The on-again, off-again NFL bid of Memphis, Tenn., is back on, but without the new stadium one of its backers once had termed essential.
Organizers of the city's efforts to land an NFL expansion team announced yesterday a scaled-down stadium renovation plan and plans to get into the premium-seat campaign already well under way in the competing cities of Baltimore, St. Louis and Charlotte, N.C.
This gives the city about half the time to market sky boxes and club seats that the other cities had, and comes at a time when many in the expansion race are beginning to view Memphis as a lost cause.
Earlier this year, Ron Terry, a banker and chairman of the Memphis and Shelby County Sports Authority Corp., said Memphis had "practically no chance" of landing an NFL team without at least a long-term plan to build a new stadium.
But efforts to arrange the financing failed, and Memphis is back to proposing a retooling of the 28-year-old Liberty Bowl.
After publicly saying he was considering dropping out of the race, lead investor William Dunavent, the cotton merchant who complained the loudest at the league's $140 million franchise fee, yesterday held a news conference to say he's still in as long as the seat campaign goes well.
"He said he's in it but we've got to sell these premium tickets," said spokesman Earle Farrell. The league said the cities could accept deposits on premium seats between July 1 and Sept. 3.
Dunavent said he met last week with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who encouraged him to stay in the race. The prospective team owner also persuaded a new investor to join his investment group: Michael Starnes, owner of M. S. Carrier Inc., a $180-million-a-year trucking line based in Memphis.
The latest stadium plan calls for a $50 million face-lift financed by the extra tax revenue the team would generate. The state legislature has agreed to rebate these taxes. Some other public financing also may be needed, but the details are being worked out, according to organizers. The ownership group will not contribute toward the stadium cost.
Seating would be increased from 63,000 to 68,000. Sixty sky boxes would be added to the 40 already there, and 8,300 seats in the lower deck between the 20-yard lines will be designated as "club seats." Fans sitting there would have access to a pair of special clubs, with restaurants and lounges, to be built behind the seats.
The sky boxes would rent for $50,000 to $60,000 a year and the club seats from $1,000 to $1,500 annually, depending upon location.
Farrell, acknowledging that many people have written off Memphis, said the outcome of the premium seat campaign will be crucial.
Memphis is the smallest of the contending cities, with a metro population of less than 1 million, and is the only one not offering to build a new stadium. Baltimore and St. Louis, by contrast, have populations of about 2.4 million and plans for publicly funded stadiums. Charlotte, with a population of about 1.2 million, is proposing to finance a stadium largely with season ticket fees.