Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium is a football stadium located at the Mid-South Fairgrounds in Memphis. The stadium is the site of the annual Liberty Bowl, and is the home field of the Tigers football team. It has also been the host of several attempts at professional sports in the city, as well as other local football games and other gatherings.
The stadium was originally built as Memphis Memorial Stadium in 1965 for $3 million, as a part of the Mid-South Fairgrounds, one of the South’s most popular . The fairgrounds also include the (formerly the city’s major indoor venue) as well as the now closed amusement park. It was dedicated to the citizens of Memphis who had served in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.
It was built partially as a way to bring the to a permanent home in Memphis (The game had started in , but because of poor attendance for a northern bowl, it left the city, playing one year in before settling in Memphis). The game was such a success for Memphis that the stadium was soon renamed Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. As originally built, the stadium was lopsided, with the southwest side being taller than the northeast. A 1987 expansion brought it to its current, balanced size. Its design is similar to that of , with the endzone grandstands being much shorter than the sidelines. The field, which had been natural grass since its inception, was replaced with a surface before the 2005 season.
The stadium is designed in such a way that all of its seats have a relatively good view of most of the playing surface. This is due primarily to two design factors. The stands are relatively steep for a one-tier, true bowl stadium. Also, there is little space between the side and end lines of the playing surface and the stands.
In December 1983, the field was renamed Rex Dockery Field in honor of Rex Dockery, a former Memphis football coach who died in a plane crash.
On September 27, 1994, the Rolling Stones performed here during their Voodoo Lounge Tour.
Since its opening, the stadium has hosted the Tigers football team. Before this, the team had spent 28 seasons atCrump Stadium. It was not the first time the team had played at the Fairgrounds; before playing at Crump, the team had played two seasons there at a former park. As of the start of the 2006 season, the team has a 130-106-7 record at the stadium.
Also since its opening, the stadium has hosted the game. It has always hosted a Southern team playing against an at-large team (usually a team from either the Big 8 or Southwest Conference, but occasionally another Southern team). Since 1997, the game has been hosted by the champion of Conference USA, of which the Tigers are a member. From 1998 to 2003, the opponent was the champion of the Mountain West Conference. This arrangement was ended, however, partially because in the last two years of the agreement, the Mountain West Champion declined to play in the game. The University of Utah turned down the 2004 bid to accept a bid to the BCS and the Fiesta Bowl. The winner of the Western Athletic Conference, Boise State, took the bid instead. In 2005, Fresno State took the bid as an at-large team after Mountain West Champion TCU instead chose to play in the Houston Bowl. Since 2006, the second bid has gone to a team from the SEC, setting up an all-Southern bowl game.
The stadium is also the host of the “Southern Heritage Classic,” a game between two historically black schools, Jackson State University and Tennessee State University. The stadium also has hosted home games of the University of Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Missippi State.
The stadium has been used to host professional football and teams in the past. In 1974 and 1975, the stadium hosted the Memphis Southmen, aka “Grizzlies,” of the World Football League. The Southmen drew fairly well, at least by WFL standards, in part due to the presence on their roster of some well-known players recruited away from the NFL at considerable expense. Much, perhaps too much, was read into this relative success at the gate, and when the WFL folded, the team formally changed its name to the Grizzlies and made a bid to join the NFL as an expansion team for the 1976 NFL Season, with a telethon even being staged for this purpose. Over 40,000 people bought season tickets for the would-be NFL team. Despite this seemingly-overwhelming show of support, the NFL ignored Memphis' pleas and the Southmen folded. Owner John Bassett filed a lawsuit against the league, but was unsuccessful.
From 1978 to 1980, the Memphis Rogues of the North American Soccer League called the stadium home. The playing surface is somewhat smaller than that generally favored by soccer, but that sport adapts to smaller playing surfaces better than some others (the preferred width of a soccer pitch is 70 to 80 yards, but allow for a pitch as narrow as 50 yards wide). Like the Southmen, the Rogues seemingly did fairly well in a league that wasn't doing all that well as a whole. Despite their success, the team moved to Calgary, although this move was due more to the owner, Nelson Skalbania , a Canadian businessman, wanting to move the team to his home country.
In 1984, the United States Football League added the Memphis Showboats as an expansion team. The Showboats, featuring defensive end Reggie White and coached by flamboyant Memphian Pepper Rodgers, were one of the better draws in the league. They advanced to the Western Conference semifinals in 1985. Much like the Southmen before them, it was generally believed the Showboats would have been a viable venture had their league been better organized.
However, this attempt caused the city of Memphis to decide on expanding the stadium, in the hopes of luring an NFL franchise to the city. To this end, the Liberty Bowl underwent a $12,000,000 facelift. The east stands were built up to the same level as the west ones, adding about 12,000 seats, and a "skybox" of luxury suites was added to the top of those stands. After the renovation, the then-St. Louis Cardinals played an exhibition game there before a sellout crowd.
Despite its efforts, the city was unsuccessful in luring an NFL team (which would have been called the "Memphis Hound Dogs") to the Liberty Bowl. Not willing to give up on pro football, in 1995 the Liberty Bowl welcomed the Memphis Mad Dogs as part of the Canadian Football League’s attempt at bringing their league into American markets. The field of play in Canadian football is 10 yards longer and 35 feet wider than in the U.S. version, and the end zones are 20 yards deep rather than 10; few U.S. stadiums are designed readily to accommodate a playing surface of this size. In the Liberty Bowl these changes were necessarily largely ignored, due to the design features noted earlier. Had the attempt to play the Canadian game included an attempt to use the full width of that game's field, players not participating in the game and the coaching staffs would have to have been seated in the stands. Likewise, 20 yards past the goal line at the Liberty Bowl puts one several rows up into the end zone stands. The only real concession to the Canadian format that was feasible at the Liberty Bowl was the moving of the goal posts to the goal line, where they are in the Canadian game, as opposed to the end line. The result was a hybrid game, mostly played by Canadian rules on essentially a U.S. field.
Despite these limitations, the Mad Dogs, coached by Rodgers, drew fairly well during the early part of the season (the CFL season runs from July-November so as to conclude its season before most Canadian cities become unbearably cold for players, coaches, officials, and especially spectators). The stadium became a virtual ghost town on home game days, however, once college football season started, with crowds under 10,000, and it soon became apparent that the Mad Dogs were not a viable venture. Although they finished one game out of the playoffs, their dreadful attendance figures caused them to fold at the end of the season.
The city finally lured an NFL team to the stadium in 1997, when the Houston Oilers announced that they would play two seasons in Memphis as the Tennessee Oilers before their new stadium in Nashville (what is now LP Field) was completed in time for the 1999 season. The largest stadium in Nashville at the time, Vanderbilt Stadium, seated only 41,000 fans and was considered inadequate even as a temporary facility. Although Neyland Stadium in Knoxville was much closer to Nashville, it was deemed too big (at over 102,000 seats) for an NFL team. Pepper Rodgers was named the Oilers' "Director of Memphis Operations." The team was to live and practice in Nashville, commuting to Memphis only for games.
Although the idea seemed acceptable enough to the league and the team at the time, the 1997 season was an unmitigated disaster for all involved. The Oilers played before some of the smallest home crowds seen in the NFL since the 1950s for most games, and the visiting team often seemed to have more supporters than the Oilers. Memphians wanted nothing to do with a team which would be lost in two short years, while Nashvillians were skittish about having to drive 210 miles to see "their" team play. In an unfortunate coincidence, Interstate 40 was under construction. This lengthened the normal three-and-a-half hour drive from Nashville to Memphis to five hours or longer. Only one game drew more fans than could have comfortably been accommodated at Vanderbilt, the year's final game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. While 50,677 people showed up, all unbiased observers noted that at least two-thirds of those present were Steeler fans. Oilers' owner Bud Adams was so disgusted that he ripped up the Memphis agreement a year early in favor of playing at Vanderbilt in 1998.
The stadium’s last major professional tenant to date was the Memphis Maniax of the XFL, a joint venture of NBC and the WWE. This football league played its games during the spring of 2001. Again, as seemed by this time to be the pattern, the Maniax did better than the league as a whole, but the league folded after television ratings for the games on NBC became the lowest for any program in the history of network television. Its many marketing gimmicks aimed at younger audiences alienated older, more financially secure fans who could have supported the league better.
As of 2006, it is considered highly unlikely that there will be an NFL franchise in the stadium or in the city. The stadium is more than adequate for the Tigers, a team which is currently fairly successful playing in one of the larger stadiums in its conference. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl game is well-attended and averages crowds just under stadium's maximum capacity. There are a variety of factors that play into the city’s prospects, including:
- Memphis, although it is the largest city in the state, is now considered to be in the Titans’ market under the current television agreements in the NFL. Also, while Memphis is the 18th-largest city in the United States, it is only the 44th-largest television market because the surrounding metropolitan area is not much bigger than the city proper. Its per capita income is far less than is customary for a market that is usually under consideration for expansion or relocation of an existing team.
- The league itself is not in the position to be considering expansion at this time, due to there being a balanced schedule in place. In addition, the city is located within 500 miles of six teams: the Titans, St. Louis Rams, New Orleans Saints, Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, and Indianapolis Colts.
- The city, county and state have already pumped a large amount of capital into several other structures in the city. The Pyramid was completed in 1991 and has already been replaced. FedExForum, which replaced The Pyramid, and AutoZone Park were both completed within the past five years, and neither structure has yet to pay off any funds spent on its construction. The latter cost several times more than has ever been spent on the Liberty Bowl.
- Finally, the stadium itself is considered obsolete by current NFL standards. It does not have many luxury boxes, and it does have a large number of backless bench seats, both of which are substantial drawbacks. Restroom facilities and concession stands seem relatively antiquated compared to those of newer facilities. The facility itself generally shows the nearly four decades of use and Mid-South weather that it has endured. Perhaps the greatest hindrance is the one thing about its design that originally had made it so attractive to many. The one-deck, open bowl design precludes the construction of true "club seats", the luxury seats located between the main lower and upper decks of most modern football stadiums which are a major source of additional revenues to ownership. Due to the factors listed above, it is highly unlikely that a major upgrade could be performed on the stadium.
- On January 1, 2007, Mayor Willie Herenton of Memphis proposed a new stadium be built in place of the old one. The future of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium is currently unclear.
Both the annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl game and the stadium bearing its name have been integral parts of the Memphis community for almost four decades, and it can be argued that, unlike the cases of massive amounts that have been spent on many luxurious sports venues for professional sports teams in other cities in recent years, the citizens of Memphis have received a reasonable return on the capital invested in the stadium in the economic activity resulting from all of the events that the stadium has hosted over the years. The failure of the Liberty Bowl to become the long-term host of a successful professional football team has been more a result of the poorly-planned and executed sports leagues that have attempted to operate teams there than any inherent fault in the stadium, which was superior to many hosting major sports teams at the time of its construction, or the Memphis market.
The stadium, despite all its faults, must be deemed to have been largely successful. It has provided the University of Memphis football team with a more-than-suitable home, and the City of Memphis a venue for other large events and an annual attraction that may not be in the top echelon of collegiate sports but nonetheless provides crowds at Memphis hotels and restaurants annually at a time when they would ordinarily be lacking, the last week in December. The Southern Heritage Classic, usually played near the beginning of the football season in September, has become one of the premier events in black collegiate sports and always brings a large crowd (sometimes 60,000 or more). Additionally, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl game has seen some of its best days since playing host to the champion of Conference USA beginning in 1997. The 2007 AutoZone Liberty Bowl set an all-time attendance record as 63,816 fans packed the stadium to watch Mississippi State University defeat the University of Central Florida.
- Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium - GoTigersGo.com
- Information on the surrounding fairgrounds
- AutoZone Liberty Bowl attendance figures
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