Can you feel it? Everything is different.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Tennessee became a professional sports state in the past month. The Nashville Predators and Memphis Grizzlies seized the sporting consciousness with their unprecedented — not to mention thrilling — postseason runs.
Both franchises took advantage of the NFL lockout and the absence of Tennessee Titans offseason headlines to make some of their own. And two-thirds of the state looked to the NHL and NBA.
History shows that once professional sports take root, there’s no going back. College sports will still have a corner of the world, people of Knoxville, but now we have more in common with places like Michigan and Washington than Alabama or Kentucky.
Let others revel in that old college try. Tennessee is about the best of the best. It’s about people at the peak of their careers — guys like Shea Weber, who can tie a game at Anaheim in the final minute of regulation with a slapshot; or Mike Conley Jr., who can knock down a long 3-pointer that leads to a triple overtime thriller and captures the nation’s attention for an evening.
Until now, the Predators and Grizzlies have been little more than curiosities across the continent. Hardcore fans and media in places such as New York, Toronto and Los Angeles could condescend about the teams in untraditional markets trying to find a place with the big boys. Now they have to recognize the talent of the players, the passion of the fans and the fact that this state is a player, as it were.
It’s one thing to have franchises. It’s another thing altogether for those franchises to thrive as the Predators and Grizzlies have.
Suddenly, it’s not going to be important to nearly as many people if UT’s football team wins fewer than 10 games. There’s another, higher-profile season coming on the ice or on the court.
Sure, if Derek Dooley gets things rolling there in the East, many people will dust off their orange clothing from one end of the state to the other. Bandwagons never really go out of style in any state, any sport, anywhere. But the number of people who live and die with every Tyler Bray pass this fall will be smaller than it was a year ago.
Mike Fisher. Marc Gasol. Pekka Rinne. Shane Battier. These are the names that matter now. They rank right up there with Chris Johnson, Cortland Finnegan and now Jake Locker.
And guess what? They are not guaranteed to go away after four years — or fewer — as is the case with college athletes. These guys provide plenty of reason to cheer and offer the potential that their exploits will continue for a decade.
The Titans captured everyone’s attention almost immediately when, in 1999, they made a run to the Super Bowl in their first season at a new stadium, with new colors and a new nickname.
The Predators and Grizzlies made their fans wait and suffer. Now the payoff has arrived.
The beauty of professional sports is that not everyone is a winner.
With money comes expectations — and when those expectations are met (or at least approached), a greater sense of euphoria and anticipation for the next season soon follow. Those multiply over time.
We all remember May 2010 for the flood that washed away significant parts of the state. Now we’ll look back on May 2011 as the time when a sea of change swept through the local sports landscape.