The Numbers Game

Name the sport, and Memphis has more seats than spectators.

Memphis is going through a period of right-sizing its sports venues and events at both the professional and amateur levels. 

Case in point: The men’s and women’s professional tennis tournaments are probably moving from the Racquet Club of Memphis to Rio de Janeiro following the sale of the events by Sharks Sports & Entertainment to IMG, a global sports company. 

The men’s tournament has been in Memphis since 1976, going by more names than an inmate at the county jail: U.S. Pro Indoor, Volvo, Kroger, Regions Morgan Keegan, to name a few. It’s a quality event — a “500 level” tournament in tennis parlance — below the four Grand Slams. That’s why IMG wants to buy it and move it to Rio.

“With the [2016] Olympics and the [2014] World Cup coming there, Rio will be the epicenter of the sports world for the next few years,” IMG CEO Michael Dolan told the Wall Street Journal in April. 

Memphis could wind up with a “250 level” men’s pro tennis tournament that to most fans would be as indistinguishable from a 500-level event as AA baseball is from AAA baseball. The tournament thrived when it featured American Grand Slam champions such as Jimmy Connors, Jim Courier, and Pete Sampras. The last two champions were Sam Querrey and Jurgen Melzer.

Tennis, baseball, and football are all coping with declining attendance in Memphis. The Memphis Redbirds have fallen below 500,000 in annual attendance since 2009 and the $72 million, 14,200-seat ballpark is being shopped to the city and other potential buyers. The Big East-bound Memphis Tigers football team draws fewer than 20,000 fans to most games at 62,000-seat Liberty Bowl Stadium, which is getting another $9 million in stadium upgrades on top of the $16 million previously spent on Tiger Lane. 

But in Memphis and other cities, the underlying fact is competition. The Grizzlies, John Calipari’s Tiger teams, and FedExForum raised the bar and the price of tickets. Big-screen televisions bring the action to your living room in high definition. How many people in Memphis are going to go watch Jurgen Melzer and Sofia Arvidsson, the women’s 2012 tennis champion? A few thousand, tops. 

The same goes for minor-league baseball and college football in Memphis. The venues are 50 percent too big. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl is one of 35 college football bowl games. For the University of Memphis, the Big East will be an improvement over Conference USA but it isn’t the SEC. There is only so much that management and marketing can do. FedEx Forum is the only hot ticket in town right now, and that assumes that the Grizzlies make the NBA Playoffs and the Tigers make the NCAA Tournament. 

The capacity-and-demand question also applies to sports facilities used by the general public. Do we need any more golf courses? Apparently not, since the city has closed three of them. Indoor tennis courts? The city of Memphis has four facilities; the city of Chicago has one.

Baseball diamonds? Despite the efforts of the Redbirds Foundation, baseball is not the city game any more, and the action is at USA Stadium in Millington, First Tennessee Fields in Cordova, Snowden Grove in DeSoto County, and at public parks and high schools in Germantown, Bartlett, and Collierville. 

Has soccer come of age as an American sport? Only, it seems, if your child is playing. The University of Memphis women’s team went 22-1-1 last season but drew only a few hundred fans to the 2,500-seat stadium at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex

What will be the next “hot” sport? The city of Memphis has built a skate park and has plans for 55 miles of bike lanes. The nonprofit Kroc Center will bring a mixed menu of indoor sports to the Fairgrounds later this year. The Shelby Farms and Overton Park conservancies are wrestling with this question as well. 

Meanwhile, the amateur sport that never ceases to amaze me with its growth in participation across ages and genders is distance running or walking for some cause. Equipment cost: shorts and shoes. The venue: existing streets and parks.  

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