Not just those games against other playoff contenders and all-stars such as LeBron James and Allen Iverson. Off the court, the lineup of formidable competitors includes Shelby County commissioners John J-Will Willingham and Walter Big Dog Bailey, the upcoming Beale Street Musicfest in April and May, promoter Beaver Productions, and the ever dangerous duo of Motley Crue and DeSoto County Civic Center.
The issue is not basketball but the non-compete contract clause that gives the Grizzlies and their operating arm, Hoops Inc., first dibs on the dwindling number of bands and artists that want to perform in Memphis in a big arena. While Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court were preoccupied last week with Terry Schiavos feeding tube, Willingham and others were casting the non-compete clause as a right-to-life issue for The Pyramid and Mid-South Coliseum. As Pyramid General Manager Alan Freeman told commissioners, if his employer, SMG, gets a call from a promoter wanting to play The Pyramid, he must by contract immediately refer them to the Grizzlies, and he can only book a show with their blessing.
Thats not happening, said Freeman, who estimated that six to eight events have bypassed Memphis due to the non-compete clause since FedEx Forum opened last September.
Questioned by Bailey, the commissions watch dog over the Grizzlies and FedEx Forum, Freeman gave a grim report. The Pyramid lost $200,000 to $300,000 in potential revenue. Two bands, Rascal Flats and aging rockers Motley Crue, booked the 9,000-seat DeSoto County Civic Center instead. FedEx Forum has only two concerts booked for the next 90 days, and both previously played The Pyramid so they are not new business.
As facilities managers and promoters, SMG and Beaver Productions are understandably concerned. Willingham and the four commissioners voted to keep the heat on the Grizzlies and lawyer extraordinaire Stan Meadows, as Willingham called him in an open letter that was alternately sassy, silly, and sensible. But there is no need for a pity party for The Pyramid or the concert drought. Concerts and shows that need an arena as big as The Pyramid or FedEx Forum are only a small part of the Memphis entertainment scene. Tunica casinos, the Grizzlies, the Memphis Redbirds, AutoZone Park and the Memphis Botanic Gardens Live at the Garden concert series werent around when The Pyramid opened. There are more venues in the Memphis area than there are bands, teams, singers, and entertainers to fill them (see chart). Within walking distance of each other downtown, there are two arenas, one outdoor amphitheater, one music museum, one ballpark, and two auditoriums with a total of 60,000 seats. Plus Beale Street. On nights when three or four venues are booked, Memphis seems like a genuine big city. On slow nights, visitors must wonder what in the world we were thinking.
The focus on the non-compete clause misses the point. FedEx Forum wasnt built to bring more concerts and truck shows to Memphis any more than Tunica casinos were built to revive the careers of geriatric singers or increase the consumption of shrimp cocktails. Those are extras. FedEx Forum is about professional basketball and a big-league image. Memphis made its choice and should make the best of it. There was always going to be some collateral damage. But $300,000 in revenue, which is offset by the expenses of keeping The Pyramid open, doesnt make much of a dent in the $30 million of debt on the building. The Grizzlies are responsible for operating deficits at FedEx Forum. They --and the city and county -- need a competing arena at the other end of downtown like Sen. John Ford needs another ex-wife.
If there are six or eight fewer concerts in Memphis because of the Grizzlies, there are also 50 more NBA games per year. The Grizzlies give Memphis an answer to Tunicas casinos and Nashvilles Tennessee Titans. Motley Crue playing The Pyramid couldnt do that. The Grizzlies help keep FedEx and AutoZone happy. The headquarters of Fortune 500 companies are worth some perks. Would anyone trade them for HealthFirst and Worldcom, the corporate fallen angels of Birmingham, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi?
The Pyramid is simply an expensive skyline ornament. It was doomed as a basketball arena when the University of Memphis Tigers moved away. Its usefulness as an adjunct to the Memphis Cook Convention Center is limited to a handful of conventions such as the Church of God in Christ that require a large assembly hall. Pierre Landaiche, the general manager of the convention center, said people will walk a mile indoors if buildings are connected by interior walkways and people-movers but are reluctant to go outside to a separate building.
No one has come forward with a viable alternate use for The Pyramid that would shift the debt to a private developer without additional public investment. A casino, which is Willinghams choice, would require enabling legislation from Nashville and face opposition (and competition, if it ever came to pass) from the Tennessee Lottery and Tunica casinos.
There is a difference between a dreamer and a visionary, says Beale Street developer John Elkington, who has seen his share of both in the last 25 years. A visionary has the wherewithal to make it happen. With The Pyramid, we have a bunch of dreamers here.
Halloran, president of the Memphis Development Foundation which runs The Orpheum, isnt ready to quit on The Pyramid.
They need to let them book shows, he said. I understand the Grizzlies position, but I think the city made a bad deal. It hurts the economy not to have multiple events.
Howard Stovall of Resource Entertainment Group, which represents some 50 bands and other clients, isnt so sure.
Given the competition from Tunica and the inherently tricky Memphis market, the non-compete clause in exchange for the Grizzlies picking up operating deficits at FedEx Forum is a decent deal for Memphis, he said.
Four or five years ago people were talking about the fact that concerts werent coming to Memphis, he said. Memphis is finicky. The sweet spot in this market is the 5,000 to 7,000-ticket concert. Things that seem to be layups turn out to be a lot more difficult. The only way to succeed is to be cautious.