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A Gift Horse?

A Gift Horse?

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The news this week that the National Basketball Association is interested in relocating its Vancouver team to Memphis had the city buzzing. It was trumpeted by some as the last best chance for Memphis to obtain "major-league" status. Local sportswriters, fans, and government leaders seemed amazed at the prospect. One almost expected them to pull a collective Sally Field and proclaim to the National Basketball Association, "You like us. You really, really, like us."

Well, of course they like us. Why shouldn't they? The NBA's own studies show that we're the best city available. We have some profitable large corporations, a booming economy, and there are no other major-league sports franchises within 200 miles. In fact, the closest NBA team is in Atlanta.

To all this, we say, Fine. Bring us your team. The problem is: How to pay for it? Shelby County is already facing a budget crisis. The city, while not in crisis mode, would be hard-pressed to toss $250 million at a new venue for a team, however big-time, without solid guarantees of long-term tenancy

Meanwhile, there's The Pyramid -- not a perfect venue, to be sure -- but we might suggest to the NBA: If you don't find this venue (only 10 years old) adequate for your purposes then why not consider helping us out with the financing for an alternative? Maybe we could go 50-50 on it or find some equally creative solution. Tax breaks? Possibly. And we could even find some state money for the project if we can guilt-trip the legislature and the governor into matching what they did for Nashville's major-league bids.

Let's stay open to all prospects. But as a city, let's make sure that whatever we undertake is feasible. We don't want to be a hard sell, but we've been spoiled by the example of Dean and Kristi Jernigan, who managed to figure out how to give us a hot new baseball stadium and a team worth rooting for -- a publicly owned one at that! -- without breaking our public bank. We're all for going big-league, too -- but not if it's a sucker deal. Let's be prepared to welcome this gift horse, but let's not be reluctant to look it in the mouth until we're sure we can accept it with long-term security -- in every sense of that term. While we're checking out the NBA and they're checking us out, let's note some ancillary material.

Last week's edition of Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal included a study of 172 possible markets for expansion or relocation of professional sports teams, and the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce helpfully provided us with some highlights of the survey. Gratifyingly, Memphis is listed among the top NBA contenders, with the note that the city has enough money and at present has a lack of professional competition. Believe it or not, Norfolk, Virginia, may be an unsuspected rival. The chamber's figures identify Norfolk as the largest metropolitan area without a big-league franchise of any sort. And we thought we were! That's the bad news. The good news is that Norfolk sounds like somebody we can beat. Provided, as spelled out above, the game turns out to be worth playing.

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