the press as none of the university officials will want to be publicly negative about competition.

"I will attend and enjoy the Grizzlies. But only after primary support for the Tigers. I'm a Tiger booster. Will less committed fans do the same? To keep Calipari, I certainly hope so."

Jimmy Sexton, sports agent, Athletic Resources Management: "I contacted [Grizzlies owner] Michael Heisley in early February and asked to put together a meeting with the mayors and the sports authority. That meeting was on February 19th at Memphis Country Club.

"They are not moving to Memphis with a retrofitted Pyramid. All these people that want to run around and talk about The Pyramid are living a pipe dream. It's got to be a state-of-the-art, first-class, knocked-out arena. It's not going to happen any other way. The people who say that in this city have never even been in NBA cities and seen the competition.

"There are two schools of thought. In New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, the NBA can work because it has large corporate presence and lots of ticket sales. There is also the school of thought that in medium-sized markets like Memphis and Orlando and San Antonio it might have a chance to succeed because it is a one-horse town. I think that is what the Vancouver people are assessing.

Steve Ehrhart, executive director of the AXA Liberty Bowl and general manager of the Memphis Maniax: "In 1993, when we were selling premium seats [for the NFL pledge drive], we sold something like 9,000 seats at $1,500 apiece. It really opened my eyes. And for 42 NBA home games at a $40 average, you are still at that $1,600 season-ticket level. I used to be concerned that on a Tuesday night or a Thursday night, would you be able to sustain that turnout over a number of years, after the honeymoon wears off? I think that is the challenge that Memphis has. Along with the $200-plus million to build a new arena. And no one should kid themselves. They are not going to move here for The Pyramid. The Pyramid just doesn't have the kind of amenities that the NBA demands these days.

"I am a believer that having big-time professional sports is good for every community. Can the community raise the dollars? We are going to need a lot of help from Nashville. Are we going to get it? That's the big question."

Frank Banks, C.P.A. and organizer of MemphisFirst Community Bank: "I think we're at the point where we realize the importance of major-league sports. I'm real high on this. I think we have the income in Memphis to do it. I thought Memphis would have supported the Oilers if they had come here to stay."

Allie Prescott, general manager of the Memphis Redbirds: "As a lifetime Memphian, anything that is ultimately good for our city I support. But I would have to understand more about who is going to pay for a new arena or the retrofit of The Pyramid before I would really want to go 100 percent out there. As a general proposition, if NBA basketball is something that will make this a better city then I guess I would be for it.

"We play about twice as many home games as the NBA for a substantially lower ticket price ($900 for a season ticket for a club-level seat). The Redbirds might feel competition for corporate support, but if it came in and was a big success and it made Memphians feel better about themselves, I think it would create a larger pool of corporate support."

R.C. Johnson, athletic director, University of Memphis: "I don't think retrofitting The Pyramid is a viable option. I say give the Grizzlies The Pyramid and build us a new arena [laughs]. As the athletic director, I have absolutely no desire to have any major-league sports team here. But if it is something that is really good for the city, we certainly should pursue it.

"I don't know if we can support an NBA team but there would certainly be some excitement for the city.

"I think any team that comes here will be competing for corporate dollars. There would be less coverage in the media, too. I think that's one of the things that makes the Tiger athletics special. We are without doubt the domineering force. Right now we've got a pretty good situation."

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