Playing without fans in AutoZone Park no help to Memphis 901 FC, Redbirds

Redbirds/Memphis 901 FC principal owner Peter Freund hoping at least portions of season can be saved

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 20, 2020 7:48 PM CT | Published: March 20, 2020 2:31 PM CT

Memphis 901 FC/Memphis Redbirds principal owner Peter Freund is hoping there comes a point this summer when the schedule at AutoZone Park is crowded, and the stands are, too.

But increasingly, the Redbirds’ Triple-A season and Memphis 901 FC’s USL season appear to be in jeopardy.

Strickland: ‘Come together to stay apart’

“We’re not taking that approach yet,” Freund said of the possibility there is no baseball and soccer played at AutoZone Park because of the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re trying to get ready.”

But “getting ready” is, at this point, more of an abstract concept than it is a practical, day-by-day to-do list.

The United Soccer League, following Major League Soccer (MLS), just extended its suspension of the season to May 10. Major League Baseball shut down the last two weeks of spring training and announced a delay to the start of the season, but the return of baseball now appears months away, if it comes at all.

The reality now: Both the minor league baseball season and the USL season are huge question marks.

The Redbirds/Memphis 901 FC facilities are closed, employees are working from home, and AutoZone Park is shut down tight.

Trying to sound an optimistic note, Freund said: “Baseball could be a shortened season. The USL could be an extended season with a compacted schedule, since most (previously scheduled) games are on Saturdays.”

There are also differences between the USL and minor league baseball that could impact how everything might play out.

“The soccer players are ours, under our contract,” Freund said. “We’re relying on Major League Baseball for the (Redbirds) players.”

But there is an advantage with baseball.

“Triple-A baseball, given our partnership with the St. Louis Cardinals, is a staple of the Memphis community,” said Freund, who is on executive committees for both minor league baseball and the USL. “Minor League Baseball has been in Memphis for more than a hundred years. It’s not going away.

“Worst-case scenario with the USL, I don’t know what that looks like if we don’t play this year.”

At the top level of pro sports, playing games without fans might allow a sooner return. If the NBA resumes its season – and that seems more doubtful with each passing day – in all probability it would so without fans in arenas.

Looking way ahead, the National Football League would retain a level of viability if it played without fans in stadiums. The NFL is America’s most popular televised sport and national sponsorships could remain in place.

But the NFL’s world is not Memphis 901 FC’s and the Redbirds’ world.

“It would be the equivalent to not playing at all,” Freund said of holding games without fans in AutoZone Park. “We’re in the live-event business. We don’t have TV dollars or national sponsorships. In some ways, we’re no different than the restaurant down the street.”

Meaning, the minor league sports franchises need both product – the games – and customers to consume the product.

That may or may not come to pass this summer.

And until further notice, Freund is like everyone else in business: in a professional purgatory trying to make plans, contingency plans, and contingency plans to contingency plans.

“A lot of Zoom conference calls,” he said. “There’s no playbook for this.” 


Peter Freund Memphis 901 FC Memphis Redbirds coronavirus AutoZone Park
Don Wade

Don Wade

Don Wade has been a Memphis journalist since 1998 and he has won awards for both his sports and news/feature writing. He is originally from Kansas City and is married with three sons.


Want to comment on our stories? Or read the comments of others? Join the conversation by subscribing now. Only subscribers can view or add comments. Our commenting policy can be viewed here