University District

Married to the game: When Tigers score, Memphis small business wins

When Jeremy Stinson, general manager of Tiger Bookstore, sees a spike in sales, he looks at the event calendar for neighboring University of Memphis. He knows a big game or academic event, new student orientation, tours for high school-aged prospects or even a big announcement can drive traffic to surrounding shops and restaurants.

Many of the locally-owned businesses in the University District have been around for decades and have ridden the high and low tides of its anchor institution. They say success in academics and athletics flows to the surrounding community.

In 2016, researchers at George Washington University and San Diego State University released a study of 40 NCAA bowl games that showed host communities earned $1.45 billion dollars in revenue generated outside of the games.

“I kind of feel that the entire University District -- neighborhoods, the businesses — we’re all interconnected with the university,” said Stinson. “If the university does well … then that does nothing but make the area around the university better.”

Related: "Textbook Brokers beats sales slump with new merchandise"

Opened in 1964, Stinson describes Tiger Bookstore as “your everything Tiger store,” a one-stop-shop for textbooks, apparel and branded merchandise from jewelry to bumper stickers. While they still sell textbooks, branded merchandise now accounts for the bulk of their volume and 40 percent of gross sales.

Located at 3533 Walker Avenue, the store sits in a cluster of local restaurants and shops between the university's main campus and Highland Street, the nearest major commercial corridor. Stinson said sales correlate to the perceived success of the university and nearby businesses are closely interlinked.

“We’ve seen people that come out to buy shirts for the game and they go eat at Garibaldi’s or RP Tracks,” said Stinson. “They make kind of a whole lunchtime. ‘I’m gonna go get my shirt, I’m gonna get something to eat, I may go grab something from The Peddler because I need to get my bike fixed.’ I think that’s kind of cool how all the different businesses around here feed off of each other.”

The bookstore and other Walker-Highland businesses like The Peddler bike shop and The Bluff sports bar say that with the university expanding the campus, Tiger football doing well and buzz growing around next season’s men’s basketball team, the district and sales are on an upswing.

General manager Jeremy Stinson poses with one of this season's hottest items, sherpa jackets, at Tiger Bookstore. (Cole Bradley)

Improving Amenities and Walkability on Walker

The University of Memphis was founded in 1912 on an 80-acre plot of land housing three buildings. It’s since grown to include 2,500 employees, 1,607 acres and 239 buildings across eight locations. It offers more than 150 subjects of studies and is the third largest university in Tennessee. There were 21,459 students enrolled in fall 2018.

The school has several multi-million dollar expansions underway including adding a pedestrian bridge over Southern Avenue, realigning the railroad crossing at Southern and Patterson Street, adding recreation facilities, parking, and housing and constructing a wellness center. The efforts will improve pedestrian access between the school and surrounding areas, especially Walker and Highland where many small businesses are concentrated.

“There’s more foot traffic on Walker Avenue,” during big games and other campus events, said Hal Mabray, owner of The Peddler bike shop. “They’ll wander the sidewalk and see the businesses that are here and wander into our shop and look at the bicycles. They might buy a shirt that says ‘Memphis’ on it or a pair of gloves so we do see traffic [on] game day.”

Once pedestrians are in the area, they’re more likely to linger if it’s accessible for strolling.

The Highland Strip has seen a revival in recent years including major acquisitions, new businesses and bold art and signage. In 2012, the University Neighborhoods Development Corporation received a $529,000 transportation enhancement grant from the Tennessee Department of Transportation for streetscape improvements on Walker including crosswalks and traffic calming. Pedestrian improvements at the intersection of Highland and Walker are also underway.

Once complete, the Walker-Highland exchange will be a continuous pedestrian thoroughfare featuring dozens of local shops and restaurants connected to the university.

Related: "Loeb Properties antes up on University District with purchase of former Newby's buildings"

Streetscape improvements on Walker Avenue between the Tiger Bookstore and The Peddler included new crosswalks, beautification, traffic calming and parking reconfiguration to improve the pedestrian experience. (Cole Bradley)

Tiger Pride

The school offers a number of sports from cross country to rifle, but the standouts of the Tigers athletics department are men’s basketball and football.

In recent decades, Tigers football has largely been an afterthought to both the Grizzlies and University of Memphis basketball, but a few key changes starting in 2011 have had major impacts on its success. And small businesses are benefiting from the rising tide.

First, Justin Fuente was hired to coach and the Tigers joined the American Athletic Conference. Both moves improved the team’s visibility, recruiting and gameplay. In 2014, they finished as conference champions for the first time since 1971. Mike Norvell, considered one of the best new coaches in the country, was hired in 2015, and the Tigers beat a nationally ranked team for the first time since 1996.

In December 2017 they finished as AAC western division champions and played the Autozone Liberty Bowl game at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium for the first time in the venue’s 55-year history. The game sold out 57,266 seats and inspired celebration across the city. The 2018 regular season ended with a second AAC western division championship title.

Last year, Tiger Bookstore started selling $5 t-shirts themed for each football home game and they’ve been a big hit among both older fans and students.

“We’ll put them out usually a day or two before they go on sale so people will see what they look like, and there’s been times that we’ve even had lines outside for us to unlock the doors so they can come in and get their $5 t-shirts," said Stinson.

The Bluff sports bar is located at 535 South Highland Street, just north of the Walker-Highland intersection. It opened two years ago and assistant general manager Lauren Erickson said Tiger football has a bigger customer draw than basketball. The bar has three bars and 32 televisions and frequently hosts watch parties for large groups.

“The support that we get from all the neighborhood college students, they love to support the Memphis Tigers, they love doing it in numbers,” said Erickson. “It’s a nice comradery it seems like. It brings a lot of people together. And when they’re doing well, it seems to show here too.”

Erickson said most patrons are college students, but as the team grows in success, The Bluff is seeing more alumni and older fans from around the city.

“This spot is very central to the city, so I would hope we can bring in more age groups and different types of people,” she said.

The Bluff sports bar on the Highland Strip has 32 televisions and is a popular destination for Tiger football watch parties. (Shelda Edwards)
Men’s Tigers basketball has had much more success and support over the years. In 2008, the team made it to the NCAA championship game where they lost to University of Kansas. Many Memphians believe the season didn’t just set a benchmark for the team, it was a major catalyst that helped spark renewed pride in Memphis and inspire a decade of city-wide revitalized efforts.

“When we went to that Final Four weekend, literally anything we had, we were selling it. It was as fast as we could unload boxes, the shirts were still warm from the printers as we’re selling them,” said Stinson. “The city as a whole, when they get behind a big event like that, to me it feels like everybody’s happy. Even though we had lines and people were waiting, they didn’t care.”

But the excitement was short lived. In 2009, the season’s wins were vacated after star player Derrick Rose was disqualified for cheating on his SAT. Wildly successful coach John Calipari left for the University of Kentucky during the investigation, and the program saw moderate ups and major downs under head coaches Josh Pastner and Tubby Smith.

The businesses on Walker also felt the downward slope, though the decline in the team also coincided with the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis.

“The apathy of the Memphis fanbase — and I’ve seen it in this area, I’ve been here over 30 years — is very visible,” said Mabray. “We sadly don’t get in behind the sports team when they’re doing poorly. The numbers really come out when they’re doing well.”

Banking on Penny

With Penny Hardaway came renewed hope for Tigers basketball and an increase in sales for the district's businesses. 

“When Penny Hardaway was rumored [to] be the coach, we saw an uptick. When he was hired, we saw a bigger uptick,” said Stinson. “And that continued all the way through the summer, into the fall, and then of course then football starts and it kind of snowballs.”

The University of Memphis hired Hardaway in March 2018 following his successful career in the NBA and as a coach for the East High School boy's team, which took state titles between 2016 and 2018. The Tigers finished this season at 10-5 and are currently 3-1 in conference play. It’s a decent showing, but there’s true excitement for next year when the number one college recruit in the country, James Wiseman, will join the team. Wiseman played for Hardaway at East High. Two other former Hardaway players, Malcolm Dandridge and DJ Jeffries, also committed.

“With the class that is coming in, with as nationally ranked as they are, you add them to what we have now, and basketball could be off the charts,” said Stinson. “If people feel good about the university, they want to show off. You want to wear that hoodie or have that decal on your car.”

A customer browses hats and knit cap at Tiger Bookstore on Walker Avenue. (Cole Bradley)
The Bluff hosts Hardaway’s weekly radio show and Erickson said the live recording is a big draw.

“That brings in a lot of people for basketball. So we’ve seen a huge jump in the basketball season compared to last year,” she said. “It’s crazy. Everyone wants to see him, wants to talk to him. He’s great about it, he’ll stay and take pictures. He’ll spend time with everybody who comes in. It’s nice to have him here.”

“That’s what I think is cool about the connection between the university, the city, the businesses and things like that,” said Stinson. “When something’s going good over there, it can just trickle down and affect everybody.”

A special thank you to University of Memphis communications and sports journalism student Jeff McCrum for his valuable research contributions. 

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017. 
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