James Clark, owner of Eel Etc. on Beale Street, is more of a college hoops fan than he is a football fan. He was clueless about what ESPN’s College GameDay is, let alone what it will mean for his business to have America’s top pregame program broadcasting live just down the street.
“Everybody I talk to says it’s going to be big,” said Clark, who specializes in headwear and designer clothes. “I got stuff to sell them, I just need ‘em to come this far down the street.”
It’s amazing that something that almost didn’t happen is now all coming together so fast. It’s no stretch to say that a missed field goal set this chain of events in motion. It was a botched kick that gave the University of Memphis Tigers a narrow 42-41 win over the University of Tulsa.
“If we lost that game, (College GameDay anchor) Rece Davis had already come out and said they weren’t coming,” said Jon Shivers of the Beale Street Management Association. “They waited until late Saturday before even deciding they were going to come to Memphis to take a look.”
Things moved quickly from there. An ESPN team landed on Sunday, met with Memphis officials on Beale Street Monday morning, Shivers said.
“Literally, we were on the street (Monday morning) at 8 o’clock, hashing out details,” Shivers said. “They had a brainstorm and then they came back and said ‘We’re in.’”
Hey Memphis … THE WAIT IS OVER! WE’RE COMING TO YOUR CITY!@SMU_Football vs. @MemphisFB. See you Saturday!
(📍 @HomeDepot) pic.twitter.com/tlV6ANSxz4
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) October 28, 2019
The show, which runs from 8-11 a.m., and will broadcast from the intersection of B.B. King (Third) and Beale, with the hosts facing the eastern end of Beale Street. Later that night, the Tigers will take on Southern Methodist University in a high-stakes game for the American Athletic Conference.
“It is truly amazing and historic that ESPN’s College GameDay is coming to Memphis,” said Laird Veatch, Director of Athletics, in a statement. “This weekend is a celebration for all of Memphis. It doesn’t get any better than this. Go Tigers!”
On Twitter, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland issued the customary challenge to Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson:
I’m game for the challenge @Johnson4Dallas ! If you’re in town for the game, I would love to eat the world’s best bbq with you while we watch my @memphisfb smoke your @smu_football team. #GTG
— Mayor Jim Strickland (@MayorMemphis) October 28, 2019
Shivers said he’d just come off vacation into the firestorm. He looked visibly tired as he paused from sorting logistics to speak with TSD reporters.
“Man, everything goes into this – from parking to security to the logistics of working with ESPN,” he said. “Staging, lighting, generators, bleachers . . . . there’s a whole bunch of stuff that goes into it.”
It certainly won’t be business as usual on Beale, which usually hasn’t even hit the snooze button by 8 a.m. on Saturday morning. But with “The Pit” – the audience area – opening as early as 5:30 a.m., downtown will be bustling with people and activity.
Back at Eel Etc., Clark is planning to open early to take advantage – now that he knows about it.
“Man, I’m gonna have it looking like a festival out here,” said Clark, describing an outdoor display he’s planning. “I gotta do it. If they put the moon up there, my job is to figure out how to sell a ticket to the moon – from right here.”
Next door, at the Withers Museum and Gallery, they’re still deciding what adjustments to make, if any. It’s probably a safe assumption that most football fans won’t be taking in a tour of historic African American photography on a game day.
“All the bars are on (the West end) of Beale. They want to sit down, they want to watch the game,” said Jazmin Withers, director of marketing and communications at the gallery. “We do get a special crowd. Of course, we get the traffic from people parking at Fourth and Beale, but we are a specialized museum and gallery. So it takes a special type of guest.”
Tater Red’s is in that West Beale Street area. Usually, the souvenir and gift shop opens at 10 a.m. but Saturday, it’ll be 6 a.m. And owner Leo “Tater Red” Allred is even planning to offer breakfast items.
“I hope I can find a parking space,” Allred said, referring to the reserved space he pays for but hopes is still there Saturday morning. “I would like to see Memphis in May numbers. But it’s only going to go until like noon, and then it’s going to dissipate really fast because they’re all gonna go to the stadium.
“So we’re hoping to have a really good day by noon,” he said. “And then the rest of day is, you know, gravy.”
Shivers struggled to think of a comparison event. Crowds are big on Beale for Memphis in May, but it’s not shoulder-to-shoulder at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning either. And lest we forget: it is a television production.
“Closest I can think of was when we did Good Morning America back in (2008) when Justin Timberlake came out with a new album,” Shivers said. “We did it once before. But other than that, this is like nothing we’ve done before – this early in the morning, with millions of viewers nationally and then having thousands of people on the street that early in the morning, ready to go, ready to see the broadcast.
“I’m tired already,” Shivers said. “But we’re gonna make it.”