According to an article out today by Phil Stukenborg, University of Memphis officials would like to add 10,000 chair-back seats to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. The move makes sense for Memphis because it would (a) reduce capacity of a stadium that is clearly too big for their needs and (b) add nicer seating that would enable Memphis to justify higher ticket prices for those (chair-back) seats. It makes perfect sense.
There’s only one problem: Steve Ehrhart, Executive Director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, appears to be throwing up a roadblock. Here’s the quote from Ehrhart in Stukenborg’s article:
“Until we have the opportunity to discuss this with our partners — the Big 12 Conference and the SEC — a potential loss of seating capacity could be a very important issue,” Ehrhart said. “We just think it’s important to stay at the 60,000 figure.”
First of all, Ehrhart appears to be talking out of both sides of his mouth – Is it important to talk to your partners or have you already made up your mind that it’s important to stay at the 60,000 figure? Sure sounds like he’s already made up his mind. Also, could Ehrhart be using the specter of the Big XII to tweak Memphis a little? Memphis is certainly willing to do anything the Big XII wants, but does that conference really care if capacity is reduced by 5k? Seems a bit far-fetched. After all, the Big XII’s payout for participating in the Liberty Bowl game is locked in by contract. It’s not as if any Big XII school is going to bring more than 25k people to Memphis in December and create a huge demand for tickets.
Ehrhart went ahead and let Stukenborg know what his priorities are:
Ehrhart said there are more pressing concerns. He’d like to see the cramped press box area expanded, as well as areas for radio and television broadcasts. He said four radio networks — including a Spanish network broadcasting Texas A&M football — broadcast from the Liberty Bowl, which has accommodations for two radio booths. Special arrangements were made to accommodate the additional radio teams.
Surely Bowen shares Ehrhart’s concerns about the press box, but the Memphis Athletic Director can’t and shouldn’t be happy that Ehrhart is pulling rank on the chair-backs. As co-tenants of the stadium, Memphis plays 6 or 7 games a year there- Ehrhart’s organization plays one.
Bowen should flex some muscle on this if he has to. Without the U of M as a tenant, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium is not a viable entity for the City of Memphis. Without the U of M playing 6 games a year at the stadium, there would have been no political will for Tiger Lane construction or the 2011 renovations which added new lighting, a scoreboard (paid for by U of M boosters), new turf and other upgrades to the concourse. Those upgrades allowed Ehrhart to lock in affiliations with the SEC and Big XII, while eliminating a meaningful tie in with Memphis’ current conference – The American Athletic Conference.
Perhaps Ehrhart remembers this detail from the news announcing the 2012 renovations:
Hedgepeth said the U of M’s offer to guarantee the funds kept the city from having to approach the stadium’s other two tenants, the Southern Heritage Classic and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl game.
If Memphis ever decided to build an on-campus stadium – something that based on recent projects at Houston and Tulane could feasibly be done for a cost of $80 -$90 million – the Liberty Bowl game would have absolutely zero leverage with the city or the University. The Southern Heritage Classic and the Liberty Bowl would either (a) continue playing at a city owned stadium that the city would have no real incentive to maintain (remember what happened to the Pyramid after the Grizzlies left for example?) or (b) negotiate a lease with the University of Memphis to play their games on campus, or (c) leave town.
Obviously nobody in Memphis wants the Liberty Bowl Game to suffer. And former Interim U of M President Brad Martin made it pretty clear that the powers that be at The University of Memphis are no longer interested in pursuing an on campus stadium. Could that position change if Ehrhart continues to selfishly disregard the needs of his co-tenants so publicly? Possibly.