SOUTHAVEN — In the early 1990s, Memphis was the powerhouse. With a minor league hockey team on board, and sporadic but spirited talks about luring other professional sports teams, the future looked bright for the River City.
Then organizers in DeSoto County, lacking a suitable facility for high school graduations, decided to build a civic center. After seeing the potential for more business, they came up with a grander plan.
When the Memphis RiverKings were released from their contract with the MidSouth Coliseum in Memphis after a yearlong court battle, the team promptly moved to the new $32-million, 10,000-seat DeSoto Civic Center in time to start a new season.
By the time the 200,000-square-foot facility opened last summer in Southaven, it was one of the few venues in the country to start with three professional sports franchises: a hockey team, an ABA 2000 basketball team and an Arena Football League II (af2) team.
“The rundown condition of the MidSouth Coliseum in Memphis prompted a lot of new activity at the DeSoto Civic Center,” said Jim Riggs, general manager of the Memphis RiverKings.
But the ABA 2000 basketball team, dubbed the Memphis Houn’Dawgs and led by former University of Memphis basketball coach Gene Bartrow, which tipped off its first season last December, is now kaput.
Scott McKinney, host of “Conference Call,” a daily SEC call-in radio show and former vice president of marketing and media services for the Memphis Houn’Dawgs, said, the team “is temporarily closed while they decide where they are going to move it, possibly Tucson, Arizona or Long Island, New York.
“I think our owner, Clyde Perlee, said a few weeks back that with the addition of an NBA team here would not lend itself to the team staying in the area. He wanted to see Memphis get an NBA team and do well with it but Memphis obviously can’t support two basketball teams.”
And Memphis is preening for the NBA’s arrival.
Vancouver Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley plans to bring his team to Memphis — if an NBA arena is built.
In a memorandum of agreement between the city of Memphis, Shelby County and the Grizzlies owner, Hoops L.P., the proposed $250 million arena is envisioned as a multipurpose sports and entertainment complex that would accommodate a second major tenant and other minor tenants. Two locations are under consideration: an area south of Beale Street and a site on Union Avenue near AutoZone Park.
The facility would feature a professional size ice rink, NBA practice and training facilities, offices, retail areas, restaurants and public meeting facilities, along with an 1,800-space parking garage.
Riggs isn’t concerned.
“We’ve obviously been watching this with great interest,” he said. “It became clear they’ve been working on this for a year and seem to have a good battle plan for getting a major league team. They’re coming and they had their draft (in late June.)”
Memphis Hockey Inc. owns the Memphis RiverKings, a Central Hockey League team established in Memphis in 1992. The team recently capped a successful season at DeSoto Civic Center, finishing second in the eastern division finals in the 2001 Ray Miron Cup playoffs.
Riggs said he’s chatted with owners of two teams in the Central Hockey League that have homes in cities with NBA teams — Indianapolis and San Antonio — about possible challenges with the Grizzlies’ arrival.
“Their only concern is media space,” Riggs said. “The major league team tends to take a lot of coverage. We’ll need to address that with the media. But when we’re competitive and have a good product, we get coverage as good as anybody, so the pressure is on us to do well after a successful season. We’ve got a good start with the same coach and a good nucleus of players coming back so we’ll do well there.”
When another sports team is thrown into the mix, everyone has to work harder, Riggs said.
“We’re stepping up our marketing efforts, especially in DeSoto County and heading further south into Tate County,” he said. “Depending on what happens in Tupelo, where they don’t know if the team will return, we may even market there. If they come back, it creates a good rivalry, but if not, we can at least try to get fans from there to come see us on the weekends.”
Rex Haynes, one of the organizers of the DeSoto Civic Center, said it is in a great market position because of its size and location.
“The Pyramid and the new NBA arena will both be too large for many events,” he said. “The MidSouth Coliseum in Memphis is smaller but is out of date.”
For the second year in a row, the NBA has the highest average ticket price of any professional sport and industry analysts say the league is dangerously close to pricing many core fans out of the arena, Anthony Schoettle reported for the Sports Business Guide last November.
“According to a recently released study by Chicago-based Team Marketing Report, this year’s average NBA ticket price rose 4.3% to $51.02, the first professional league to top $50. The NBA’s average ticket price is $2.05 higher than the National Football League and $3.33 higher than the National Hockey League,” he wrote.
The New York Knicks lead the league in ticket prices with an average price of $91.15. The Los Angeles Lakers have the league’s second highest average ticket price at $87.69 and a full season pass can cost up to $6,880.
The Vancouver Grizzlies have been called one of the league’s least profitable franchises, and Memphis would be the NBA’s smallest market. Last year, the cost of a full season pass for average seats for the Grizzlies cost $2,859. The arena has a capacity of 19,193.Nichols said the NBA team wouldn’t make a difference.
“The seasons don’t really overlap and I think their arrival will actually help all the sports teams because of the drive for sports and how much fun it is for families to go and experience a game,” Nichols said. “A lot of people haven’t been to a sporting event with their families and once they do, they enjoy it and like going back. I think it’s good for the city.”
Stuart Taylor, director of the DeSoto Civic Center, said he’s not concerned either. “We’ll keep searching for our niche and keep advertising and marketing as best we know how for the teams,” he said.
Riggs said he’s given no consideration to moving the Memphis RiverKings again. “The civic center folks have treated us real well,” he said. “The building is a first class facility and the new scoreboard just went up. We have amenities as good as any team in the league.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.