Forum reaching for heights
Teams have lofty hopes for fans in upper deck
By David Williams, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Sunday, August 19, 2007
It's called the "terrace level," which is a fancy way of saying "rafters."
FedExForum is, after all, a pretty fancy place as basketball gyms go, with its luxury suites and fine dining.
But the rafters are, well, the rafters. They're far, far from the court. They're not particularly luxurious -- what, no cup holders? A fan can feel so removed from the game as to be forgotten.
The University of Memphis, in its push for a season-ticket sellout of the 18,400-seat building, is trying to change that. The Tigers are seriously courting upper-deck fans, with $100 season ticket packages and promises of nightly giveaways -- not just T-shirts but grander prizes, coach John Calipari said, such as flat-screen TVs.
"We want to tell them, 'We appreciate you,'" Calipari said. "We know there are people who have been moved up there. ... We've got to try to make that upper deck excited."
Angela McCarter, director of marketing and promotions in the athletic department, wouldn't confirm the plan to give away flat-screen TVs and other prizes to upper-deck fans. "That's a promotion we're working on with a national retailer," she said, adding that all details haven't been finalized.
But an announcement could come soon and will be testament to the Tigers' aggressive stance on a challenging issue -- selling upper-deck seats in a market that was spoiled by The Pyramid's much more spacious lower bowl.
The Pyramid's lower bowl held about 12,000, with some 7,000 seats upstairs.
FedExForum has about 9,700 seats on the lower levels and 8,700 on the terrace level.
"At The Pyramid, to be honest, there was one concourse," said Dennis O'Connor, vice president of ticket sales and service for the Grizzlies, who likewise are working to overcome the upper-deck challenge.
"So if you were sitting in the lower level or the upper level, there was the perception that everyone was the same."
FedExForum, however, was built with a serious nod -- if not a bow -- to the economic realities of major league sports, with luxury suites closer to the court than in The Pyramid.
As for the Forum's upper deck, well ...
"It's big," O'Connor said. "As much as we say there are great seats, it's still, 'Hey, but I'm upstairs.'"
The U of M has heard the same thing, especially from season ticket-holders who were downstairs at The Pyramid.
"I've actually sat in the upper deck, watching a game. I understand where the fans are coming from," McCarter said.
Thus, the Tigers are planning the Chuck Hutton Fun Patrol, a group of 10 students who will roam the upper deck, giving away T-shirts and other items.
"They'll take some band members and cheerleaders up there with them," McCarter said, "just to try to get the fans to feel like they're more into the excitement of the game."
Also planned is a youth-oriented upstairs concession initiative -- focusing on kid-friendly menu items and parent-friendly prices.
Along with the giveaways and a price that makes U of M games cheaper than a movie, the Tigers also have a loaded team considered by some experts as a preseason No. 1. As a result, sales have been strong -- only 900 to 1,000 season tickets remained as of Friday afternoon.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, have a tougher challenge. They're a rebuilding franchise coming off a season with the NBA's worst record.
"We have, over the years, done a lot of programs to either try to create excitement -- improve the atmosphere up there -- or sell it on affordability," O'Connor said. "We have full season ticket packs starting at $225, which is $5 a game. There's not a lot you can do in this day and age for $5."
The Grizzlies also try to woo fans upstairs with multigame power packs and specially priced individual-game family plans that offer tickets, hotdogs and drinks.
And once the fans are in the seats ...
"We do make a conscious effort to get the terrace level involved," O'Connor said. "We've done things starting in the pre-game, where we have our dance team up for photos and autographs. We have Grizz (the mascot) appearances. We've done player autographs up there. Sign-making, banner-making stations. We've had DJs.
"We've tried a lot of things, and we'll continue to do so."
The Grizzlies' upper-deck tickets range from $5 to $25 per game for season tickets, and $5 to $47 on a single-game only basis.
-- David Williams: 529-2310