Memphis is always the winner of the Autozone Liberty Bowl

The Autozone Liberty Bowl draws big crowds, and big dollars, to Memphis each December, with small and giant local companies playing a role in the fanfare. High Ground takes a behind the scenes look at pulling off the big game, and capitalizing on the the economic impact, on game day.
Sitting in the final planning meeting on Sunday, Dec. 28 before the next day’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl, one thing is perfectly clear: Broadway musicals are executed with less forward planning and stage management that the average college football bowl contest. Here, however, the production extends far beyond the game – there are top-selling music acts, dueling marching bands, parachutists and cable television commercials to coordinate. There is the crowd to of 51,282 fans to manage, and if it’s not done right, they will go home and take their money with them.

Every year, these fans bring a lot of spending power with them to the city of Memphis. "Generally, the economic impact is anywhere from $20 to 25 million dollars. That’s out-of-towners coming here, staying in hotels, buying food and gas and coming to events," says Harold Graeter, Associate Executive Director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Not all of that money will be sent at local businesses, but for what is, the multiplier effect is impressive. The private research firm Civic Economics figures that every $100 spent at local businesses generates $45 of secondary spending in the community.
The day before the big game, a parade down Beale Street ends in a pep rally
To keep them coming, the events surrounding the bowl have grown beyond that of the first Memphis game in 1965. Now, a city-wide spectacle is packed into one week. In the days leading up to the game there is a regularly sold-out associated rodeo, a golf classic, and a high school all-star football game. A parade on Beale Street ends in a riotous pep rally, and later that evening the President’s black tie gala features the game’s half-time entertainment as the headliner (in 2014 it was country music stars Big & Rich). Before kick-off, a pre-game buffet feeds some 3,000 visitors with music and all-you-can-eat Memphis-style barbeque. From kick off to the moment the coaches shake hands, there is slightly less than five minutes when spectators aren’t being directly entertained.

If you want to take the economic pulse of any city, the first thing to watch is what the local businesses come out in full force to support. A close walk around the pre-game buffet – strains of classic rock twanging from the stages as fans get their fill of Pig N’ Whistle barbeque – shows that locally owned businesses go to great lengths to back the events leading up to the game: beer distributors, restaurants, radio stations and hotels.

And the benefits of the Bowl for the city don't end with the final score. Memphis has a rare opportunity to showcase its assets on a national stage, and the positive effects on the city's image can be long lasting. At 1:02pm on game day, Memphis and its local offerings hit the spotlight, with national coverage on the ESPN cable and radio networks reaching audiences who seldom hear positive stories from our city.
Texas A&M won the 56th Autozone Liberty Bowl last month
With so much economic impact riding on bowl attendance, the city has come out in full force to ensure that things run smoothly. Fully a third in attendance of that final, detail-crushing meeting are some form of security: Sheriff’s department, Memphis Police Tact and Special Ops units, Homeland Security and the FBI. They run an operation under the noses of the fans that is largely seamless and mostly unseen.

The operation is coordinated by a staff of about ten people who work for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl organization, as well as an army of volunteers they manage to draw into their orbit, including the Waterboys and the Knights of Columbus. Hugh Mallory, a rep for West Tennessee Crown Distributing, coordinates a nameless corps of volunteers who inexplicably manage the crowd, the food and the liquor intake at the pre-game buffet. “They all do it because they love Memphis," says Mallory. “It’s just good for the city.”

Precisely because the Bowl will never decide the national championship is what makes it the local booster that it is. In August of 2013, an agreement was reached to continue the tradition of the bowl being a match up between the Big 12 and the local favorite SEC, at least until 2019.

Since 2004, the title sponsor has been local giant AutoZone; in February of this year the company agreed to continue their association through 2019. The partnership has been a good fit and attendance has been up over the last decade. This year was relatively light given the distance Texas A&M and West Virginia fans had to travel, as well as a whiff of sour grapes on the part of A&M fans following a lackluster season.

Despite the fussing, Texas A&M won the day. Both sides seemed to go home happy, well fed by the locals and with national sponsors like AutoZone and FedEx emblazoned on their minds.  No matter what the score, Memphis wins.

Read more articles by Richard Murff.

Richard has reported from across Latin America, Iraq, Ukraine, Libya and Clarksdale, MS, to name a few places. He has been editor at the Nautilus Publishing and his work has appeared in The Bitter SouthernerThe American SpectatorDelta Magazine, Sail, The Daily News, Oxford Town, and others.
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