News » News Feature

MEMPHIS AND THE NBA

MEMPHIS AND THE NBA

by

comment
While the NBA Now team was certainly well aware of the success of major-league sports in Nashville, the inspiration and road map for landing the Grizzlies actually came from another peer city, Jacksonville. The Jacksonville MSA of 1.1 million people is roughly the same as Memphis. Like Memphis, Jacksonville is a border city with just one major-league team. Jacksonville beat out Memphis for an NFL expansion team in 1993 by making a richer bid with a better stadium. And finally, there was a key Jacksonville-Memphis connection. Daniel Connell, senior vice president of marketing for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, was the college roommate of Mason Hawkins, chairman of the board of Southeastern Asset Management, the Memphis-based mutual fund company. Connell now serves on Southeastern’s board. Hawkins and Staley Cates, president of Southeastern, began exploring the possibilities of Memphis getting an NBA team over a year ago. The first target was the Charlotte Hornets. When the focus shifted to the Vancouver Grizzlies, Connell’s advice and the positive Jacksonville experience served as a road map for Cates, who is a minority owner of the Grizzlies. “If you did it the Jacksonville way, which is our comparable, [a major-league team] has a huge impact,” says Cates. “We watched it happen through the eyes of Dan Connell.” With a reputation as picky “value” investors, Cates and Hawkins quietly laid the groundwork for the NBA. They met with FDX Corp. CEO Fred Smith, who agreed to bring in FedEx on a purely commercial basis. The public face of NBA Now -- the mayors, Pitt and Barbara Hyde, the chamber of commerce -- took it from there. There weren’t any great secrets to be learned from Jacksonville, which was an expansion city in the NFL as opposed to a relocation city in the NBA. But the similarities to Memphis, combined with the business expertise and modest egos of the Longleaf team, provided an extra layer of confidence and credibility in the crunch. “The Jaguars helped Jacksonville be better recognized with companies that were looking to expand or relocate businesses,” says Connell. “As an example, after we won the franchise we ran a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal with a helmet in the center that said look inside the head of the NFL and see why they picked Jacksonville. At that time, Jacksonville might not have even had the level of recognition that Memphis had.” Since the Jaguars took the field in 1995, Jacksonville has enjoyed a growth spurt, coincidentally or not. “The NFL gets the initial inquiry from site selectors,” says Connell. “The key thing is to get on that list of companies that the site selectors are going to query for information. Then at least you have a chance to sell yourself.” Connell also shared his thoughts about sports and civic self-esteem with the Memphians. “A lot of people have taken their disposable dollars and put them into Jaguars tickets instead of somewhere else, so we wanted to give back in a big way. It doesn’t always have to be money. If a player talks about the importance of staying in school or staying off drugs you’ve brought a new hero or role model to the city.” The love affair between a city and a team (and, it should be noted, the Jaguars won early and often) in building the community is a nice story, but Connell says being the only game in town “puts extra pressure on the team,” even more so for the NBA with a 12-man roster compared to an NFL team’s 53-man roster. If he were advising the Grizzlies, he would tell them this: “The community needs to support the team, and I say that more for the community than for the ownership. I would like to think that community leaders feel some level of responsibility to help sell season tickets. The Grizzlies can put ads in the papers, but if community leaders are out there advocating and encouraging people to step up, that is where you are going to have the greatest opportunity for success.” Connell’s not sure what, if any, impact his friendship with Hawkins and Cates had on the Memphis, but “wherever you got all your information, you obviously did it the right way.”

Add a comment