For almost a decade, the Memphis Grizzlies have undoubtedly been the main show in town. Over the course of that time, the Grizzlies have made the playoffs seven times and have exemplified the city’s blue-collar identity in a more authentic way than perhaps any team before them. During that same period, the Memphis Tigers have won only four NCAA tournament games and have generally struggled to find consistent success. As a result, it is nearly universally-accepted that the city of Memphis, for at least that stretch of time, was a Grizzlies town.
However, this has clearly not always been the case.
Long before the Grizzlies were in Memphis, and especially when John Calipari led the Memphis Tigers to 137 wins over a four-year period in the late 2000s, the city of Memphis was unquestionably a Tigers town. The city rallied around them as they had their greatest run of sustained success in program history. The Memphis Grizzlies, on the other hand, were consistently one of the worst teams in the NBA during that time.
The people of Memphis clearly had an obvious preference for the Memphis Tigers, and it showed in attendance numbers. In 2008, the year the Tigers lost in the National Championship to Kansas, nearly every single game in the FedexForum was a sellout. During that same year, the Memphis Grizzlies were 29th in average attendance. While Memphis will always struggle to rank in the NBA’s top half in attendance due to market size and socioeconomic factors, that still doesn’t excuse such a low rank, especially when the Tigers were among the nation’s leaders in attendance.
The point is this: The people of Memphis may love basketball, but historically, they love good basketball even more. They will generally show greater support to the superior team in town, especially if the inferior team struggles mightily (the Tigers’ attendance numbers fell to their lowest mark since 1982 after a mediocre 19-13 season in 2017 under Tubby Smith). The Grizzlies have certainly been the beneficiary in this relationship in recent years, but that could soon all change.
Although he has yet to coach a single college game, there is more excitement around the Memphis Tigers with Penny Hardaway at the helm than there has been since John Calipari. The people of Memphis truly believe that Penny will return Memphis basketball to glory, and the early returns of that belief have been stunning.
Lower bowl tickets to 2018 Memphis Madness sold out within 3 hours according to graph at https://t.co/1EVPGGNOdF— 929ESPN (@929espn) September 5, 2018
It appears that 2018 Memphis Madness might be the hottest ticket in the history of Memphis if the U of Memphis website is any indication. #PennyTime— Brad Carson (@BradCarson) September 5, 2018
If Penny Hardaway lives up to the hype and reestablishes the Memphis Tigers on the national scene, there is a very real possibility that the Memphis Grizzlies will once again be the secondary show in town rather than the primary performance.
That’s not to say that Memphians would not support both a good Grizzlies team and a good Tigers team. If history is an indication, they will do so. During the 2012-2013 season, the Tigers had the 11th highest attendance in the country, and the Grizzlies had their highest average attendance of the Grit ‘N’ Grind era. Again, as one of America’s basketball Meccas, Memphis will always love and support successful basketball, especially if it comes from both of the city’s marquee teams.
However, it’s no secret that the odds are stacked against the Grizzlies finding success over the next few years. If you’re an objective observer, then you already realize that they will need nearly everything to go their way to make the playoffs in an absurdly loaded Western Conference next year. Beyond next year, the future is extremely murky with Marc Gasol having the opportunity to leave if he so chooses.
Things could fall apart for the Grizzlies very quickly, and if they do, Penny Hardaway’s Memphis Tigers may be right there to pick up the pieces and recapture the imagination and adoration of the people of Memphis once more.
This doesn’t have to happen. In an ideal world, both teams can coexist with the full support of the city of Memphis behind them. It has happened before, and it can happen again. But the Memphis Grizzlies will have to do their part to remain relevant, especially as the rise of Penny Hardaway commences.
At the end of the day, the Grizzlies will only have a Penny problem if they allow it to become one due to their own lack of success.