If NBA boosters in Memphis want the city and state to spend some serious money, they should make a serious argument.
So far they haven't done that. The detailed financial package given to the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission last week relies too heavily on "found" money -- new money spent at the new arena or within the special taxing zone around it. That presumption is overly optimistic if not deceptive. At least some of the money spent on the NBA is "transfer" money that would have been spent somewhere else in Memphis and Shelby County.
Other parts of the presentation lacked substance. A higher tax on rental cars? Then tell us how many cars are rented, and what the current taxes are. A refitted Pyramid would cost $192 million? Then show us the documents and the architectural studies -- if they in fact exist. And why are we being asked to pay $250 million for a new arena when other cities have built them for considerably less?
There's a better source of money for a new arena. Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley, we read, is a billionaire. The annual interest on $100 million at 5 percent is $5 million. That would service a substantial amount of debt. Heisley keeps his billion. All he gives up is the interest on one-tenth of his wealth. It's not too much to ask. Repeat the process until private investors foot the bill for half the cost of the new arena. Then ask the public sector to match it.
It's hard to see how a new arena will win approval otherwise. NBA owners are losing $40 million a year in Vancouver and Charlotte. It appears to be a business where expenses and revenues are simply out of balance, and it would be foolish indeed for Memphis and the state of Tennessee to invest $250 million in such a venture without laying off some of the risk.
The "NBA Now" team is not helping its cause by being impenetrably close-to-the-vest on the location of the proposed arena. The south side of Union Avenue between Danny Thomas Boulevard and the bus station seems like the best one. Paint this picture: An arena will do for the south side of Union what AutoZone Park did for the north side.
Finally, in this necessary matter of making sense of the proposal's nuts and bolts, where are the salesmen? Where are investors Staley Cates and his partner Mason Hawkins of Southeastern Asset Management? Why are we hearing from Gayle Rose and Marlin Mosby? Pitt Hyde and Rose are giving it a good shot, but they're not the most dynamic speakers around. And it's disconcerting that they're not really hardcore basketball fans. They don't seem to recognize how troubled the NBA is right now. One of the things that made AutoZone Park successful was Dean Jernigan's lifelong love and knowledge of baseball. That's missing in the NBA Now team.
Where is the demand for the NBA? There has been no appreciable demonstration of public support. This deal looks strangely artificial, as though all the "support" has been drummed up from public relations firms and people with a vested interest.
Even in state government, where first reports indicated a clear disposition to support an NBA franchise for Memphis, serious doubts have set in. They, too, are of the "Show-Me" variety.
NBA Now needs to put the first team on the floor and give the public the information it needs to make a decision. Now. Or no NBA.