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Monday, January 21, 2008

Winning helps FedExForum grow on Tigers fans

Winning helps FedExForum grow on Tigers fans

By Jim Masilak
Friday, January 18, 2008

As the University of Memphis' athletic director, R.C. Johnson receives his fair share of correspondence from supporters concerned with one thing or another.

Whether it's the debate over an on-campus football stadium, the school's conference affiliation or the embargo on beer sales at home football games, Tigers fans aren't shy about making their feelings known.

For a few years, during the men's basketball team's transition from The Pyramid into FedExForum, Johnson was inundated with calls from people upset with various aspects. Reseating, the cost of concessions, the Downtown location and the university's perceived second-class citizenship in the Grizzlies' building were all of major concern.

Now, nearly four years after the team played its final game in The Pyramid, and with the No. 2-ranked Tigers (16-0) in the midst of a school-record 41-game home winning streak, those complaints have slowed to a trickle.

"I don't know if it's because of our tremendous winning or because they kind of forget about The Pyramid and kind of move on," Johnson said. "It's been (four) years. ... I think people have moved into the mindset that this is our house."

Chief among the fans' concerns about the Forum was the possibility that the college-style atmosphere at The Pyramid, the Mid-South Coliseum and the Elma Roane Fieldhouse would be lost. The Forum, with two suite levels and fewer lower-bowl seats than The Pyramid, won't remind anyone of Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse or Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium. But even some of the Tigers' most skeptical long-term supporters have grown to love the new building.

Bob Terrell has missed just five Memphis home basketball games since 1970. "I had the flu twice. Once, I was working a part-time job and had to give my tickets away," the Collierville resident said. "The other two are kind of hazy."

Terrell has followed the Tigers from the Mid-South Coliseum to The Pyramid and, beginning with the 2004-05 season, to the Forum. Although he isn't a big fan of the early Saturday tip-off times -- a product of the Tigers' tenancy with the Grizzlies as well as the demands of TV executives -- Terrell says "the FedExForum is one of the few things that Memphis has ever got right."

"At first (Memphis fans) didn't think it would be a good thing," Terrell said, "but it's a great facility."

Not everyone was as quick to embrace the Forum, where the Tigers haven't lost since Jan. 2, 2006 (Texas).

A retired schoolteacher from Memphis, Phil Weaver began buying season tickets when the Mid-South Coliseum opened in the mid-1960s. Even though Weaver "hated it when they moved out of the Fieldhouse" and is still put off by the cost of concessions at the Forum, the new building is growing on him.

"Every year (the atmosphere) seems to get a little better," Weaver said. "We'll have to see what happens next year when we lose two, three, four players."

The Tigers' recent success has undoubtedly eased the transition into their current home. Through their first nine home dates this season, they have averaged 17,222 at the 18,400-seat Forum. The last (and only) time Memphis averaged more than 17,000 fans over an entire season was in 2000-01 at The Pyramid during coach John Calipari's first season with the Tigers.

Calipari supported the move to the Forum at the time and feels even more strongly about its benefits now.

"People said it would hurt us financially having an NBA team. They couldn't understand why I supported having an NBA team," Calipari said. "We haven't lost anything (from the move). We've been able to generate a lot of money for the athletic department ... and we've been able to recruit because our facilities are better than anybody else's."

Calipari implied that the Tigers might not have the star-studded lineup they now boast had they remained in The Pyramid. He said The Pyramid lacked the "bells and whistles" of FedExForum, where the Tigers have their own locker room, court and banners.

Playing in an NBA arena, Calipari said, "makes us unique. It changes who we are and separates us from other college programs."

Junior guard Antonio Anderson said fan support has played a major role in the program's resurgence. The Tigers, who have been to two straight Elite Eights, are 63-8 overall (88.7 percent) in three-plus seasons at the Forum. On Saturday, they'll try for their 42nd straight home win against Southern Miss.

"We've got a great group of guys and a great coaching staff, but we also have great fans who come to the arena and cheer us on regardless of who we play," Anderson said. "That's exactly what you need to keep a winning streak like this going."

Freshman point guard Derrick Rose, who has been impressed with the atmosphere at FedExForum, said "it's amazing when you can pack an NBA arena" for a college game.

"It's really nice playing here," the Chicago native added. "You've got people screaming at all times."

Upon moving to the Forum, the UofM took a number of steps it hoped would improve the game-day atmosphere.

The student section was given a more front-and-center position behind one of the baselines next to the pep band. And while plans initially called for the Tigers' bench to be placed nearest to the entry tunnel, Calipari agreed to move to the far end in order to be near the enthusiastic Blue Crew.

Though the upper bowl is rarely full, the Tigers have enticed fans to sit there by initiating special promotions. This year, the university has teamed with a big-box retailer to give away a free HDTV at each home game to a fan in the cheap seats.

"The only thing is that the upstairs seats, in an NBA building, are up there," Calipari said. "I appreciate people with seats up there coming to the games and being as loud as anybody."

Terrell isn't sure such gimmicks are necessary. Not when Memphis is flirting with a possible undefeated regular season.

"When the Tigers are winning, there's always gonna be a home-court advantage," he said. "Even if we were playing at the park."

-- Jim Masilak: 529-2311

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