City of Memphis expects new Liberty Bowl renovation proposal next week

Mark Giannotto
Memphis Commercial Appeal

The city of Memphis has commissioned a proposal from a major architectural firm as part of its plans to create a revamped Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in the coming years, a city official confirmed Monday.

Nick Walker, the director of the city’s division of parks and neighborhoods, told the Commercial Appeal that architects and certain stadium stakeholders did a walkthrough of the facility ahead of the Memphis-UTSA football game less than two weeks ago. 

The city expects to receive a quote on a new master plan for a reimagined Liberty Bowl next week. 

“And then,” Walker said, “we figure out what we can afford to do.”

Fans pre-game at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium before the Memphis Tigers play the Mississippi State Bulldogs Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.

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The future of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium has once again come under scrutiny in recent weeks in light of conference realignment that left Memphis stranded in the American Athletic Conference for the time being as like-minded institutions such as Cincinnati, Houston and UCF were chosen to join the Big 12. 

All three schools have an on-campus stadium that was either built or significantly renovated within the past decade.

The Big 12 has indicated it is open to adding more schools to the league in the future, particularly once Texas and Oklahoma officially depart for the SEC, and Memphis and Boise State are reportedly considered the favorites to be included in the next round of Big 12 expansion.

There is concern, though, that the state of the Liberty Bowl could hinder those efforts.

The University of Memphis previously announced “major renovations” to the Liberty Bowl were in the works, and a master plan proposal is the next step in that process.

Deputy athletics director Jeff Crane said the athletic department is hoping it can release specific concepts and renderings by the end of the calendar year. Crane confirmed that the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium project and plans for a student-athlete success center on the university's Park Avenue campus are currently the top two fundraising priorities within the department. 

“We got some heavy lifting in front of us but we think there’s some huge opportunities," Crane said, "so we want to take advantage of it while we can."

Walker and Crane declined to disclose the architectural firm being used since there is no contract signed with the city, but Walker did note the company is well known in the field, with previous projects that included NFL and college stadiums.     

Walker said stadium stakeholders gave the architectural firm their priorities, such as enhanced premium seating and a new press box. But Walker once again cautioned that it was too early to project exactly what the project consists of and what those renovations might cost since it’s still unclear what parts of their wish list are affordable. 

“We really don’t want to pin ourselves down to a specific number right now," Crane added, "because we want to throw everything on the table, see what comes out and pare it down from there if need be.”

The cost of the project, Walker added, will need to be shared by Memphis donors, the city, the state of Tennessee and federal money. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said in an interview on 92.9 FM ESPN on Monday that “a lion’s share” of the cost will need to come from the the university and its donors. He also did not rule out the architectural firm determining that a new stadium would be the best path forward.

Strickland, though, cited Cincinnati's $86 million renovation of on-campus Nippert Stadium that was completed in 2015 as an example. In that case, the university  financed the project by securing buyers for 18 private suites and hundreds of club seats in advance, plus $10 million in private donations.

Nov. 2, 2019 - Football fans fill Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium for Memphis versus SMU.

Memphis is the primary tenant of the Liberty Bowl, although the Southern Heritage Classic and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl game are two major events held there annually.

Walker also emphasized this isn’t about injecting money into the Liberty Bowl that would be used for an on-campus stadium, noting that a conservative estimate for an on-campus stadium at Memphis is “$300 million and 160 acres the university doesn’t have,” in addition to day-to-day operational costs the city currently provides for the Liberty Bowl.

“I don’t want there to be a perception that there’s a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ that isn’t there,” Walker said.

Simmons Bank announced last week that it was in advanced negotiations to be the Liberty Bowl's title sponsor and the facility will eventually be renamed Simmons Bank Memorial Stadium. The money from that contract is expected to be used to help the city with upkeep moving forward, in addition to future renovations that are in their preliminary stages.

You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at mgiannotto@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto