The Arkansas connections of Mike Conley, Jr

Conley, Jr. has grown up quite a bit from his days in Fayetteville as a nine-year-old (L)
Conley, Jr. has grown up quite a bit from his days in Fayetteville as a nine-year-old (L)

The following is republished from a Sync magazine article in 2009

The Memphis Grizzlies want your business, Arkansas.

And they’re working for it.

More radio stations carrying game broadcasts, community outreach events and 280-mile charter bus trips are a few ways that central Arkansas’ nearest pro team has tried to drum up interest in a state only miles from their FedEx Forum home.

There’s no choice, says John Pugliese, the team’s senior director of marketing and communications. Grizzlies management understood when the team arrived from Vancouver in 2001 that expanding its fan base into a tri-state area including Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee would be vital to success.

Eight years later, to what extent do Arkansans consider the Grizzlies the state’s “adopted” pro basketball team? For the sake of comparison in this specific context, let’s consider the Dallas Cowboys to be Arkansas’ adopted pro football team.

The Grizz have certainly reached across the Mississippi River. In its first years in Memphis, Grizz players, coaches, mascots and salespeople visited Arkansas cities like Jonesboro and Little Rock to promote the team, Pugliese said. The team has set up “Jr. Grizz” basketball teaching programs for children ages 6-15 in Jacksonville, Conway, Marion, Helena, West Memphis and McGehee.

Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said last week that he has taught one-day camps with “pretty good turn out” at a Boys & Girls Club in West Memphis the last two summers. Conley, whose father starred in track for the Razorbacks, spent most of his childhood in Fayetteville before eventually moving to Indianapolis, Ind.

Conley’s relatives, who are spread across Arkansas, may see new Grizzlies billboards in places like Marion, Jonesboro and West Memphis as they travel east to see Conley’s home games. The advertisements are part of a commercial outreach that includes four Arkansas radio stations broadcasting Memphis games. Fans can tune into stations based in West Helena, Marion and Jonesboro and, in central Arkansas, Conway’s KASR 92.7 FM. Grizzlies television broadcasts extend nearly 75 miles into east Arkansas, Pugliese added.

In an effort targeting Little Rock, the Grizzlies last year sold tickets of $47 and $99 for a charter bus round trip to select Memphis games.

“We see a little bit of our fan base in Arkansas growing every year,” Pugliese said. He added that roughly 10 percent of ticket holders to Grizz games are Arkansans, and a majority of those hail from West Memphis and Jonesboro, which is 64 miles from Memphis.

According to espn.com, Memphis averaged 12,745 in home attendance last season, 29th of 30 NBA teams. It’s kept the same spot through 10 home games this year by averaging 12,210.

So, let’s cut to the chase — has Arkansas developed a love for its neighboring Grizzlies?

Based on the many conversations I’ve recently had about this subject, I’d say “no.” Let’s explore possible reasons.

1) A Memphis native, and fellow Little Rock Central High School alum, told me while Arkansas is very much Razorbacks country, so is Memphis still very much Tiger country. He averred that despite their NBA credentials, the Grizzlies have yet to capture the hearts of Memphians as the University of Memphis Tigers do. They’re just too new, and haven’t won enough yet. It seems more Memphians would have to first come to love the Grizzlies before Arkansans would.

2) Winners attract new fans, but for most of the last eight years the Grizz have been a losing team. They had won three consecutive games going into last Friday’s game against Oklahoma City, and offered $3 tickets to help pack the house. Attendance was 13,048, and Memphis lost.

3) Although winning would help the problem, the Grizz lack “superstars” that can sell tickets on name alone. They almost had one in Allen Iverson this fall, but he bailed on the team and wound up signing with Philadelphia.

A pickup basketball friend of mine from Little Rock said he was disappointed to hear Iverson had left because he was planning a Memphis trip to see him play. I mentioned the team still had young, exciting players in Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo, and he laughed. He’d totally forgotten.

4) I believe Arkansas is still a football state, and that’s one reason why to many Arkies the Cowboys matter more than the Grizzlies (factor in Dallas’ winning tradition and Razorback connections like Jerry Jones and Felix Jones). This plays out even in West Memphis, the Arkansas area receiving the most Grizzlies exposure. Sonny Weems, an NBA player, said there’s plenty of enthusiasm for the Grizzlies in West Memphis, but he never attended a Grizzlies game while playing at West Memphis High School in the early 2000s. Football was his sport, he said.

This decade, central Arkansas has had chances to support NBA basketball in its own backyard but has whiffed. NBA preseason games were held in North Little Rock at what was then known as Alltel Arena from 2000-2006, peaking with an attendance of 14,672 in 2002 between the Lakers and Grizzlies, based on Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. The last two years however, saw attendances of 4,290 and 6,275. Pugliese said the Grizzlies “are open” to the possibility of returning for a preseason game but there are “no immediate plans.”

It’s too bad. I genuinely feel NBA ball provides some of the world’s greatest athletic spectacle, and nobody knows how long it will last on Arkansas’ doorstep.