Are the Tennessee Grizzlies Unavoidable?
Question: Who was the last big name free agent to sign with the Grizzlies?
Answer: The next will be the first.
Like many other mid-to-smaller NBA markets, it’s a struggle to convince wealthy young athletes to choose your city over a larger and more exciting metropolis. Especially when your city doesn’t have a beach, lake, palm trees, mountains, rolling hills or a single glass skyscraper.
Let’s reset a recent article about the Grizz being a relocation target. The franchise may have significant challenges and remain a relocation target, but it's doubtful they pack up and leave Memphis. If the Grizz are not in a bad enough situation for serious relocation conversations, then what's the issue? In a word - growth. A substantial business wound for the Grizzlies appears to be recurring and self-inflicted. Ownership’s unwillingness to invest in consistently promoting the franchise to the larger Tennessee market is a mistake. As the old saying goes, "penny wise and dollar dumb."
Flashy cities and large metro areas define the NBA image as each community appears to be busting with growth and development. Those environments create high-profile events, professional relationship building with peers from other sports and player marketing opportunities. Memphis, unfortunately, has none of those attributes. Those missing pieces represent a gap that defines a perpetual undervaluation of this franchise, which further results in continually reduced revenue streams for other franchises. Those obstacles leave the team sitting behind an annual eight ball surrounding by tough decisions. Now compound that chicken-and-egg discussion with the city of Memphis' continual poor national performance of city management and the prospects for future corporate relocations or population growth are not promising. Like the Grizzlies, a lot of good people and businesses are just stuck in unfortunate circumstances.
We should slow down. It’s important to understand a few facts for the discussion as we move forward …
Franchise Value: The Grizzlies are the least valued franchise in the NBA
TV Market: Memphis has the smallest audience in the NBA and does not crack the Top 50 nationally
Metro Population: Metropolitan Memphis is the NBA's smallest market
Metro Growth: The city of Memphis has only added approximately 3,200 people each year in the last decade; A growth rate of approximately 2% which lands far behind the other 4 largest cities of Tennessee
NBA Attendance: The days of excuses for not supporting the Grizz because of poor teams and bad play are over. The Grizz may be the most exciting team in the league and fan attendance is still 23rd out of 30 teams
NBA Survey: Memphis is near the bottom of two key categories of fanbase revenue for teams: Willingness to spend money on team apparel / Willingness to purchase concessions at games
Working within these parameters is a significant challenge for any front office. The margin for error when evaluating corporate sales, tourism projections and disposable income among potential season ticket holders becomes razor thin. With an honest reflection on the historical pattern of non-growth for the metro, it becomes clear the target market of new revenue is a shallow pool. The need to grab the low hanging fruits of opportunity is critical. So why are they missing it?
Resources, resources, resources …
The NBA's approach to marketing outside the Memphis market is a well known head scratcher. Example? The Grizzlies Caravan serves as a traveling promotional and marketing team that works to develop interest within cities favorable to the team’s business plan - also intending to spur tourism into the Memphis hospitality market. For these events, the short drive destinations such as Little Rock, Jonesboro, and Jackson TN receive necessary priority because of their proximity to Memphis. So, what about the other annual choices by team execs? Targeting specific markets that will not pay future dividends for the Grizz or the city of Memphis is a rabbit hole. What are the specific plans for return-on-investment? Is this really a poorly planned marketing approach or something else?
The Grizzlies' questionable targeted cities are below. As a reference, righthand numbers show total population change over a decade per the census - it's not annual. Further below are the stats for Tennessee markets currently minimized by the Grizzlies as potential revenue.
When conversations turn to statewide support, or lack of, don't blame the state for a perceived disinterest in the NBA. There is a statewide NBA fanbase that is simply not being served because of shoestring budgeting and questionable investments of resources. Aside, of course, from the Grizz partnerships with local radio stations teetering on the brink of Ham radio status. Understanding the prioritization of small, stagnate communities over emerging markets is a struggle to understand. Major league franchises throughout the country embrace the outer tiers of their markets and mine them for growth. Not the NBA - and certainly not the Grizzlies.
What would need to change for the Grizzlies to keep pace with other NBA cities? Develop a larger fanbase and chase the possibility of being consistently competitive year after year? One of the few options could be leveraging the state's dynamic growth through a rebrand as the “Tennessee Grizzlies." This change establishes a broader image that increases marketing to larger population centers throughout the state - manufacturing a growth of population that will not be happening in the Memphis area. This rebrand focuses on corporate sponsorship and partnerships, tv and statewide advertising agreements along with expanded player marketing opportunities. All while growing tourism revenue for Memphis’ already strong hospitality industry. Did I mention local and state tax dollars?
The concept of matching business plans with regional franchise names is a successful blueprint found in several major league cities. In a more direct context, consider the tourism experienced during Titan and UT games home games. Tennessee sports fans consistently travel to support their team. Now they may not always be happy when they arrive, but that's a different topic.
In 10-15-20 years, where will the Memphis region and each of the Grizzlies' externally targeted cities be regarding population, growth, and livability? It's likely each community will look very similar to how they look today. It's not necessarily a bad thing - it's just what it is. Will other NBA cities change during that same time? I seriously doubt many of those cities will look the same in 3-5 years, never mind 10-20.
The Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins both underwent the heavy chore of renaming their franchises. Even though their alternative names were announced in 2020, neither franchise will use those names permanently until 2022. Knowing it's a long process, the Grizzlies should look to embrace the state of Tennessee sooner rather than later.
Unless, of course, that name change is planned for 2027 and doesn't include Memphis or the state of Tennessee.