Memphis Soccer Stadium: 901 FC owner weighs in

Memphis 901 FC was founded in January of 2018 and has competed in the USL Championship since March of 2019.  

During that time, they have played at AutoZone Park in downtown Memphis, home of the Memphis Redbirds (the AAA affiliate of MLB’s St. Louis Cardinals).  But news broke from the Commercial Appeal in October that Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland would be going to the state of Tennessee with a “Big Ask” of funding for a total of four different stadium projects in Memphis: renovations to FedEx Forum (home of the NBA’s Grizzlies), renovations to Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium (home of the University of Memphis Tigers college football team), renovations to AutoZone Park, and best of all, a brand-new soccer-specific stadium for Memphis 901 FC.  

When discussing how this stadium plan came together, Memphis 901 FC owner Craig Unger said that this wasn’t something that had just occurred to them but rather something they have been working on for a while. 

“From day one it’s always been in the back of our mind that we needed to find a long-term solution and a long-term home.  For us to get started here at AutoZone Park was just to get started.  But at the time there wasn’t a site or a mechanism.  There wasn’t this pathway that we have today.  That took time to develop.”  

“There were challenges like land acquisition,” Unger said.  “How do you get all the land that you need to build a stadium?  You need acres and acres and acres to be able to do that.  And space around it for parking, etc.  And we wanted to make sure that we weren’t just building to be building.  We wanted to be in the right part of Memphis.  We knew that it was either downtown or mid-town because we didn’t want to lose the feeling that we already had playing in the downtown stadium.”

The “Big Ask” – reshaping sports in Memphis

It was around this time in the process that Unger says the City of Memphis approached them with the idea of being part of the “Big Ask.”  But the attachment of a soccer stadium to a request for funding for various other projects has caused some in the local talk radio scene to express concern that the soccer stadium might not get built, as it could theoretically be at the bottom of the to-do list.  Fortunately, Unger doesn’t believe that will be an issue and points to good relationships with the other teams in town as proof.

“We have a great relationship with the Grizzlies and a great one with the U of M.  Those have been in place for a long time.  The U of M plays baseball games here {at AutoZone Park}, we’ve had Grizzlies night at Redbirds games, we’ve had preseason soccer games against the U of M.  So those relationships and the working together have been in place and the ‘Big Ask’ is the belief of everybody that a rising tide lifts all ships.  If we look at the success of the ‘Big Ask’ it’s not going to be who gets the most or who gets what.  It is each one of us needs the other ones to be successful.”

Funnily enough, the proposed stadium for Memphis 901 FC would go next to one of the other stadium projects (Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium) and would be replacing the Mid-South Coliseum.  The Coliseum opened in 1964 and was formerly home to several sports teams: the University of Memphis college basketball team (who moved out in 1991), a minor league hockey team called the Memphis Riverkings (who moved out in 2000) and believe it or not, soccer as well with the Memphis Rogues playing the 1979-1980 NASL indoor season there and then the Memphis Americans competing in the old MISL from 1981 to 1984.  But the venue closed in 2006 and has stood empty ever since, becoming both an eyesore and an annoyance for fans attempting to attend events next door at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.

The new soccer stadium would see 901 FC move out of their downtown baseball park, and adjacent to the larger Liberty Stadium. Satellite Imagery: Google

The timing of the announcement was interesting as well, for two very different reasons.  First, it came just days before Memphis 901 FC hosted their first-ever home playoff game, a 3-1 win over Detroit City that drew 6,010 people which was the second largest crowd of the season at the time (it was surpassed the following weekend when 901 FC played host to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in front of 6,063). 

“I wish I could say it was planned that way but it was purely coincidental,” Unger said with a chuckle.  “But it was good timing from having this announcement which parlayed into a postseason appearance which turned out to be the first postseason win by the club.  We had poster boards up on the concourse for people to come and take a look at the renderings.  Which was fascinating too for people who had maybe heard about it to see it as a reality.”

But the timing of the announcement was also interesting because it came on the heels of unconfirmed reports surfacing out of Albuquerque and El Paso (two cities that, like Memphis, have USL Championship teams that share their stadium with a baseball team) that the USL is requiring all teams in the Championship to have a stadium plan in place by 2026 when the US hosts the World Cup.  When asked about those rumors, Unger was diplomatic.  

“Look, I go back to the conversations we’ve had with USL over the years, and I can’t speak for Albuquerque or El Paso or other teams in another market that may not have their own stadium or shares a stadium…we have been adamant with them that we have always been looking for this pathway.  For us, we’re worried about ourselves and our goal is 2025 to open up the new stadium and by 2026 we’ll be riding the wave of the World Cup.  That’s our pathway.  Those conversations with other teams I don’t know.  But we have communicated that with them that we want to be in our own soccer stadium by 2025.”  

Unger says that the timetable for all of this getting started is just around the corner.

“Our plan is that we’ve got to be ready.  If everything gets approved in early 2023 the goal would be to have shovels in the ground by fall of 2023.  We’d have to start moving dirt since it’s probably a 16-to-18-month process to get the stadium up and be ready to go for a spring of 2025 kick.”

So, what will this stadium actually be like?  How big will it be, how many seats will it have, and what events will be held there?  Unger didn’t hesitate to dive in.  

“Our goal is to build a world class facility.  Right now, we’re looking at between 7,500 and 8,500 fixed seats in there with a total capacity of 10,000 with standing areas and group areas.  And it’s going to be expandable up to 15,000 with the way that it’s been designed which allows for another grandstand to be built.  We’ll have the full mix of premium pitch-side seats, suites, and club areas for season ticket holders.”

“It’s going to be one of the best USL facilities out there.  We’ve been to Louisville and we’ve been to a lot of other places.  And the good news is we get a chance to find out what was good and what they say they could have done differently.  We get to take the best and improve upon it.”

When asked if having a soccer specific stadium is going to lead to them making bids to host other soccer events outside of Memphis 901 FC games, Unger was emphatic.  

“Yes.  Yes. Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  We see that there’s soccer opportunities out there.  There are opportunities to host the Gold Cup.  There’s opportunities to host NCAA College Cup events.  This will allow us to tap into those types of events because the facility is going to be the right size for it.  Big enough to have good crowds but not so big that it’ll feel cavernous.”  

“The goal is to have three or four locker rooms,” continued Unger.  “That allows for tournaments to be held here like NCAA conference tournaments.  That allows for women’s professional soccer to be a possibility as well where you have dedicated locker rooms for both teams.  The press box is going to be built out so that we can accommodate international friendlies.  Everything is going to be done so that we can accommodate all the different events we contemplate doing.”

New stadiums also invariably tend to draw the interest of US Soccer (of the 46 home games during the previous World Cup cycle, the USMNT played 10 of those games in soccer-specific stadiums that had been opened within the prior two years) and when it was brought up that Memphis has a couple of big-time connections to US Soccer with President Cindy Parlow Cone being a Memphian and the 901 FC Sporting Director being Tim Howard, Unger laughs and says he doesn’t know when the USMNT or USWNT might be making their first appearance in Memphis.  

“That’s a question that I can’t answer.  We would love to be able to tap into those resources inside there.  I know there’s always a lot of different things in play to make those types of events happen.  But look, that’s the type of aspirations that we have.  We want to bring the biggest things we can potentially bring here.  We’ll start our lobbying on those events once we get a stadium going to see what we can bring here and how soon we can do it.”

And perhaps most obviously, having a home stadium for 901 FC will not only help attract marquee soccer events, but make everything easier on the club itself.  

“The scheduling right now is tough.  We’re scheduling two different sports and we have some really tight windows to turn the field around.  And look, we know the limitations of soccer on a baseball field.  That’s across the board whether we’ve done it or other teams have done it.  It’s happened in St. Louis and San Francisco for some national team games and some international games.  There’s a challenge to it.  It’s not ideal.  So, this is going to give us a great surface and it can become a home for the soccer fans.”

Building a true home

Unger is also hopeful that the new stadium will help provide a boost in attendance.  901 FC attendance was a robust 6,664 fans per game over the course of 20 games played at AutoZone Park prior to the COVID shutdown but attendance has fallen off since then with the team averaging 4,075 fans per game over 16 games in 2021 and then just 3,886 fans per game over the course of 19 games in 2022.  

“I think it does overall help.  Now, it will be the bright shiny new toy but I think what will happen is there will be people that it will become their home.  I think it enhances the overall feeling.  It sort of has that European feel to it where it’s in a neighborhood.  It becomes part of the community where there’s houses nearby and people can walk through a neighborhood on the way to a soccer match.  And I’ll use AutoZone Park because I think it’s a great example, but we still get calls to this day from other communities that are looking to build facilities in downtown areas.”

“Now, I wasn’t here for it but I have talked to a lot of people familiar with the history of it and people thought it was crazy to build AutoZone Park in downtown Memphis because there was nothing down here.  And after AutoZone Park goes up downtown began to be transformed.  The Grizzlies moved in and it’s a documented story that Michael Heisley came by AutoZone Park while on a visit to Memphis, saw what was going on here with the Redbirds and said ‘We can do this.’  And that was one of the catalysts of moving the Grizzlies to Memphis.”

“It’s hard to project what that halo effect is around it but when you look at the investment that’s going into this project and into the neighborhood around there with Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium and a potential soccer stadium and a youth sports complex it’s transformational for that neighborhood.  It’s going to change it and I think it’s going to change it for the better.”

Academy and women’s team in the plans

Two other benefits that Unger has touted the potential for this new stadium to bring is an academy for Memphis 901 FC as well as being able to field a women’s team which he hopes are made possible due to the addition of two extra soccer field across the road from the planned stadium site.  

“As part of the site there’s going to be a couple of soccer fields in there.  Part of our agreement with the City of Memphis on the stadium is that area will become 901 FC’s training home which is great because we can use the stadium and we can use the locker rooms as one stop with everything contained on one site.  This opens up the ability to look at an academy and look at a women’s team.  Right now, we just don’t have that opportunity.  We’ve just been kind of meandering around and nomads on training grounds and going to different places.  That’s limited us because when the first team doesn’t have a regular place to train, how are we going to find a place for an academy team to train five nights a week?”

When pressed for specifics on the women’s soccer team, whether it would possibly be an NWSL team or perhaps a lower division, Unger was again diplomatic with his answer.  

“Our belief on this is that once we can get this done this opens up the opportunity for women’s professional soccer in Memphis.  If we can make that a reality it will be the first women’s professional sport in the state of Tennessee which we’re excited about.  I think this opens up those conversations and those discussions as to what that may look like.  That’s something we’re going to continue to explore as we go through this process and I think that’s an exciting element of this, that we’ll get to break some new ground within the state and deliver the first women’s professional team.”

But of course, all of this hinges on whether the state of Tennessee will actually approve the funding for these various projects, though it’s worth noting that the day before the story broke in the Commercial Appeal about Mayor Jim Strickland presenting his “Big Ask,” the state approved $500 million in bonds for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans to build a new $2.2 billion stadium in Nashville.  Should the state say no, that could leave Memphis 901 FC in a tough spot but Unger doesn’t necessarily see it that way.  

“There is no Plan B.  This has been a lot of work to get to this point.  Right now, we’re not focusing on a Plan B because we think this is the best plan when you look at the site, the location, all the things that go with it including a revamped Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.  We’re all-in on this site and we’re all-in on this concept and we’re not going to distract ourselves by looking at other options and we are putting everything we have into making this a reality.”

World Soccer Talk reached out to the Mayor’s office with a request for comment but at the time of writing have received no response

Scroll to Top