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THE BIG TIME OF SMALL-TIME SPORTS

Other towns clobber Memphis in youth sports facilities.

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ABC Television, Southaven, Mississippi, and the Choctaw Band of Indians in Central Mississippi have something in common. They've discovered that amateur sports for kids can be profitable as well as popular -- a fact that Memphis has been slow to grasp.

If you watched ABC in prime time Sunday night, you didn't see a blockbuster movie or an NFL preseason football yawner. You saw a bunch of 12-year-old boys playing in the finals of the Little League World Series, with Brent Musberger providing the analysis and 40,000 people in the stands.

Southaven's answer to the Little League World Series is Snowden Grove, a new 17-field lighted baseball complex on Getwell that hosted 10 age-group "World Series" of its own this summer plus 11 invitational tournaments, attracting a total of 1,300 players from 28 states. Scotty Baker, manager of the municipally owned complex, says it drew rave comparisons to Disney World and Cooperstown.

In Neshoba County, Mississippi, near Philadelphia, the Pearl River Resort, a casino complex owned by the Choctaws, plans to add a regional amateur sports complex with championship facilities for baseball, soccer, stickball, and swimming and seating for 10,000 spectators. No one who has seen the Choctaws' phenomenally successful Silver Star Casino, two PGA-quality golf courses, and partially completed second casino and hotel sells them short.

Rusty fences, peeling paint, dim lights, and overgrown playing fields are a thing of the past -- unless you're talking about Memphis, that is. While Memphis builds yet another arena and mothballs the Defense Depot, Tim McCarver Stadium, and the Mid-South Coliseum, surrounding small towns from Jonesboro, Arkansas, to Collierville to Southaven have invested millions in bigger and better youth sports facilities.

And they're having a Wal-Mart effect. Baseball isn't just vanishing from the inner city, it's vanishing from the city, period. The only sizable tournament held inside the Interstate 240 loop is the Pendleton Tournament at Colonial School, an unlighted complex of four small, uneven fields. Most competitive tournaments are now played at Snowden Grove.

The Mike Rose Soccer Complex near Collierville now attracts games and tournaments that used to be played on inferior (but more centrally located) fields at Shelby Farms, May Field, and various Memphis churches, schools, and public parks.

Jonesboro has poured $5 million into its new Joe Mack Campbell Park, consisting of 18 soccer fields and 14 baseball fields, most of them lighted. Jason Wilkie, interim director of parks and recreation, says, "We want to be a regional sports center" for teams as far away as Little Rock, Memphis, and St. Louis.

Young athletes who aren't old enough to drive travel with their parents instead, staying at local motels and eating at local restaurants.

"We do see a benefit from tournaments in terms of rooms and number of nights booked," says Lindy Frizzell, general manager of the Hampton Inn Southaven.

Parents spend so much time transporting their children to games and tournaments in the 'burbs that it makes little sense to live anywhere else. The flight to quality in athletics is as much a factor in school choice as the flight to quality in academics. City and suburban schools are so unequal in baseball and soccer that they rarely play each other anymore.

Memphis has made its biggest sports investments in college and professional venues. But there's a dawning awareness of the importance of youth sports to the civic psyche, evidenced by the recent BRIDGES Kickoff Classic which raised $10,000 for the charity. Kevin Kane and the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau are pursuing Spring Fling, the Tennessee prep spring sports jamboree that is up for bids in 2003.

"We think this is a huge opportunity for Memphis," says Kane. "It's something we desperately want."

Clout and salesmanship will help. But it will take better facilities to put Memphis in the big time of small-fry sports.

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