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Thursday, July 12, 2007

FedEx Forum Reseating Unnerves Tiger Fans

Reseating unnerves Tiger fans
Giving more still may not have been enough

By Dan Wolken
July 11, 2007

In January, the University of Memphis sent letters to their basketball season ticket holders not only informing them about the upcoming reseating of FedExForum but also detailing the amount of Tiger Scholarship Fund donation that would be required to remain in the same general seat location for 2007-08.

Included in each package was a letter explicitly stating where each season-ticket holder ranked in the seat selection order among Memphis' roughly 3,200 ticket accounts. Just as crucial, the letter offered an approximation of how much that ranking would improve by increasing the amount of donation.

The response was immediate and overwhelming, leading to record-breaking levels of giving to the athletic department that have already topped $5.6 million. But even then, some season-ticket holders are on edge about the reseating process, which begins Thursday when the Ambassadors Club ($500,000 donors) members select their seats.

"We went from Super Tigers, which was $5,000, up to $10,000, and we added one more person to our group to get in that level," said Jim Vaden, one of eight people from Halls, Tenn., who share a ticket account. "We're just hoping that we can get close to where we were before. They've got that chart showing where they're projecting certain levels to be, and we're going to be right on the cusp of where we were before. We really don't want to move upstairs."

Vaden's group is far from the only one that increased its donation level to have a better chance of remaining in the lower level of FedExForum. And it has happened at all levels, from the minimum donors to brothers Bobby and Harold Byrd of the Bank of Bartlett, who upgraded to Ambassador in part to be assured of keeping their cherished seats behind the visitors' bench.

"It was a chance we weren't wanting to take," Harold Byrd said. "It's also an appreciation, and we're at the point in our business where we can make that commitment to the university."

There was a lot of commitment made to the UofM this year. As of June 25, 434 accounts went up at least one level of giving and 409 accounts upgraded within their level to purchase more than the maximum number of season tickets they are allowed to buy per account. That's in addition to 207 new donors purchasing season tickets for the first time.

Memphis now has 71 Platinum Tigers accounts, which require a $25,000 donation and is the highest level before Ambassador.

"We've had a couple Platinum Tigers go from $25,000 to $50,000 because they wanted 28 tickets (as opposed to the maximum of 14)," associate athletic director Bill Lansden said. "It's seat location; that's the driving force. What's happening is, people might have had eight tickets last year at the $10,000 level, and they were giving some to their friends. Now, those friends are calling me, and they want season tickets where they were sitting."

Though Memphis has always been able to use a re-seating every three or four years to generate more revenue for the TSF -- which pays for all intercollegiate sports -- the timing has never been better from the school's perspective.

Memphis is ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in nearly every preseason poll, has a superstar freshman point guard in Derrick Rose and will host several marquee opponents including Arizona, Gonzaga, Tennessee and Georgetown.

"We made the decision in January of 2006; we knew it was time for a reseating," Lansden said. "Some people think we made this up about three months ago to take advantage of what's going on, but we're just kind of fortunate."

The fact Memphis is reseating this particular summer has quieted much of usual grumbling that takes place when the school wipes the slate clean.

Glenn Maclin, who owns a small business in Tipton County, said going from $5,000 to $10,000 for his and his brother's eight seats didn't sting quite as much given the anticipation of this season.

"We were $5,000 donors, and we felt that if we stayed there, we might not keep the seats we had, which were in the corner downstairs behind our bench," said Maclin, who has been a season-ticket holder since The Pyramid opened in 1991.

"But we're happy to do it knowing this is probably the best team I've ever seen the Tigers have."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

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