By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
It’s more than a game.
That is the standard description of the McDonald’s Magic City Classic presented by Coca-Cola. The annual fall gridiron meeting at Legion Field between Alabama State and Alabama A&M universities is the marquee event of at least a week of activity in and around Birmingham.
There are marching bands of the two schools. There is a parade, a pep rally, dozens of concerts and social events, a gameday crowd of 40,000 to 60,000 inside Legion Field and tailgating around the “Old Gray Lady” that annually mushrooms into Birmingham’s 100th neighborhood of tents and RVs.
But that happens when things are normal, which hasn’t been the case since a pandemic spanned the globe. This 79th Magic City Classic will be like none of the prior 78.
Official pregame festivities are limited to the Classic Kickoff, a free virtual event featuring a DJ, entertainment, giveaways and fun. It’s set to begin at 7 p.m. Friday, April 16.
The traditional midafternoon kickoff of the game on April 17 has been pushed back to primetime as the Classic will be broadcast live nationally at 6:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
And there is no tailgating for this edition of the Classic. Furthermore, there is no shuttle system or remote parking as fans will instead park on-site.
So with all these changes, a question lingers. Is this still the Magic City Classic?
Several officials involved in the event say yes.
“It is,” said Faye Oates, commissioner of the Sports & Entertainment office of Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin. “We’re going to have the football teams and, contrary to popular belief, we have the Classic because we play football. The teams will play and I think it is going to be a sense of normalcy in this non-normal time.”
Admitting she had no data to support her theory, Oates said she thinks people are going to celebrate.
“If they are not being able to get into the game because of the capacity limit, I don’t think that will stop folks from celebrating in some form or fashion,” she said. “It’s going to be uplifting for fans who can at least talk trash about their team beating your team. I think that there’s something to be said about that. That is a good thing.”
Charles McClelland, commissioner of the Southwestern Athletic Conference that includes Alabama State and Alabama A&M, said even during a pandemic, the Classic is still more than a game.
“Even if you take out some of the elements that have traditionally surrounded the Magic City Classic, it’s still a cultural event,” he said. “It just will be in a COVID environment.”
Woodfin said the Birmingham Park and Recreation Board decided against allowing tailgating. Likewise, there are no pregame or postgame events.
“(With) the combination of all of those things, everybody’s on notice that the coronavirus still exists,” the Birmingham mayor said. “All of us want to have fun. All of us are fatigued, COVID fatigued, but we still know people are catching the coronavirus and we equally know everybody has not had access to the vaccination.
“The last thing we want is for an event to be a superspreader that spreads back into the community where people live,” he continued. “Any COVID protocols need to be strictly and fully enforced.”
Gene Hallman oversees Bruno Event Team’s management of the Alabama Sports Council, which has coordinated the Magic City Classic since 2000. He said the biggest thing ASC can do to enhance the spring Classic is to create an environment in which people are comfortable, with health safety protocols that are handled appropriately.
That includes waiting lines, cashless transactions and social distancing in the seating arrangement inside Legion Field.
“We’re not gonna let our guard down,” Hallman said. “Just because case positives are falling, we’re not gonna let our guard down and give people a feeling of discomfort because then they won’t come. We know that a lot of the traditional elements of the Classic are missing. But what we can do is create a really safe environment to watch this rivalry continue on and watch some good football.”
Hallman said the Alabama Sports Council raises private sector sponsorships, sells tickets, pays all team expenses and then backs out those expenses to split the net proceeds between the schools.
“That’s gone up every year, with the exception of one or two years, since we started the Alabama Sports Council running the Classic,” the president and CEO of the Bruno Event Team said. “When we took it over, the preceding year – the best we could tell – the schools made about $25,000 to $30,000 apiece. That number was over $650,000 each – each – last year.”
ASU National Alumni Association President Erick Wright, a Birmingham native, said he’s excited that the Classic is set to be played. He is optimistic that fans will back their teams.
“It is my hope that even though (there will be a) drop-off in terms of fans due to the pandemic and the limited seating, that fans from both institutions will still come out and support this effort,” Wright said. “After all, it’s still about the students at both institutions, including Alabama State University, and we are there to support the student athletes in this game.”
David Galbaugh is vice president of sports sales and marketing at the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau. Despite restrictions, he said people are still going to come in from across the country. The Alabama Sports Council said tickets have been purchased from people in at least 18 states.
“If you look at those storied institutions and how people love this game, there’s a game to be played and I think people are going to have an appetite to get out and see it,” he said. “It’s gonna look different, the amount of days that they stay. (In previous years) they would come in early. There’d be parades; there’d be parties. A lot of that’s not going to happen … but still there’s an appetite to come in and watch these teams play.
“The good news is, we’re going to have the event in October as well,” Galbaugh said. “We’ll have basically one-and-a-half Magic City Classics this year.”
While the spring Classic will be different from others, the police presence will be like those before.
“Although the dynamics of events and culture surrounding the Magic City Classic may be different, the Birmingham Police Department goal remains the same,” said Chief Patrick Smith. “That’s the safety of our community members and visitors alike. The Birmingham Police Department operational plan is strictly focused on providing a safe, family friendly environment for patrons attending the Magic City Classic.
“We will continue to educate the public of the latest CDC guidelines and city ordinances,” the chief continued. “Our efforts are not to over-police issues such as gatherings; however, we will address quality-of-life issues that are a violation of city ordinances and state law.”
As tailgating is not against the law, violations of the “no tailgating” rule will be handled by Legion Field staff.