Tennessee Spending $350 Million To Bolster Liberty Bowl & FedEx Forum In Memphis

Memphis City Council deeded football stadium to University of Memphis.

Image Credit: Barrett Long / CC

By Sam Stockard [The Tennessee Lookout – CC BY-NC-ND 4.0] –

Head over heels for big-time sports, the state of Tennessee is pouring hundreds of millions into stadium projects in an effort to lure big events and improve the game-day experience for fans, including those attending Liberty Bowl and FedEx Forum games in Memphis.

Not only did the Legislature provide $500 million in bonds for a $2.1 billion domed Titans stadium in Nashville, it approved $350 million for the city of Memphis, which is putting the money toward renovation of the Simmons Bank Liberty Bowl where the University of Memphis Tigers play football and improvements at the FedEx Forum. 

In addition, state Rep. Kevin Vaughan, a Collierville Republican, and Sen. Brent Taylor, a Memphis Republican, passed legislation this year allowing the Shelby Convention and Visitors Bureau to take a greater percentage of Shelby County’s hotel-motel tax revenue to pay off FedEx Forum improvements. The county’s Public Building Authority owns the home of the Memphis Grizzlies and leases it for use.

Taylor, who was serving on the Memphis City Council when the FedEx Forum was constructed, agrees with the spending plan. The Grizzlies initially signed a 20-year commitment to play in Memphis.

“Obviously, this will re-commit them to the city of Memphis if we’re able to get the FedEx Forum renovated, and it needs the renovations. It’s 20 years old,” Taylor says of the project, which is supported across Memphis.

Taylor is also comfortable with the new Liberty Bowl arrangement and adds that the university will be “better stewards” than the city of Memphis, which has other assets to oversee.  

As part of the Shelby County deal, the Memphis City Council opted to deed the Liberty Bowl to the University of Memphis for a $220 million effort taking $120 million in state funds, $50 million from FedEx founder Fred Smith and another $50 million to be raised from Tigers boosters. The university’s nonprofit group is handling the project.

Work started in May and is slated for completion before the beginning of the 2026 football season, although construction could disrupt games this year and next year.

“The experience over the next two seasons is going to be different, and there may be some growing pains for a short period of time, but this renovation truly represents transformational growth,” University of Memphis Vice President and Athletics Director Laird Veatch said in a statement earlier this year. 

By March, the university had garnered $16 million in commitments for the stadium, to match Smith’s gift. University of Memphis officials did not respond to requests for comment or an update.

The first phase calls for renovating the east side suite level to move media and game-day operations from the west side in preparation for a second phase, which entails building suites and open seating areas that, combined, will create a “party plaza” that leads to hospitality space around the stadium. 

It is expected to cost $8-10 million and be finished before the start of this football season, and the second phase is scheduled to begin this year as soon as the university raises the first $25 million to match the Smith family’s challenge.

The third phase calls for locker room expansion, upgrades around the stadium, more seating improvements and north end tunnel renovation to allow for major events such as concerns. It will start as soon as the university raises another $25 million.

The University of Memphis embarked on this new arrangement with the state and local government at the same time the University of Tennessee-Knoxville is wrapping up a $337 million Neyland Stadium upgrade using private and athletic-generated funds and a $96 million Lindsey Nelson Stadium upgrade for the baseball Vols. Tennessee State University is making improvements, as well, to old Hale Stadium, such as installation of artificial turf and press box repairs after the facility had to be condemned. The TSU project is being done in phases instead of through a major renovation project.

The University of Memphis project was kick-started, in part, by Smith’s request that the City Council deed the Liberty Bowl to the University of Memphis, a move that took some cajoling. 

House Minority Leader Karen Camper, a Memphis Democrat and former mayoral candidate, pointed out whether the stadium is controlled by the city government or University of Memphis, it is a “valuable asset” that helps the entire community. She noted the Shelby County Legislative Delegation “worked hard” to secure the $350 million for Memphis sports facilities.

“The Liberty Bowl is now getting the money it needs for upgrades and repairs to put Memphis in a better position to attract major sporting and entertainment events and A-list artists for concerts. With this funding, the Liberty Bowl will be a desired destination for many years to come,” she said in a statement.

Taylor points out that Memphis could have used a $450 million grant from the state.

The entire Shelby delegation isn’t as enthused as Camper and Taylor with the deal.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat, described the deed transfer to a university nonprofit group as “fancy moves.”

“I don’t like the way it was rushed up. It amounted to blackmail, extortion, bullying,” Hardaway told the Tennessee Lookout.

The veteran lawmaker said he appreciates FedEx’s contributions toward economic development and community ventures, but he argued that the project needs more study to determine its impact.

Hardaway’s main concern is the closing of seating during renovation with the Southern Heritage Classic scheduled for Sept. 14 at the Liberty Bowl, pitting Tennessee State University against the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The classic for decades has been a huge draw for the historically Black colleges and previously matched up TSU and Jackson State University until its former coach, Deion Sanders, shifted the team out of the classic.

“If the state’s going to be throwing money around, they should look at the major tenants … and make sure they make them whole, keep them from being hurt financially,” Hardaway said.

He pointed out that another entity could bid on the classic, including the Titans, who already provide a home field to TSU, pulling the game out of Memphis.

Taylor, in contrast, says he considers the Smith families donation a “philanthropic” effort, not a form of arm-twisting.

About the Author: Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state’s best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association. Follow Stockard on Twitter @StockardSam

One thought on “Tennessee Spending $350 Million To Bolster Liberty Bowl & FedEx Forum In Memphis

  • July 9, 2024 at 11:44 pm
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    The State of TN should NOT be funding sports. That’s a stupid idea.

    Reply

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