Burning love of Elvis means a hunka-hunka lot of sales MEMPHIS STATES ITS CASE NFL EXPANSION THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

October 20, 1993|By Al Dunning | Al Dunning,The Commercial Appeal

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Top this, Charlotte; run this through your Gateway Arch, St. Louis: score tied, 30 seconds to play, home team's ball, first-and-goal at the 5-yard line and a sellout crowd of 68,000 Elvis impersonators howling, "It's now or never . . . "

Now running the anchor leg for Memphis in the five-city NFL expansion sweepstakes, the maxijillionaire spirit of Elvis Presley.

Beale Street, the world's best barbecue and Graceland. How's that for a Memphis Trilogy? Surely, NFL owners cannot possibly be cruel to so favored a city.

Like astute politicians planting an exclamation point at the end of a long campaign, leaders of Memphis' NFL drive announced in late September that the city's potential ownership group had welcomed a final investor: the Elvis Presley estate, managed by Elvis Presley Enterprises.

Exactly how much of the King's treasury is available to sweeten Memphis' NFL pot is unknown, but lead investor William B. Dunavant Jr. called the Presley involvement significant. As one of the world's foremost cotton merchants, Dunavant knows significant cash when he sees it.

Checkbook muscle already was one of the strengths of Memphis' NFL bid, even before it suited up the king of rock 'n' roll. Dunavant's partners might lead the NFL in Roman numerals. Among them: Wall Street trader and former Memphian Paul Tudor Jones II; J. R. "Pitt" Hyde III, chairman and CEO of Memphis-based Auto-Zone; Frederick W. Smith, CEO of Memphis-based Federal Express; and pro football Hall of Famer Willie Davis, who owns a string of radio stations in Southern California.

From the start, other goodies in Memphis' package included geography (400 miles to the nearest NFL city), an existing stadium (Liberty Bowl) with luxury boxes and natural grass and the absence of other major-league sports franchises competing for corporate support.

Yet until late summer, many fidgety Memphians tended to buy talk-show opinions that their city ranked fourth or fifth in the NFL derby. Then came encouraging signs -- and not just Elvis sightings, either.

News broke that some other cities might be developing problems with their NFL expansion finances. Then came word VTC that Dunavant and associates had delivered a powerful performance to the NFL expansion and finance committees in mid-September in Chicago. And then came Elvis and -- seriously, folks -- a genuine proposal to name a Memphis NFL team the Hound Dogs.

Gags aside about jelly doughnuts being the official training meal of the Memphis team, hooking up with Elvis Presley Enterprises is no joke -- not if NFL Properties is interested in making some hunka-hunka serious money selling Elvis-related souvenirs. Tourists have turned Elvis memorabilia into a major industry in Memphis; NFL fans could do the same thing at concession stands.

Elvis and the NFL could be a for midable team. More so, maybe, than the St. Louis-Walter Payton alliance. True, Sweetness could run the football like a dream. But planeloads of middle-aged British ladies don't fly over here to pay $6 a head to stand weeping in the den of Payton's house. They do at Graceland.

If the NFL is interested in colonizing Europe sometime in the future, some of those same ladies might fork over large mounds of British pounds to see Elvis' team play the London Rippers.

Supporters of the Memphis effort now include Elvis' former wife, Priscilla Presley, 46.

Well, that's all right, mama. A lot of Memphis fans are all shook up, too, convinced that, after having chased this rabbit for 25 years, their NFL chances have improved dramatically the past couple of months.

If 28 NFL owners decide next week to expand elsewhere, look for those Memphis fans down at the end of lonely street . . . so lonesome they could die.

CLOSING ARGUMENTS

There's less than a week to go before the NFL chooses from among Baltimore and four other cities for two expansion franchises. This week, The Sun is having a columnist from each of Baltimore's rivals write about why his city deserves one of the teams.

* Today: Memphis

* Tomorrow: St. Louis

* Friday: Charlotte

MEMPHIS

Stadium

* City proposes a $50 million renovation of the 28-year-old Liberty Bowl. Facility would have 63,000 seats, including 100 sky boxes and 8,302 club seats. Financed by a combination of tax breaks and state and local assistance.

Market

* Population of 1 million ranks it 49th among U.S. cities and fourth among expansion hopefuls. Grew 7.5 percent over the past decade. Per capita income of $13,590 makes this the poorest of the expansion candidates.

* TV market rank: 42.

OWNERSHIP

* Group is led by cotton merchant William B. "Billy" Dunavant Jr. and includes a black investor, ex-player and broadcast exective Willie Davis. Also: Wall Street investor Paul Tudor Jones, and Federal Express Chairman and founder Fred Smith.

PROS

* Memphis has been trying to break into the NFL for decades and bills itself as a capital of the sprawling mid-South region. It's ownership group is considered one of the best in the race, with a number of nationally known businessmen appealing to the league.

CONS

* Old stadium is considered the biggest problem here. NFL officials say they are still not convinced the renovations are sufficient to meet league standards. Ownership group openly flirted with dropping out this summer.

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