SBJ/December 10-16, 2012/Franchises

Numbers looking up in Memphis

One of the NBA’s best teams on the court this season is also seeing strong success off the court — not that anyone at Memphis Grizzlies headquarters wants to talk about it.

The Grizzlies are flying higher in ticket sales, sponsorship and ratings.
NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
New owner Robert Pera’s club has posted high marks in November for ticket sales, sponsorships and TV ratings, all while compiling a league-best 13-3 record as of last week.

Grizzlies executives, for their part, are taking a cautious approach. The team confirmed their business metrics to date but declined to comment on the reasons for their gains, or what they’re expecting the rest of the season.

Those metrics, however, show some key growth for a team playing in one of the league’s smaller markets. The Grizzlies’ full-season-ticket sales have increased by 20 percent compared to the end of last season. Their full-season-ticket renewal rate of 90 percent is also the highest since the Grizzlies began playing in Memphis in 2001.

The number of partial-season tickets sold is up 30 percent, and sales of both full and partial plans hit record marks in November.

On the sponsorship side, the Grizzlies have a 91 percent renewal rate and have added $1.4 million in new sponsorship revenue with 16 new deals.
So what happened?

Much of the groundwork leading to these gains dates to the summer, not long after the team’s 2011-12 season ended with a seven-game, first-round series loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. In June, Pera and his ownership group agreed to a deal (which closed in October) to pay a reported $377 million for the franchise. Included in that group are Justin Timberlake; NFL star Peyton Manning and his wife, Ashley; and former NBA star Penny Hardaway.

Robert Pera (above) recently bought the team from Michael Heisley.
NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
To residents of Memphis, Pera was an outsider, not unlike outgoing owner Michael Heisley, who had moved the team to Memphis from Vancouver a decade ago and had seemingly been looking to sell the club ever since. While Heisley’s group also included local owners, what was different was that Pera was looking inward as he got his start.

By drawing in Timberlake, the Mannings, Hardaway and others, all with Tennessee ties, the young, 30-something entrepreneur who had built a billion-dollar company that manufactured wireless equipment immediately curried favor with the locals.

Also helping the Grizzlies was the simple ability to sell during the summer. Such efforts weren’t possible last year, with the lockout. Having a full offseason to work made a difference for moving tickets and securing sponsors.

Of course, more recently, the wins have helped too.

According to Nielsen, Grizzlies games on Fox Sports South through Dec. 5 were averaging a 4.2 rating, up from last year’s 3.2 season-average rating. Local ratings for ESPN’s national broadcasts of Grizzlies games hit all-time regular-season highs last month, as well. The Grizzlies’ Nov. 14 game against Oklahoma City generated an 8.2 local rating, followed by an 8.3 local rating for Memphis’ Nov. 16 game against New York, also on ESPN.

But not all the numbers are top-line, and that’s in part where team executives are taking a cautious approach. Through Dec. 5, the Grizzlies were averaging 16,165 fans per game at FedEx Forum, up from the club’s 15,710 average for last year’s lockout-shortened season, but still only No. 19 in the 30-team NBA.

With two more nationally televised games and five home dates still ahead this month, eyes are on Memphis to see if the early gains can be sustained — and if the cautious optimism becomes, perhaps, a little less guarded.

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