Solution For the Mid South Coliseum: Give It Back to The Tigers

Efforts to move forward with a $233 million redevelopment of the Mid-South Fairgrounds have stalled recently, in part due to resistance to tearing down the historic, 50-year old Mid-South Coliseum (MSC). Columnist David Waters of the Commercial Appeal recently came out in favor of saving the Coliseum – and supporters of the redevelopment, which calls for the Coliseum’s demolition, have acknowledged that the opposition is slowing them down.

A Facebook page has popped up (it has actually been around since 2010) dedicated to saving the building. It has almost 3500 members. People that want to save the Coliseum are having meaningful discussions about how to repurpose the arena.

Here’s an idea:

Use the TDZ (Tourist Development Zone) tax money to renovate it – expanding capacity and adding floor level suites, and then sign a long-term lease with the University of Memphis for its Men’s and Women’s basketball teams to play there.

At that point, University of Memphis Men’s Basketball and Football (at the Liberty Bowl) would be the centerpieces of a renovated fairgrounds, which could also serve as an amateur sports hub and retail destination – as developers have long envisioned.

Is that plan feasible? Maybe, maybe not. It’s important to note that the Grizzlies have a non-compete agreement in place that would theoretically limit public investment in any competitor venue (anything that seats over 5,000). The MSC previously seated 11,200 for basketball.

Folks over at the Save the Coliseum Facebook page have done some in-depth analysis of the non compete and even posted an interview on the topic with Grizzlies President Jason Wexler.

But before we get too realistic, let’s take a look at a few reasons why it makes some sense.

1. The Grizzlies success. Some long time fans of the Tigers (like my father) have feared the day when the Grizzlies became championship contenders and supplanted the beloved Tigers as the most popular draw in town.

Well, that day has pretty much arrived. The Grizzlies are cultivating an entire generation of fans – which is a great thing. Hopefully for the Grizzlies and the city’s sake – that translates to decades of strong attendance and healthy financial status.

That being said, FedExForum is a little too big, and too far from campus to be the ideal home for the Tigers.

I know what you’re saying: But they filled it up when they were winning and they will again. I suppose there’s some, but not full truth to that statement.

Which brings me to my next point….

2. Why not create demand for tickets? Even when the Tigers averaged over 16k at FedExForum, there were usually thousands of empty seats. The number of allotted student seats has always been too high, which translated to empty seats at basically every game.

And let’s be honest, the type of success Memphis had under John Calipari is a once or twice in a lifetime type thing. Better to create demand, if possible. A 12k or 13k seat arena is more than enough capacity to satisfy the hard core loyalists – and create a very strong demand for non-season ticket holders.

2. Students. Ever since moving to the Pyramid in the 1990’s, Memphis has struggled to get full student participation at games. The fact is that getting a large number of students downtown from campus is really difficult. Having a venue just a few miles from campus would help create a true home court advantage.

TCU Basketball is renovating an old arena similar in shape to the Mid South Coliseum. Could the project serve as a template for Memphis?
TCU Basketball is renovating an old arena similar in shape to the Mid South Coliseum. Could the project serve as a template for Memphis?

3. Tradition & Atmosphere. Elliot Perry, Keith Lee, Andre Turner, Larry Finch, Jack Eaton. The list goes on. Way on. The tradition of Tiger Basketball at the Mid-South Coliseum is tremendous. Any fan of the program over 35 has some pretty awesome memories of the place.

If it is all possible to renovate the MSC and make it a state-of-the-art home for their beloved Tigers, fans of the program would be ecstatic.

Well, maybe not all Tiger fans. I‘ve floated the idea at and so far the response has been lukewarm at best. So maybe I’m a little too old and out of touch on this one – but I remember the incredible game atmosphere at the MSC.

Nothing rocked like the old roundhouse. Previous capacity was 11,200. Ideally capacity could be increased by a few thousand and some amenities added. A similar project has been undertaken to a similar building which houses TCU Basketball – so there may be a precedent for the project.

Here are details of TCU’s renovation:

TCU announced plans for a $45 million renovation to the arena. The project will transform the 53-year-old facility into a modern arena, with widened concourses, additional bathrooms and upgraded concessions. The court will be lowered several feet to accommodate additional rows of seating that will fill in the large curves currently on either side of the court, giving fans courtside seating and much closer views of the action. Among the many additions and upgrades would be a courtside club on the floor level for season ticket holders.

4. Surrounding Neighborhood. The city has invested a great deal in Overton Square. Cooper Young is essentially 2 blocks from the MSC. Having the Tigers back in Midtown provide a boost, economically speaking, for the area. It would also help win political support for the TDZ and overall plan being pushed by the developers and point man Robert Lipscomb. Just imagine the crowds rolling into Central BBQ, Young Avenue Deli, Sweet Grass, Cafe Ole, etc… before and after Tiger games. The neighborhood would be popping again.

Of course, there’s a big reason why it probably won’t happen: a 20-year lease the Tigers signed with the Grizzlies to play in FedExForum. The lease was signed in 2004, so presumably (unless it has been amended) it runs through 2024. So for this to work, (a) the Tigers would have to want to do it, and (b) the Grizzlies would have to be accommodated.

The Grizzlies and the Tigers by all accounts have had a great working relationship, so perhaps they can work together. Perhaps the City could incentivize the Grizzlies with other lease adjustments. Perhaps the Tigers could continue to play a few games downtown each year, with favorable financial terms for the Grizzlies. Who knows? I’m sure something could be worked out.

Much of this seems like a fantasy, but the truth is FedExForum is probably too big, and too far away from campus for the UofM – long term.

Fans that oppose the move cite the recruiting advantages of FedExForum, but none of the top programs in the country play in NBA arenas and none play as far from campus as Memphis does. Louisville makes a downtown arena work, but it’s only 2.9 miles from their campus. Almost every other major college program – Duke, Kansas, UNC, Syracuse, etc… play their games on campus. Again, if Memphis is top 5 in the polls – they could play in Tupelo and they’d draw. But during most seasons, a smaller venue (12k) closer to campus would be ideal.

If it were a state of the art, renovated Mid-South Coliseum, it would be more than ideal.

It would be a dream come true.

Here’s a video on the current state of the MSC:


CORRECTION: The original entry on this post said the Facebook group to save the coliseum was new. It is, in fact, not new. It was started in 2010.