Looking at Tupelo's sports future

TUPELO – Every now and then, when the phone rings in Todd Hunt’s office, it isn’t a concert promoter.
The call isn’t about monster trucks, the circus or Disney on Ice.
It’s about hockey and wanting to put a professional franchise in Tupelo.
“I don’t know how much these guys are really doing their homework on the front end. I think they’re just casting a wide net,” says Hunt, the manager of BancorpSouth Arena.
The coliseum has been snagged in many nets since opening in 1993. The Tupelo T-Rex, the hockey team, played for the league championship in the Western Professional Hockey League, but low attendance prompted the owners to compete as a juniors program the following season and to disband the team a year later.
Indoor soccer met a similar fate before the T-Rex, and indoor football has folded twice, though the most recent group – the Mississippi Mudcats – is hopeful of a comeback next year. Both football groups were successful on the field.
“Even based on past history, we’ve probably had three or four hockey ownerships calling and wanting to put a team here,” Hunt said. “I think they like the facility, its size, the fact that its newer, or geographically they just see this as a place that fits the model they’re working with.”
Hunt would like to see a successful Mudcats comeback, because indoor football plays in the spring and summer, traditionally slow booking times for the building. The days of the coliseum as a minor-league magnet may be in the past, however.
The Tupelo Rock-and-Rollers, of the World Basketball Association Exposure League, had discussions with Hunt about playing the coliseum. The ownership eventually decided games at the coliseum would not be financially prudent and is playing at a local church.
Even multi-day college events like the Gulf South Conference basketball tournament appear unlikely to return, given the city’s current goals.
Neal McCoy, director of sports development for the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau, recruits sports events to the city for the purpose of economic development, and the NCAA Division II GSC, which played its premier basketball event here for six seasons, did not provide the necessary impact with hotels and restaurants to continue the relationship.
The city paid the GSC $52,500 annually to host the event, but the tournament never reached the city’s modest goals of 6,500 in attendance over five days of games. The tournament maxed out at 6,125 total fans in 2005.
“We’re working here with taxpayer dollars,” says McCoy, whose budget is funded by a 2 percent tax on hotels and restaurants. “We have to be good stewards of those dollars. We have to make sure we get a good return on our investments.”
The investment was far less but the return no greater for the MHSAA Grand Slam, which had a two-year run here featuring the state’s high school basketball champions in the small school vs. big school format to determine an overall No. 1. Attendance lagged in an area that once prided itself on support for high school basketball.
December non-conference basketball games featuring Mississippi State and Ole Miss have drawn well at the coliseum in years past, but neither of the local SEC schools have played in Tupelo since 2004.
Hunt believes the coliseum will host MSU or Ole Miss basketball — perhaps both — within the next two years.
“They know we’re interested, and I think there’s interest on their part as well. We have to find the right time and date that makes sense,” he said.

The city’s focus
McCoy divides events into categories of “ticketed” and “non-ticketed,” and the lack of attendance at the GSC and the Grand Slam have given him a clear line of thought on how he should proceed.
While he remains open to future endeavors with small colleges – such as a possible second attempt to bring the NAIA championship football game to Tupelo – McCoy is looking at little people to produce big dollars.
“From a return on investment standpoint the youth sports market is where we’ve turned our attention,” he said. “Speaking just as Neal McCoy, not the CVB guy, I think our allegiances to our universities, which are so close … I don’t know that the discretionary dollars are there to support the Gulf South. Maybe the dollars are there, but the allegiances are not.”
McCoy said he expects hotels to be sold out four different weekends this year because of the in-flux of families here for youth sports events.
The city has already hosted a national gymnastics competition and state soccer tournaments.
Coming up later this week will be the Dizzy Dean World Series for 10- and 12-year-olds – which will be the first year of a two-year contract – and the USSSA Slowpitch World Series.
Those events will run concurrently and will bring approximately 80 teams to the city over a six-day period.
McCoy says the city’s position in luring these events has been strengthened by the opening of the new nine-field baseball complex at Ballard Park.
The opening of the complex allowed for the fields at Veterans Park to be restructured as softball fields.
The baseball complex was the first item of business on a 10-year plan on facilities that was put together about four years ago.
Goals for soccer complex upgrades include additional concession areas, restrooms and meeting space.
“That’s something we can do with the 2 percent hotel and restaurant tax to turn it around and make a good investment for our citizens in that they become the beneficiaries by using those facilities five days a week,” McCoy said.
If the soccer complex makes those additions plus a locker room facility the city could possibly attract small college tournaments and national youth tournaments, McCoy said.

What about the pool?
Next in line in the city’s 10-year facilities plan is the 40-year-old pool at Rob Leake park off Joyner.
McCoy says the pool is being addressed in small group discussions. He calls it a “baby steps” stage. There are no architectural renderings, no stated funding plan to date.
But there are dreams that include three pools: one for competitive swimming, one for recreation and one for aerobics, senior aquatics and therapeutic needs.
“If you’re dreaming you want to dream big. Swimming hasn’t been factor in what we’ve been doing, because we’re limited,” McCoy said. “With a competitive pool we could go after more club meets, high school championship meets and US Swimming regional meets.
“We’re talking with the architects and have not put a pricetag on it yet.”
The city’s tennis facilities, located adjacent the pool, will also be reviewed.

The future of the Mudcats
While the city focuses on youth sports the door isn’t closed on the minor leagues. The coliseum will be selective, however.
“There is a quality of life consideration, and when we can do something for the local folks we want to do that,” Hunt said.
That being said, Hunt would like to see indoor football work. He sees the fall and winter months as his busy season, a time that’s difficult to commit to a hockey team that might need the building on 35 nights.
Indoor football is different, and Mudcats owner Jim Waide, a local attorney, believes he can make it work.
While the team sits in limbo, Mudcats logos still appear on the glass doors in the offices next to Hunt’s at the coliseum.
A leery business community stung in dealings with previous teams hurt the Mudcats in the beginning, as did Waide’s own inexperience in running a team, Waide says.
“I’m trying to come up with a business plan, but I’m not going to invest my own money again,” Waide said. “I would like to figure a way to make it strictly a non-profit group for the benefit of churches or the hospital. It would have to be clear that I would make no money.”
Waide’s initial thoughts are to involve the youth groups of local churches in an effort to sell tickets and allow them to retain half the proceeds. The games would become a place of wholesome fellowship.
The roster would be comprised with greater emphasis on local players than in previous years. Players would be instructed that their status as role models would be equally important – perhaps more – as their on-field production.
“It can succeed, but it can’t succeed by just running ads on TV and in the newspaper,” Waide said. “We need to get youth groups and churches to work it to get Christian kids at the games and to continue their ministries at the church.”
Hunt said he would like to see Waide pull it off.
“The biggest issue you have in trying to make something like that succeed in this area is population base,” he said. “Sometimes it comes down to a numbers issue. We just don’t have the people of most of these other markets hosting minor league teams.”

Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal