The following is republished from a Sync magazine article in 2009
The Memphis Grizzlies want your business, Arkansas.
And they’re working for it.
More radio stations carrying game broadcasts, community outreach events and 280-mile charter bus trips are a few ways that central Arkansas’ nearest pro team has tried to drum up interest in a state only miles from their FedEx Forum home.
There’s no choice, says John Pugliese, the team’s senior director of marketing and communications. Grizzlies management understood when the team arrived from Vancouver in 2001 that expanding its fan base into a tri-state area including Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee would be vital to success.
Eight years later, to what extent do Arkansans consider the Grizzlies the state’s “adopted” pro basketball team? For the sake of comparison in this specific context, let’s consider the Dallas Cowboys to be Arkansas’ adopted pro football team.
The Grizz have certainly reached across the Mississippi River. In its first years in Memphis, Grizz players, coaches, mascots and salespeople visited Arkansas cities like Jonesboro and Little Rock to promote the team, Pugliese said. The team has set up “Jr. Grizz” basketball teaching programs for children ages 6-15 in Jacksonville, Conway, Marion, Helena, West Memphis and McGehee.
Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said last week that he has taught one-day camps with “pretty good turn out” at a Boys & Girls Club in West Memphis the last two summers. Conley, whose father starred in track for the Razorbacks, spent most of his childhood in Fayetteville before eventually moving to Indianapolis, Ind.
Conley’s relatives, who are spread across Arkansas, may see new Grizzlies billboards in places like Marion, Jonesboro and West Memphis as they travel east to see Conley’s home games. The advertisements are part of a commercial outreach that includes four Arkansas radio stations broadcasting Memphis games. Fans can tune into stations based in West Helena, Marion and Jonesboro and, in central Arkansas, Conway’s KASR 92.7 FM. Grizzlies television broadcasts extend nearly 75 miles into east Arkansas, Pugliese added.
In an effort targeting Little Rock, the Grizzlies last year sold tickets of $47 and $99 for a charter bus round trip to select Memphis games.
“We see a little bit of our fan base in Arkansas growing every year,” Pugliese said. He added that roughly 10 percent of ticket holders to Grizz games are Arkansans, and a majority of those hail from West Memphis and Jonesboro, which is 64 miles from Memphis.
According to espn.com, Memphis averaged 12,745 in home attendance last season, 29th of 30 NBA teams. It’s kept the same spot through 10 home games this year by averaging 12,210.
So, let’s cut to the chase — has Arkansas developed a love for its neighboring Grizzlies?
Based on the many conversations I’ve recently had about this subject, I’d say “no.” Let’s explore possible reasons.
1) A Memphis native, and fellow Little Rock Central High School alum, told me while Arkansas is very much Razorbacks country, so is Memphis still very much Tiger country. He averred that despite their NBA credentials, the Grizzlies have yet to capture the hearts of Memphians as the University of Memphis Tigers do. They’re just too new, and haven’t won enough yet. It seems more Memphians would have to first come to love the Grizzlies before Arkansans would.
2) Winners attract new fans, but for most of the last eight years the Grizz have been a losing team. They had won three consecutive games going into last Friday’s game against Oklahoma City, and offered $3 tickets to help pack the house. Attendance was 13,048, and Memphis lost.
3) Although winning would help the problem, the Grizz lack “superstars” that can sell tickets on name alone. They almost had one in Allen Iverson this fall, but he bailed on the team and wound up signing with Philadelphia.
A pickup basketball friend of mine from Little Rock said he was disappointed to hear Iverson had left because he was planning a Memphis trip to see him play. I mentioned the team still had young, exciting players in Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo, and he laughed. He’d totally forgotten.
4) I believe Arkansas is still a football state, and that’s one reason why to many Arkies the Cowboys matter more than the Grizzlies (factor in Dallas’ winning tradition and Razorback connections like Jerry Jones and Felix Jones). This plays out even in West Memphis, the Arkansas area receiving the most Grizzlies exposure. Sonny Weems, an NBA player, said there’s plenty of enthusiasm for the Grizzlies in West Memphis, but he never attended a Grizzlies game while playing at West Memphis High School in the early 2000s. Football was his sport, he said.
This decade, central Arkansas has had chances to support NBA basketball in its own backyard but has whiffed. NBA preseason games were held in North Little Rock at what was then known as Alltel Arena from 2000-2006, peaking with an attendance of 14,672 in 2002 between the Lakers and Grizzlies, based on Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. The last two years however, saw attendances of 4,290 and 6,275. Pugliese said the Grizzlies “are open” to the possibility of returning for a preseason game but there are “no immediate plans.”
It’s too bad. I genuinely feel NBA ball provides some of the world’s greatest athletic spectacle, and nobody knows how long it will last on Arkansas’ doorstep.
Arkansas fans are right to believe some of their traditions are truly unique. There are, after all, tens of college programs named after Wildcats or Tigers or some permutation of Bear, but there is only one named for the Razorback. And no group of fans, no matter how much they chomp, stomp or damn eagles, has thrown out anything that remotely resembles the Ozarkian eeriness that is the Hog Call. Suiiii generis, indeed.
But in all the recent commotion over Arkansas’ continuing pullout of War Memorial Stadium, I’ve noted a troublesome sentiment that what Arkansas has had all these years in its dual home arrangement has been so wonderfully precious and unique that losing it would present a blow the program may never fully recover from. Not so: plenty other programs split their home games between two stadia for decades. Plenty other fans made memories that lasted a lifetime in the stadium closer to their home. Yes, the other programs stopped doing this. But no, they did not fall apart.
To the contrary, many have thrived since quitting the practice.
These other programs – Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State, Ole Miss, Auburn, Virginia Tech et al – began dual home arrangements for the same, exact reason Arkansas started doing it in Little Rock in 1932: exposure, revenue and what today is called “brand building.” Arkansas leaders knew if their program was ever going to become nationally competitive it needed to have more support from its state, to stop losing the likes of Ken Kavanaugh (Little Rock High grad) to LSU and Don Hutson (Pine Bluff High) and Paul Bryant (Fordyce High) to Alabama. So Arkansas leaders, like leaders at Alabama, Mississippi State and Oregon State, decided to take their team away from its rural campus and parade it in a bigger, in-state city in front of more media and fans.*
Oregon did the same by traveling from Eugene to Portland. Washington State traveled from Pullman to Spokane, while Ole Miss traveled to Jackson and Auburn traveled to Birmingham. Each of the programs pulled out of these metro areas at different times but one overriding reason is the same as in Arkansas’ case – the campus’ stadium simply outgrew the metro area’s stadium. This especially came to the fore in the late 1980s as Auburn jockeyed to stop playing Iron Bowl games in Birmingham, as I wrote in a recent New York Times article: “Auburn leaders increasingly supported moving the game from the 75,000-seat Legion Field to the university’s expanded Jordan-Hare Stadium, which could hold 85,000. Housel [a former Auburn athletic director] said it got to the point that even Auburn fans living in Birmingham were so ready to drive the 120 miles to campus, they would ‘refuse to buy tickets to the Auburn-Alabama game if it was in Birmingham.'”
Every team, as you see in the chart below, has dropped its dual home arrangement in the last 50 years. And programs like Oregon, Virginia Tech, Alabama and Auburn have gone on contend for or win national championships since the drop. Yes, you are right: Arkansas has become unique in the sense that it appears to be the only program that is still hanging on to this practice.
But is that something to be proud of?
It’s better to be proud of winning at a high level, a la Oregon, Auburn and Alabama. But hanging on to War Memorial hasn’t recently helped Arkansas get to this level. Its function was served in helping lift Arkansas to the nationally elite level it enjoyed through much of the 1960s through 1980s. It will not serve in getting Arkansas to the level Jeff Long, Bret Bielema et al expect it to reach in the later 2010s and 2020s.
Imagine you’re a teen. You’ve just come home from your first date ever, and sitting there waiting with plenty questions about your night is dear, old dad.
Mildly embarrassing, totally understandable. Naturally, you expect the scrutiny to wane over time.
Except that it doesn’t. After the next date, dear, old uncle waits beside dad. The time after that, you also find the guy from KATV is interested in where you ate dinner. And every time after that, it seems more media join the growing scrum.
A select group of high school football players actually aspire to something like this every February. For the best of the best, National Signing Day (Feb. 6) is a reward for years of summer camps, college campus visits and a courtship that includes Facebooking, texting and talking to coaches from around the nation. It’s also a culmination of the intense media spotlight they’ve been under for months – the day when our favorite sport’s stars of tomorrow make their final college choice public by signing a letter of intent, leaving all other wooers at the doorstep.
Imagine if every high school senior stood in front of her classmates and local media to announce both where she would be going to college and who was taking her to prom.
Nerve-wracking scenario, right?
A select group of high school football players strive to go through a similar rigamarole every February. For the best of the best, National Signing Day (Feb. 6) is a culmination of years of summer camps, college campus visits and a courtship that includes Facebooking, texting and talking to coaches from around the nation. It’s the day when our favorite sport’s stars of tomorrow make their final college choice public by signing a letter of intent, leaving all other wooers at the doorstep.
In Arkansas, many eyes will be on Hunter Henry, senior at Little Rock’s Pulaski Academy. Will this elite tight end – ranked as the nation’s best at that position by some outlets – choose the Razorbacks, to which he made a non-binding oral commitment last summer?
This would make sense, considering his father played center for the Razorbacks (and is now an associate pastor at Fellowship Bible Church), and his grandfather was an Arkansas basketball player.
But Henry’s still open to other schools. He insists his recruiting process is far from over. Here’s a look into that process, and the ups and downs it brings:
Q: You’ve been committed to Arkansas since last summer, but are still considering other schools like Alabama. Give me a sense of what you’ve been going through.
A: The recruiting process can be hard. It’s a blessing, but at the same time I don’t think people realize how hard it really is just because it’s so stressful and you’re trying to pick a place that is going to affect the rest of your life. You’re going to so many different schools and they’re all so amazing … you build relationships with so many people – just really good, strong relationships, talking all the time and it’s kind of hard to say ‘no’ to some people.
Q. You’ve spoken a few times to Arkansas’ head coach Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. What do you expect your role to be on offense once you start getting major minutes?
A: I really don’t know. I’m not there, so I got to get on campus. Nothing’s given to me. I’m going to have to work for everything I get and I know that. I’m working extremely hard right now, and I’m just going to continue to work hard… whereever it is that I go, I just want to be a great tight end and a great person.
Q: You grew up in Atlanta in a family that bleeds Razorback red. Once you started seriously considering which college to attend, was it difficult to put aside your Hog fandom to make a clear-headed choice about what’s best for you?
A: It was. I would lie to you if I said it didn’t. It was hard sometimes, but I did really good at clearing my mind. You know, it’s a whole lot easier once you get into the process and you go to other places and you talk to other coaches, when you get out there and see what else is out there. I think that helps a lot and it opened up things just because I want to choose the place where I should be and the right place for me.
No doubt, decades will pass before Razorback fans forget Arkansas’ 34-31 home loss to Louisiana-Monroe in its second game this season. It was the first time a Sun Belt team had beaten the Hogs, which led some fans to wonder if the Red Wolves could have challenged the Razorbacks this season.
As the Red Wolves have heated up in the last month, while the Hogs have continued to struggle, the question has been burning for months. On Thursday, though, enough fuel was dumped on to this debate to turn it into a full-fledged fire.
Arkansas State blitzed ULM 45-23, just another ho-hum offensive explosion in the most successful era in the program history (as a Division I-A program, which ASU became in 1992). In the last two seasons, ASU has won 13 of 14 conference games, but none was more historic it terms of potential in-state bragging rights than its rout of ULM.
For the first time since at least 2001 – when ASU started playing in the Sun Belt – it beat an opponent that had beaten Arkansas that same season.
Yes, the Red Wolves beat a ULM squad without an injured Kolton Browning, the dual-threat quarterback who’d shredded Arkansas for 481 total yards in Little Rock. With a 22-point margin of victory, however, it’s unlikely Browning would have made up the difference to topple ASU in Jonesboro. His backup still passed for 357 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, after all.
Since 2001, Arkansas State has shared an opponent with Arkansas during the same season 21 times. Although Arkansas State has been more impressive against shared opponents the last two seasons, Arkansas still dominates any comparisons between schedules.
Of the 21 times, only four times has ASU lost to a shared opponent by an equal or smaller margin. Those instances are highlighted in red below:
|UA @ Georgia||L 23-34|
|ASU @ Georgia||L 17-45|
|UA @ Ole Miss||W 58-56|
|ASU – Mississippi||L 17-35|
Arkansas assistant coach Nick Holt has seen plenty go wrong with his team in the last couple weeks.
He’s seen the Hogs lose their top quarterback, best cornerback and best two fullbacks. Then watched a Sun Belt team take full advantage with an upset that many consider the worst loss in program history. And even within the confines of his Broyles Complex office, he’s surely heard something from the chorus of dire prognostications surrounding his squad as it heads into this afternoon’s showdown with No. 1 Alabama.
Nobody outside of Arkansas gives the Hogs much of a chance against the national champions. If the Hogs couldn’t beat Nick Saban the last two years, when it had a non-stopgap head coach and healthy star quarterback, what chance has it now?
But before writing this team off, consider Nick Holt has seen something else.
It happened five years ago, when Holt was coordinating the defense of powerhouse Southern Cal, a team which shared plenty with these Crimson Tide. USC was essentially the mid-2000s version of Alabama. Like the Crimson Tide, the Trojans had rolled through its first few games as favorites to win another national title.
Like today’s Crimson Tide, the ’07 Trojans had pumped out two national titles in the previous four years, had the game’s consensus best head coach (Pete Carroll) and had just replaced its offensive coordinator (Steve Sarkisian for Lane Kiffin). Like Alabama, USC had also signed enough consecutive top recruiting classes, giving the program more depth than a Darren Aronofsky flick.
It’s unlikely Nick Holt anticipated what would transpire on October 6, 2007, when the unranked Stanford Cardinal came to town. USC had waxed Stanford 42-0 the previous year, and for all the world looked as if it was going to demolish it once again. The Cardinal had lost its first three conference games while breaking in a new head coach and defensive coordinator. It stumbled into the USC game without its senior starting quarterback T.J. Ostrander, who’d been sidelined by a seizure.
Kismet, magic, a whole lotta Luck before Andrew – call Stanford’s stunning 24-23 win whatever you want to call it. But in the end, the powerhouse Trojans simply had a really off day – they gave up five turnovers – and the Cardinal played well enough to take advantage. The Cardinal defense, for instance, held stout on a critical fourth-and-goal right before halftime. Although its offense was outgained by 224 yards, Stanford converted its only two fourth down attempts. The backup quarterback came on to complete 11 of 30 passes for 149 yards, but played smartly when it counted.
Sure, there are differences between these situations. Most notably, Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh was then a young up and comer making his first college coaching splash. Arkansas’ sixty-three-year-old John L. Smith has been around the block once or eight times.
But, like anything else in life that must be played out away from the Excel spreadsheets and algorithms which make up our modern life, football’s a fickle thing. Fickle enough that an unranked team can lose its top gun quarterback and still upend the nation’s juggernaut du jour.
Nick Holt has already seen this unfold firsthand.
Could he again?