Sports » Sports Feature

New Game

The Grizzlies seek to win fans back with changes on and off the court.



In one of the new television commercials to promote the upcoming Grizzlies season, forwards Rudy Gay and Hakim Warrick are shown playing a game of one-on-one, trading step-back jumpers and blow-by dunks. You might assume that the activity was choreographed for the camera but apparently not.

Turns out it's a real game, played to 21 by ones and twos, with the winner getting to choose the team's entrance music for the first preseason game. (When you hear Jay-Z's "Show Me What You Got" on October 15th, thank Rudy Gay.)

"They played for 40 minutes, and we just went from different angles and shot them all over the place," says John Pugliese, the team's senior director of marketing communications.

The commercial — and the story behind it — signifies fun, which shouldn't be unusual for a professional sports team but has been sadly lacking for the Grizzlies, on and off the court, over the past couple of seasons.

It also signifies a dramatic tonal shift throughout the organization, one perhaps unlikely in the aftermath of a dismal 2006-2007 season, ownership chaos, and a bitter outcome during the league's summer draft lottery.

Yet this change is very real and can mostly be credited to two men: new coach Marc Iavaroni and new basketball operations honcho Chris Wallace, who have replaced the dour, standoffish personalities of predecessors Mike Fratello and Jerry West with an openness and (guarded) optimism than feels palpable to anyone who's spent time around FedExForum lately.

Starting this week, fans will get a chance to see the new-look Grizzlies in preseason action, but for now the changes happening off the court may be more important.

Wallace and Iavaroni have been repairing breaches across the Grizzlies landscape this offseason. They're being remarkably open with fans. They've been more open with the media. They've reached out to the local minority owners, including an appearance at Fred Jones' Southern Heritage Classic. And, perhaps most importantly, they've developed a better, closer working relationship with the team's business staff, a change best symbolized by this: When Jerry West ran the team, he was generally referred to as "Mr. West." In short order, Wallace has become known as simply "Chris" to many Grizzlies employees.

This improved working relationship seems to be embodied in the team's current marketing campaign, driven by the simple slogan "New Game."

"The advertising and marketing has to be an extension of what's happening on the floor," Pugliese says. "And who knows that better than Iavaroni and Wallace? Whatever our message is, it's hollow without their support."

Pugliese credits Wallace and Iavaroni with bringing "a broader vision of the business side of basketball" than the team has had from basketball personnel in the past and, as a result, having "changed the entire culture" of the franchise, comments that echo similar words from other employees throughout the Grizzlies organization.

The team's business and marketing staff hopes the "New Game" campaign, which uses the players and coaches as personalities in a way reminiscent of the team's effective "Round Town" campaign from a few seasons ago, can communicate the positive changes they've experienced internally. But they also know that rebuilding the team's ticket-buying fan base won't be a quick or easy fix.

"We know we're not going to be able to advertise or market our way out of this," Pugliese admits. "If we spent another $200,000 and put up more billboards, is that going to translate to butts in seats right now? No. But can we set the tone? Right now, there's a general groundswell of optimism, I think we can all agree, about the team. Can we set the table for when that optimism, combined with some team performance, can push the sales numbers?"

That journey back — in terms of winning games and winning back fans — begins this week, but credit Iavaroni and Wallace for getting the Grizzlies off to an unexpectedly good start.

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