It's all about football.
That's the bottom line for the University of Memphis and its prospects for getting into a big-name conference, as well as the $16 million redevelopment of the fairgrounds.
Put up or shut up time is here. There's no blaming those carnies or the Mid-South Fair or a lack of parking or corporate apathy or Tommy West.
To accommodate a tight schedule, construction crews are working seven days a week. Most of the old buildings have been demolished, and the 61,000-seat big sombrero of a stadium stands out more than ever.
I have to say it looks pretty cool without all the junk around it, except for the Coliseum, which is the big pimple next door. The handicapped seating issue has been handled, the field is new, the locker rooms are new, and the concourses and bathrooms are more than adequate. By September, there will be a grand, grassy entrance four football fields long on the west side called Tiger Lane, plus a lot of new parking and picnic areas. The fountain could be, uh, let's just say it won't make anyone forget the Zippin Pippin.
What will it take to make this project a success? Well, for some people, it probably won't ever be a success, including those who wanted Libertyland, the fair, an on-campus stadium, or a Target store at the fairgrounds. For all the talk about everyday use, this is a football-driven project, at least until the neighboring Kroc Center opens next year. In time that could change, but first impressions will be formed between September, when the University of Memphis and the Southern Heritage Classic take the field, and December 31st, when the AutoZone Liberty Bowl game is played.
Here's what they have to do to justify the expense:
The University of Memphis has nowhere to go but up after finishing 2-10 and firing head coach Tommy West last year. Only four of last year's six home games sold more than 21,400 tickets, and thousands of those were unused. The biggest crowd was the opener against highly rated Ole Miss, which drew 45,207. Tennessee is the only SEC team on the home schedule this year.
The fan base has to be expanded, and the boosters who wanted an on-campus stadium must be coddled and somehow convinced that "old and off-campus" is okay. Success would be a sellout against Tennessee, 35,000 for everyone else, and a winning record. And in a 61,000-seat stadium, that still leaves 26,000 empty seats in case the Big East Conference is watching.
The Southern Heritage Classic is now in its 20th year. The game between historically black colleges has drawn 50,000 or more fans 11 times, but attendance slipped to 43,306 last year. This year's game on September 11th will be the first in the new fairgrounds. The pre-game events will be the first test of the Tiger Lane premium parking spots and tailgating areas, which were big concerns of game promoter Fred Jones. Positive reviews are a must. Attendance has to get back to near the 50,000 mark.
The AutoZone Liberty Bowl had strong television ratings and sold-out games for the last few years, so what's not to like? Once dismissed as third-tier or worse, the game has been on a roll with good weather, exciting teams, and close scores. The 2009 game got higher television ratings than any ESPN bowl game in the last four years.
The competition is tough. This year there will be 35 football bowl games. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl has a tie-in with Conference USA, the Big East, and the SEC for this year's game on Friday afternoon, December 31st, which is considered a desirable date. The ideal match-up would be the University of Memphis and an SEC team. A Big East also-ran against some other Conference USA champ could be a bummer.
Steve Ehrhart remembers the stadium when it was the home of the Memphis Showboats in the United States Football League in 1984 and 1985. Capacity was only 50,000, and the team played in the spring. By the end of the season, the grass had turned to dirt in the middle of the field. But with star player Reggie White, the Showboats filled the stadium for their only playoff game. Their success encouraged Memphis to pursue an NFL team and expand the stadium and add sky boxes — all in vain except for a short layover by the Tennessee Titans.