The Commercial Appeal (reg. required) yesterday took the admirable, if belated, stand that tossing a ton of public money at yet another publicly-funded sports facility wouldn’t be a great idea (at least, not for now). At issue is the deteriorating 1965 Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium (which dates from prior to my parents’ attendance at then-Memphis State University). The editorial says:
A major overhaul could cost 125 million or more. …
Councilman Rickey Peete suggested spending 5 million for minimal repairs if the work would buy a few more years of use.
The CA endorses the third option. But let’s go look at the benchmark for comparison:
It should be noted that the University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium, one of the largest stadiums in the country, has seen 16 renovations since 1921, according to the school’s web site. Renovations apparently have served UT well, since there are enough seats for 104,079 fans.
By comparison, the 62,380-seat Liberty Bowl has been twice renovated since it was built, according to the university.
To the best of my recollection, Neyland’s renovations were financed with money from boosters… and UT, which attracts 100,000 fans per game, needs the space—heck, they could probably sell another 20,000 seats if they had the space to install them. The Liberty Bowl, however, is lucky to attract 30,000 fans per Memphis home game in a typical season: last year, the team set a record by attracting an average of 40,262, a figure skewed by both the presence of the Ole Miss home game on the schedule (which attracted 51,914 fans, many of whom weren’t big Tigers supporters) and the Tigers’ atypically good performance in 2003. Don’t count on more than 35,000 per this year. (Stats from here.)
More to the point, the editorial doesn’t mention the real driving force behind a new stadium for the Tigers: keeping up with the Joneses. Or, in their case, keeping up with the Louisville Cardinals and their privately-financed Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, which manages to seat 42,000 fans in comfort (i.e. still above the realistic attendance level the Tigers can expect regularly) at the bargain price of $65 million—half the estimated cost the CA cites for an all-new stadium. (Louisville’s stadium is actually a “horseshoe” that can eventually be expanded with additional end-zone seating, similar to the current configuration of Ole Miss’ larger 60,580-seat Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, also paid for by private donations.)
Unlike Louisville’s boosters, however, the Highland Hundred want to dig into their fellow citizens’ pockets to pay for their new deluxe stadium. Why shouldn’t they? Michael Heisley, a man with no ties to Memphis at all, was able to schmooze and finagle his way into getting taxpayers to pony up for the FedExForum, leaving the Pyramid (which, admittedly, is a horribly designed
basketball arena building) to do nothing except blind passing airline pilots with the reflection from its roof. Now all the Hundred have to figure out is how to shoehorn a football stadium west of Danny Thomas Blvd. and they’ll be all set!