The Breakaway Play 

Hoping for greatness, Memphis prepares to prostrate itself

Hoping for greatness, Memphis prepares to prostrate itself

Moments before heading up to the Metro Council chambers to make his final proposal on the funding package to bring the Houston Oilers to Nashville, Phil Bredesen asked me, “Do you think I’m doing the right thing?”

Before I could frame an answer to the question, Bredesen’s fleeting moment of doubt was over, and he offered his own answer. About half of the funding in the $300 million deal, he said, would be found money generated by sales taxes, state aid, and revenue from the sale of personal seat licenses. The other half would come out of regular city revenues. For that $150 million price tag, in addition to the team, he said, the city would get the redevelopment of the industrial area on the east bank of the Cumberland River, preservation of the Shelby Street bridge for pedestrian use, and another major attraction shoring up efforts to create a 24-hour downtown.

“We get all that redevelopment for just $150 million,” Bredesen said. Not without some pain, the Council ultimately adopted the football package, a community referendum validated that choice, and the Oilers/Titans came to Nashville.

Now Memphis is considering drinking the same Kool-Aid. After decades of courting assorted major league sports ventures, mixed in with short, torrid affairs with various inferior goods such as the USFL and the Canadian Football League, Memphis is in the running for an NBA team. It would cost lots of public money to make that happen, and Memphis will have to wrestle with the hard question of whether the cost is worth it.

The Vancouver Grizzlies are the city’s main hope, although the Charlotte Hornets also are flirting with moving to Memphis in a fairly transparent effort to shake down their current host city for a better arena deal. In the case of the Grizzlies, however, the prospect of moving is fairly real, as the team really has never caught on north of the border and may truly need to relocate to be competitive.

Anyone who was in Nashville during the pursuit of the Oilers recognizes all the same old hackneyed drama playing out with new names and faces. Although Memphis completed construction of the Pyramid arena about 10 years ago, the Grizzlies don’t think that it has enough luxury suites and premium seats to meet revenue needs. So, a condition of the move is the construction of a new arena—at public expense, of course.

The price tag for the new facility would be about $250 million. This has set off the predictable sparring about whether the community should be spending that kind of money helping the rich get richer when the city has so many other pressing social needs such as better schools and housing. The corollary argument is about whether the city will get enough out of having a major league team to justify the public expenditure.

Anyone who has wrestled with these sports deals knows that it’s almost impossible to produce convincing economic justifications for them without engaging in fanciful accounting. Officials are on much more solid ground when they try to look at ancillary benefits to the community and the price of achieving them.

That was Bredesen’s logic when he insisted that the stadium be downtown rather than at a cheaper location somewhere else. For most fans, the Titans experience begins and ends with a stroll through downtown Nashville in which they get a chance to connect with the city’s core and see it as something other than just a place with big office buildings.

The big picture is that keeping downtown vital is important to the social welfare of the whole community, because it helps keep an economically and demographically diverse population living within the city instead of deserting it for suburbs of parasitic affluence like Brentwood. A diverse city means that it is not an isolation point for the poor, who can benefit from the broader updraft of more economic vitality.

Whether there is enough of this kind of benefit for Memphis to justify the outlay that would be required to snag the NBA is a question that Memphians will have to answer. What is clear at this point is that the bifurcated local leadership, with separate city (predominantly urban and black) and county (largely suburban and white) political structures, makes it a lot harder for Memphis to come together toward a single vision.

If there were an intangible value for Memphis, other than whatever specific neighborhood redevelopment a new arena might spur, it would be a sense of reassurance about the future of the city. Anyone with any affection for Memphis has always fretted about whether there was any hope for the place. Its original economic rationale as a hub for a great farming region has long been in decline, and the legacy of racial bitterness has made it hard for Memphis to step forward as a center of high-value-added economic activity.

Since the cataclysm of 1968, Memphis continually has looked for ways to show the world that it is still a place of promise. Perhaps the NBA might be the device to break the continued skepticism.

Still, there is something unsavory about the way cities—particularly medium-sized ones —have had to prostrate themselves in the pursuit of sports glamour. Certainly one has to wonder about the ultimate destinations of the souls of the sports owners and players whose appetites force cities to divert resources that could go into education, public safety, and better living standards. But the cities also make those judgments as mature adults—they should know what they are doing.

In Nashville, Bredesen made certain that his glamour initiatives were dwarfed by what he did for hard-working city employees and community education in the broadest sense. Memphis and Shelby County would face the same kinds of balancing acts. But then, as Memphis Commercial Appeal sports columnist Geoff Calkins observed, Memphis has been without sports teams for decades. It’s not as though that factor made Memphis schools something for everyone else to emulate.

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