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Memphis Grizzlies are No. 1

9/23/2013

TWILIGHT HAS COME to another summer's day in the neighborhood of Whitehaven, and if you could decipher the ceaseless chirping of the cicadas, their buzzing would probably be about the muggy weather. It's Wednesday, which means it's time for Bible study at the Full Gospel Tabernacle -- the church of soul legend Al Green, now 67. The Rev. Al sometimes shows and sometimes he doesn't, but no matter: Earline Reynolds, known as the Church Mother, is here to preach. With her long hair and blue dress, she leads the dozen congregants in singing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," sternly discussing Psalm 121 ("the Lord is thy keeper … thy shade upon thy right hand") and applauding two out-of-towners who have brought pies from Mississippi.

Afterward, as the group files out, she pulls her car up to the church, rolls down the passenger-side window and reaches below the front seat. Then the Church Mother unfurls a large blue and gold banner with the face of a menacing bear.

"You're a Grizzlies fan?" a visitor asks.

"Of course I'm a Grizzlies fan!" she replies. "You in Memphis!"

Indeed we are. And here, you'll have a tough time finding someone who isn't a Grizzlies enthusiast these days. The support is so strong and so universal, in fact, that it landed the team the coveted No. 1 spot in The Mag's Ultimate Standings, ranking first among all MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL teams in offering fans the greatest rewards for all the time, money and emotion they invest in them.

Now, you may react to this the same way one high-ranking Memphis executive did when we gave him the news: "The Grizzlies?!"

We get that. Unlike most of our past winners -- including two-time champs Green Bay and San Antonio -- the Grizzlies don't have a long tradition of honoring their bond with fans, or really any established business model, for that matter. They have a new coach, and their owner and CEO have been on the job for less than a year. They've never won a championship. They didn't even finish first in any of the broad categories the Ultimate Standings measure.

But our surveys always remind us that while championships are nice and commanding coaches are cool, what fans really want is value: tickets they can afford, players they can enjoy and admire, owners they can trust. This year in particular, the fans we polled were looking for some direct return on their investment, saying that they care more about things like the price of concessions and parking, the fan-friendliness of arenas and game-day promotions, and player accessibility than they did in the past. But good teams understand their customers, and the Grizzlies offer value across the board.

Last year Memphis went 56-26 and advanced to the Western Conference finals while charging an average ticket price of just $29.49 -- the second lowest in the NBA. Add inexpensive caps ($15) and free programs and the Grizzlies are 77 percent better than the average big league team at giving fans wins for the dollars they spend, ranking No. 2 in all of sports in the bang for the buck category.

Moreover, fans say they love the entire FedExForum experience. That includes everything from the arena's prime location on Memphis' historic Beale Street to performances by the Grizzlies Drumline to plentiful giveaways (16 promotion dates in 2012-13, with freebies sometimes dropped via small parachutes) and outstanding local cuisine (Rendezvous barbecue nachos!).

Yet some of the data from Memphis signifies connections that run deeper than supply meeting demand. Fans ranked Grizzlies players second among all teams in likability and giving their best effort. In addition, Memphians don't just root for their team, they identify with their hardworking players. Tony Allen's instantly viral catchphrase "Grit. Grind." captured the self-image not only of the Grizzlies players but of Memphis' battered working class. Which is why even though the Grizzlies play in a city that battles high poverty rates and they rely largely on money from individual fans (as opposed to corporations, which heavily support teams in such places as New York and Los Angeles), they are seeing more than 90 percent of season-ticket holders renew this season.

"The first time I went to a Grizzlies game, the band was playing and we did the wobble and the cha-cha, and even though we sat in the $10 seats, we got towels and shirts, and I said, Whaaat?!" says Carolyn Corbett, who was at the Full Gospel Tabernacle that Wednesday night. "These players play for the fans, and the fans and the city are all working together with one purpose: to win."


THE NEXT DAY, Grizzlies sharpshooter Mike Miller used almost exactly the same words to describe why he decided to return to the Grizzlies this season after five years with other clubs: "It's a special vibe," he said. "These fans are this team, and this team is this city. And then the other part is, we have to win."

The closer you look, the big question about the Grizzlies isn't why we ranked them the No. 1 team in sports, it's whether Memphis can sustain its commitment to fans, contend for a title and grow into a much bigger, more modern business all at the same time.

After former owner and industrialist billionaire Michael Heisley moved the Grizzlies from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Memphis in 2001, he didn't pay much attention to costs. By the time he sold the club to wireless wunderkind and tech mogul Robert Pera in 2012, the Grizzlies were in the bottom five of NBA franchises in revenue but in the top five in payroll. That was an unsustainable gap, and it led fans to worry that Pera, who grew up in California, would move the team someplace where he could charge higher prices.

Instead, Pera, now 35, not only decided to stay, he also drew in Memphians like Justin Timberlake and Ashley Manning to join his ownership group. "I took the option of moving off the table," Pera says. "I don't want to be someone who tears up a community."

Pera then set out to improve the books, and with the help of new franchise CEO Jason Levien -- who has worked as a sports agent, political strategist and Sacramento Kings executive -- the Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay, allowing them to sneak under the tax threshold with a payroll of $68.5 million this season. The team will hike ticket prices but by a relatively manageable average of 11 percent.

For now, Grizzlies prices remain among the cheapest in the NBA. But the team, which already draws higher ratings in Nashville than the Predators, has plans to grow into a mid-South uberfranchise, with TV deals, D-League teams and merchandising from Jackson, Miss., to Little Rock, Ark. How long can it keep costs down for its core fans? "It's a high-wire act," Levien admits.


Levien and Pera have also turned the Grizzlies sharply toward analytics, hiring former ESPN guru John Hollinger as vice president of basketball operations and replacing old-school coach Lionel Hollins with dataphile Dave Joerger. Admittedly, this has fans in a lather. How can statheads appreciate the special qualities -- the grit and grind -- of a black-and-blue-collar team that bangs inside so relentlessly and finished last in the league in taking three-point shots?

By keeping an open mind, that's how. Hollinger's metrics helped convince Pera and Levien that they should move Gay for basketball reasons, not just financial ones. Lo and behold, with Gay gone, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley played far better even though they added minutes. Analysis also indicated that Allen makes a huge impact on the defensive end, outweighing his inefficient shooting. So Memphis quashed interest from Milwaukee and re-signed the Grindmaster, a fan favorite. And to open up the Grizzlies offense just a bit, the team brought back Miller, who's not only a career 40.6 percent shooter from behind the arc but is also a vet who spent five-plus seasons in his first stint with the team. "Some of my best friends in Memphis, the guys I go golfing with, are fans I met while they were sitting courtside," Miller says.

In general, analytics are helping Joerger, who can rattle off lists like which point guards around the league are best at rejecting screens, set matchups and find effective lineup combinations. Levien argues that by focusing on team efficiency, new-wave stats actually dovetail with the interests of traditionalist fans: "Heroball doesn't get you where you want to go."

Being a port city, Memphis has always been a place where cultures -- black and white, rural and urban -- have collided. And the latest collision deserves, at the least, cautious optimism. Pera, a lifelong NBA fan whose bleeding-edge Silicon Valley office has a 3-D printer, is treating the local team, whose players and fans share a peculiarly old soul, as a community trust. Pera actually told The Mag, "I'm not running the Grizzlies for operating profit."

Pera might just be leading a wave of newer, younger owners who understand they can build value by investing in teams. That's good news for Grizzlies fans. After a tumultuous season on the court, on the sidelines and in the boardroom, they know what they want to tell management: Keep a good thing going. Or, as Al Green once sang, "Let's stay together."

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