Let's talk about failures. Let's talk about professional sports in Memphis. All kinds of teams have gone through Elvisville. You remember the Memphis Tarns of the American Basketball Association. (With a name like Tarn—for Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi—who could forget? But then the team was also known, in the latter part of its five-year existence, as the Sounds.) In the neon World Football League there were the Memphis Southmen/Grizzlies. Then there were the Memphis Showboats of United States Football League fame. Within the last three years the Memphis Mad Dogs of the Canadian Football League, the Memphis Fire of the U.S. Basketball League and the Memphis Pharaohs of the Arena Football League all came to town—and left Simply put, the track record in Memphis isn't good.
So it was hardly surprising when a measly 30,171 people showed up at Memphis's dowdy old Liberty Bowl on Sunday to watch the Tennessee (né Houston) Oilers, the state's first NFL team, eke out a 24-21 overtime defeat of the Oakland Raiders, who also know a thing or two about baggage handling. For weeks before the game all indications were that this debut would have been better made elsewhere. In Memphis which likes to think of itself as a mini-New Orleans, it was hard to spot a single Oiler banner downtown. "I heard there's a team coming," said a worker at Graceland, Helen Amisano, in an all-too-familiar refrain, but I can't think of its name for the life of me.'
It's the Oilers, Helen.
"Oh—are you sure?"
Quite sure. Though Memphis is the home of the Elvis Presley fly swatter ($1.99 at the Memories of Elvis emporium), its inhabitant aren't stupid. They know when they're being used. Oilers owner Bud Adams and his team are here because it's an inexpensive place to play home games until 1999, when Nashville completes construction of a 65,000-seat state-of-the-art stadium.
Though they will spend eight weekends in Memphis this fall, the Oilers still train, practice and reside 210 miles to the east, in Nashville. "Memphis?" running back Eddie George said last week, before making the first plane trip across the state. "I went to Graceland once as a kid—real weird. Some pretty ugly rooms. Other than that...."
Who could blame the Memphis citizenry for being gun-shy about its latest pro team? As the Oilers took the field on Sunday, they received as many boos as they did cheers. But by the time George had run his team to a 10-0 halftime lead, crowd sentiment was beginning to shift in the Oilers' favor.
Alas, Oakland rallied to tie the game at 21 with 22 seconds to play, when quarterback Jeff George connected on a scoring pass to wideout Tim Brown for the third time, this one covering 16 yards. The game went into overtime, and the fans rooting for the Raiders went into overdrive. But Eddie George continued to wow the spectators, who couldn't help but appreciate that, with 216 yards on 35 carries, he had tied Billy Cannon's 36-year-old single-game team rushing record. When Al Del Greco hit a game-winning 33-yard field goal on Tennessee's second OT possession, the cheers weren't deafening, but they were undeniably loud. "Memphis showed today that it'll get behind us," Oilers Pro Bowl safety Blaine Bishop said after the game. "Winning brings fans. I think they'll come more as we succeed more."
Fine. But what about fan interest in Nashville? The city that for 18 months did whatever it could to woo the Oilers—holding dozens of rallies, placing banners in windows all over town, hosting celeb golf classics and putting on a massive drive to sell personal seat licenses—seemingly has lost interest. As in Memphis, there are virtually no indications downtown that the Oilers exist. Before the season, people weren't talking about the team. Two preseason games were played at Vanderbilt, but only 24,722 and 21,407 fans turned out. "Down the line this city will support us," veteran offensive lineman Kevin Donnalley says of Nashville. "I know they're into their sports here. But we're new, and like anything, it takes time. We're trying."
Not that the Oilers haven't contributed to their image problem. Ever since Adams announced on June 12 that he was going to end the team's 37-year affiliation with Houston and head for the Volunteer State, he and his staff have been perfecting the off-field fumblerooskie. The team logo, which was unveiled that day, has an upside-down Tennessee state flag on it. Early on, Adams announced that he would hold a statewide contest to come up with a new team name. Visions of Outlaws, Guitar Pickers, Rebas and more came to mind, but the competition never took place. Citizens who wanted tickets to Oilers games were put off by having to wait interminably to talk to uninformed sales people.