MSEC: Game Changer

Frank Murtaugh | Memphis Flyer

“If I could put exercise in a pill and sell it, I’d be the richest doctor in the world.”

— Dr. Jeff Warren, Memphis City Council

To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, the Mid-South recreation community took a giant leap Saturday when the Memphis Sports & Events Center (MSEC) opened its doors in the heart of Liberty Park. Where Memphians once rode the Zippin Pippin during a visit to Libertyland, they’ll now dribble basketballs, spike volleyballs, and compete in futsal tournaments. Drive by the facility and you can virtually hear the squeak of sneakers.

“Sports tourism and Memphis youth, that’s what this is about,” said Mayor Jim Strickland at a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by dozens of supporters and officials, but also, significantly, dozens of young volleyball and basketball players. “My kids played youth sports, and rarely could we play in Memphis. We didn’t have a facility. Hundreds of thousands of people will come to Memphis every year because of this facility, spending money, creating jobs. It will be a national destination. All Memphis kids will be welcome here. Nothing builds quality young people like team sports.”

At 227,000 square feet, the MSEC has a footprint the size of four football fields. Each of two wings features eight basketball courts that can convert into as many as 32 volleyball courts. The north wing includes stadium seating to accommodate 3,500 spectators, along with four VIP suites, and boxes for media and recruiters. It’s the kind of space — enormous but buzzing with activity — that makes you wish you were 13 years old … or the parent of a 13-year-old.

Remarkably, the MSEC was completed in 18 months, the heavy lifting under the guidance of Turner Construction. It cost $60 million and was paid for under a Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) classification, with $10 million contributed directly by the state of Tennessee. Designed by local architecture firm brg3s, the complex is shaped also for cheer and competitive dance tournaments, with a scarcity of vertical beams to allow the necessary air space for such events. (If you’ve seen cheer tournaments, you know such space is a premium.)

The MSEC immediately becomes the centerpiece of Liberty Park. (You’ll show your age if you call this area “the Fairgrounds.”) Along with Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium (now home to both the Memphis Tigers and USFL’s Memphis Showboats), the Kroc Center, and the Children’s Museum of Memphis, the facility breathes new life into an area that has seen activity decline since the closures of Libertyland and the Mid-South Coliseum. And there’s more to come, Strickland highlighting an 18-acre private development that will include a hotel.

“We were missing opportunities in the emerging and growing youth-sports market,” said Kevin Kane, president of Memphis Tourism. “For indoor sports, we used various facilities throughout the community. But we’re [transitioning] to huge youth sports, thanks to this facility. It’s a game changer. Everybody will benefit. Memphis is the big winner today, the tax base, and from an economic development standpoint.”

The MSEC is not only for kids. Adult leagues for basketball and futsal will begin play in January. (Futsal is a form of indoor soccer played on a “field” the size of a basketball court.) There are multipurpose rooms that can host birthday parties, anniversary celebrations, and other such fun. And two dining areas. You could spend all day at the MSEC and leave wanting a little more.

Fittingly, local sports-media legend Jarvis Greer greeted the crowd for Saturday’s grand opening. To no one’s surprise, he seemed like the most excited man in the place. And Jarvis gets it. Youth sports matter, as much for what comes after youth as during our playing days. If exercise is good for the body, mind, and soul, Memphis just got considerably healthier. And without a pill.