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Memphis Flyer The Pharaohs vs. The Kats

The rivalry that was never meant to be

By Matt Walsh

JULY 5, 1999:  The Arena Football League still exists. Sometimes you even see signs of its too-brief history in Memphis -- a fan wearing a faded Pharaohs T-shirt or sporting a team cap. You might come across an arena football game on ESPN2 or Fox Sports South and remember the Pharaohs.

You remember arena football at The Pyramid: the short field, the rebounding nets, the fireworks, and that annoyingly loud announcer. You remember the minuscule crowds, the winless season, the constant bickering between owner Kevin Hunter and the mayor, and the Wade/Riggs-like disputes between Hunter and the general manager of The Pyramid.

Although the Pharaohs' two-year stint in Memphis will probably always be remembered as just another one of this city's minor-league sports disasters, the team's first year of existence actually showed promise. The Pharaohs played halfway decent football (6-6 record and a playoff spot), and, even though team officials inflated the numbers, attendance steadily increased throughout the season. Arena football seemed to have a chance to make it in the Bluff City.

But the Pharaohs suffered a sophomore jinx they would not recover from. Kevin Hunter lost too much money, and then he took his team to Portland, Oregon, where they changed their name to the Forest Dragons -- but kept on losing.

While all this was happening, an ownership group in Nashville was quietly assembling an arena team to play in the new Nashville Arena for the 1997 season.

Given Nashville's poor history of supporting its own minor-league sports, along with the fact that the NFL and NHL were soon coming to town, not many people in this market, including the media, thought arenaball would last more than a year in the Music City.

But despite these deterrents, Nashville's arena team, the Kats, have been able to secure some sure footing in the city's booming sports landscape. The team has established a solid base of 7,000 season-ticket holders and an average of 12,000-plus fans per game over the past two seasons.

Arena football in Memphis and Nashville is an ironic tale of two cities. Many of the reasons attributed to the Kats' success in Nashville were used to explain why the Pharaohs failed in Memphis.

A Winning Team

A key ingredient to the Kats' popularity in Nashville has been their on-the-field success. The team made the playoffs in each of its first two seasons, including a division title in the first year. The Kats won more games (10) in their inaugural season than the Pharaohs did in two years combined (6). "The Kats are Nashville's only pro franchise with a winning record," says Kats' director of media relations, Ryan Altizer. "People love to see a winner, especially when a local tie is involved."

Recognizable Players

The Kats' achievements on the field have been due, in large part, to the quarterback/receiver combo of former Tennessee Volunteer teammates Andy Kelley and Corey Fleming. They have become fan favorites and in turn recruited the vast army of Big Orange supporters in Middle Tennessee. Every time Kelley and Fleming hook up for a touchdown, a funky, hip-hop version of "Rocky Top" blares through the speakers of the arena. The fans love it.

The Pharaohs organization committed a critical mistake in the second season by making unnecessary roster changes. Many of the first-year players, whom fans became acquainted with, were replaced with players from regional colleges who had little or no arenaball experience. These new acquisitions were unable to adapt to the hybrid game, which in turn helped lead the team to a miserable winless season. The Pharaohs tried to offset this blunder by bringing in players with some local flavor, like former University of Memphis Tigers Keith Benton and Charles King. But it didn't work. By then, nobody cared.

The Arena

When The Pyramid opened in 1991, a couple of key catchphrases were left out when it came to the design: state-of-the-art and fan-friendly. The Pyramid lacked some of the amenities (a Jumbotron, concourse TVs, and luxury suites) that should have come with a new arena built in this decade. Without these amenities, the unfinished arena made the atmosphere at a Pharaohs' game (or any sporting event for that matter) comparable to watching the game in an empty warehouse.

The Nashville Arena, which opened in 1997, seemed to do it right. Located in the heart of Nashville's thriving downtown West End District, the Nashville Arena has become the crown jewel of the area. The Kats have used this to their benefit. With all the features of a modern-day sports facility, a team store for the NHL Predators, a tourist information center, live music, interactive games, and give-away booths that are common at arena-league games, the Nashville Arena is creating a carnival at every Kats' game.

League Stability

Another advantage the Kats have had over the Pharaohs is that over the past couple years the Arena Football League has become a more stable league. Improving TV contracts with ESPN and ABC have given arena football more exposure, and the NFL has agreed on an option to buy an equity share of the league that could give the AFL the credibility and respect it has been looking for since its inception 13 years ago. Perhaps if this had happened during the Pharaoh era in Memphis, Kevin Hunter wouldn't have been so quick to pull the trigger on the team.

Already into their third season, it's still too early to tell whether the Kats' acceptance by Nashville will last over the long haul. The sports entertainment dollar in Nashville will be spread thin over the next few years. The Kats now have to compete head-to-head with the NHL Predators, who have been successful in their first year at the Nashville Arena. This competition includes season-ticket sales and corporate support.

The Kats also have to contend with ticket sales from the NFL's Tennessee Titans, who will begin playing in their shiny, new stadium next season. David Climer, sports columnist for Nashville's daily newspaper, The Tennessean, thinks arena football will be in Nashville for awhile. "As the city has been educated about the high cost of tickets to professional sports," he says, "the Kats have benefited because of a lower-priced ticket."

The challenge and bottom line for the owners of an arena football team, in any city, is to put out an entertainment product -- on and off the field -- one that people would pay to go see over and over again. Comparing both cities, the Pharaohs did not have the luxury of an excellent management, a state-of-the-art arena, or the good luck in Memphis the Kats did in making their product work in Nashville.

Which is unfortunate. The Pharaohs versus the Kats could have made for a fun rivalry that benefited both cities.

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