MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Everyone knows Memphis is a basketball town. So, what’s the one thing fans here would like more than seeing their Grizzlies in the NBA Finals? How about hosting the NBA’s premier event, the All-Star game? But would the league ever choose Memphis as a host city?
If that were to happen, it would be quite a catch. The All-Star game is watched by more than 200 countries. When Cleveland hosted the event last year, it drew more than 100,000 people. And depending on how you figure it, the economic impact is estimated to be as high as $250 million.
ABC 24 News talked to several successful NBA All-Star cities such as Cleveland, Charlotte and Salt Lake City. They all had one thing in common. They got started on a five-to-ten-year plan – a very coordinated effort between local government and the business community to convince the NBA they would be a worthy choice. There is no such coordinated effort like that in Memphis right now and that’s probably a good thing until we get more big hotels downtown.
The head of Memphis Tourism, Kevin Kane, says Memphis has a lot going for it, pointing to the newly renovated Renasant Convention Center. Its $230 million in improvements makes it very competitive with other cities. It’s also unique that the city’s entertainment district, Beale Street, is so close to what would be the host venue, FedExForum. However, the conversation always comes back to the hotel issue. “Until we address that, I think it’s going to be a real stretch for an NBA All Star game,” Kane said.
Here’s what that means. The NBA has asked recent host cities to have 5,000 hotel rooms downtown divided among no more than a dozen hotels. In Memphis, there are only 4,500 hotel rooms and they’re divided among 20 smaller hotels. In fact, the city’s only big “full-service” hotels are the Sheraton (600 rooms) and the Peabody (464 rooms). Developers plans to build bigger, luxury hotels, such as a Loewes and Grand Hyatt have both recently fallen through due to financing complications. Kane remains optimistic. “We didn’t get either of those projects at this time. Hopefully, we will. We’re still trying to get somebody here,” he said.
NBA sources say there are other factors that might also get in the way for Memphis. FedExForum’s design is considered outdated. The league likes a lot more seats in the lower bowl. Most of The Forum’s seats are in the upper bowl. Kane says renovating The Forum is already in the works thanks to state lawmakers passing a $350 million sports stadium package for Memphis in the last legislative session.
Air service is another factor. The league prefers the host city’s airport have several international flights. While Memphis International Airport is busier than it’s been in years with direct flights to most major US cities, when you look at the flight board, you won’t find a single flight taking you outside the country. Kane says the city is working on that, too, specifically flights to Europe and the United Kingdom. However, as far as he’s concerned, the priority is simple: “We just gotta be able to take care of the basic needs and right now it’s housing people in as few hotels as possible.”
So, here’s where things stand for Memphis: Of all the potential road blocks to landing the NBA All Star game, renovation of FedExForum is the most sure thing. That will probably happen in 2024.
Right now, high interest rates and inflation are keeping developers on the sidelines for any big hotel projects. It’s optimistic to think even the Grand Hyatt or Loewe’s projects could be revived and built within three years.
As far as international air service, Kane estimates flights outside the US from Memphis are probably three to five years away.
Yes, it is possible Memphis could lure the NBA’s All Star prize before 2030, but it would also require Memphis’s political and business leadership showing the will and vision to see it through, and at least right now, you don’t see a whole lot of that.