Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For the Birmingham Times
You don’t have to tell Scott Myers that Birmingham has had its ups and downs when it comes to professional sports teams.
The executive director of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame near Birmingham’s Uptown District has personal knowledge of teams that have struggled to survive in the Magic City.
Myers has been involved with the Birmingham Fire (football), the Birmingham Bulls second version (hockey), and the Birmingham Steeldogs (arena football). Each of those teams, beginning in the mid-1990s to the first decade of the new century, has faded into the annals of Birmingham sports history.
“We have been down this road before,” he said.
But a new wave of sports franchises is on the horizon, and Myers and others see the possibility of a bright future. The Birmingham Iron of the Alliance of American Football (AAF) kick off in February, the Birmingham Legion of the United Soccer League begins play in spring 2019, and the National Basketball Association’s (NBA’s) New Orleans Pelicans franchise recently announced that its official minor league (G-League) team will be based in Birmingham.
Those teams join the long-standing Birmingham Barons, the double-A affiliate of the Major League Baseball (MLB) Chicago White Sox; the Magic City Surge of the American Basketball Association; and the Birmingham Bulls, the Southern Professional Hockey League team that plays at the Pelham Civic Center.
“There are some good models in place,” Meyers said. “Obviously, the Birmingham Barons have set the tone for many years now, [running] an excellent franchise the Logan family and [General Manager] Jonathan Nelson. I think there are opportunities to model some of that and to take some things they’ve done and put them into practice [with] other sports as well.”
Gene Hallman, president and CEO of the Bruno Event Team, a Birmingham-based sports-event-management company, said he’s not surprised that the Magic City is a promising stage for major sports events.
“We’re one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, at 1.1 million, without a major league franchise at the Big Five level: the National Football League (NFL), Major League Soccer (MLS), National Hockey League (NHL), MLB, and the NBA,” he said. “We’re in the top three or so in population without one of those five. That bodes well for us to then support a wide variety at the levels of these teams, as well as these events.”
Laying the Groundwork
Many say the groundwork for Birmingham’s burgeoning sports scene could be tied to three events of the past decade: the opening of the Birmingham CrossPlex in 2011, the return of the Birmingham Barons from Hoover to downtown Birmingham in 2013, and the resurrection of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) football program in 2017.
Faye Oates is former director of CrossPlex, which features a state-of-the-art indoor track and competition swimming pool. She now works in the administration of Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, helping to develop the city’s sports picture.
“The mayor absolutely sees the importance of it, which is why he established the Office of Sports and Entertainment,” Oates said. “We’re very excited about that. Now we can have a definitive and a choreographed effort to go after more and more sports and entertainment events for this area.”
The CrossPlex has hosted some type of college national championship event each of the past several years. It is slated to host the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Indoor Track and Field Championships in March 2019. This event will lure countless teams from across the nation to the facility, which sits where the Alabama State Fairgrounds used to be.
Sports and entertainment go hand in hand, say many in the Birmingham sports industry.
“When it comes to our operation, we fully concentrate on what we do,” said Barons GM Nelson. “We’re always looking to step up our game. We’re always looking to freshen the experiences and make them the best when [fans] come out to Regions Field. From promotions to overall experiences, that means ticket sales, concessions and the type of concessions we offer. We’re always looking to raise the bar for everything we do every season.”
Attorney Donald Jackson established The Sports Group, a firm that specializes in sports law; he also is an adjunct associate professor of sports law at the Cumberland School of Law on the campus of Samford University. Jackson said he sees several substantial sports opportunities downtown with the surge in redevelopment; the building of a $174 million, 55,000-seat football stadium; and efforts to bring more residents into the city center.
“Obviously, in a few years the new stadium will be [downtown],” he said of the structure that will be home to UAB football, the Birmingham Bowl, and other events. “These things are sort of happening at the same time, and they’ve created some significant sports opportunities for the city.
“Although the city may not be large enough to have the population base to support a major-league sport, at least on the minor-league level there are some significant opportunities. Plus, the city is in the middle of a significant growth period.”
Hallman, whose Bruno Event Team promotes and organizes many sports events across central Alabama, said the growth of sports entertainment parallels growth in the Birmingham region. He points out about the resurgence of retail in and development downtown, where more are living: “A lot of positive things are happening in the metropolitan area from an economic-development standpoint with Amazon and DC BLOX,” he said.
Online-retail giant Amazon is bringing a fulfillment center to Bessemer, and information technology (IT) service management company DC BLOX has announced plans to open a data center in Birmingham’s North Titusville neighborhood.
“There’s substantial growth in [Birmingham’s] sports-entertainment business, but it mirrors what’s happening in the community as a whole,” said Hallman.
Optimistic but Guarded
Former Birmingham Barons owner Art Clarkson has twice led the charge for the Birmingham Bulls hockey team, whose latest incarnation plays at the Pelham Civic Center. Clarkson, who has a 38-year track record as part of the Birmingham sports scene, said he is “optimistic” but “guarded” when it comes to the latest additions.
“I wish all of them the greatest success in the world, but I’m going to be very blunt and very practical,” he said. “I’m not going to lose my credibility and say they’re going to be terrific.”
Citing previous failures in the city, Clarkson’s greatest concern is about the new pro football team, the Birmingham Iron. The list of sports franchises that once called Birmingham home is very long and includes teams like the Americans, Vulcans, Stallions, Steeldogs, and Fire—and those are just football. Iron President Tom Ward said most of those prior failings were with the leagues, not the Birmingham franchises.
“In some cases, rogue owners tried to have the highest payrolls and crippled other owners,” Ward said. “We’re a single-entity-owned league. We’re not going to be competing on a payroll, [as was the case] in some of these previous iterations of professional football.
“You’re only as strong as your weakest link. If a couple of owners go bankrupt, the whole league is crippled. The [AAF] owns all the teams, so we’re all on equal footing. You’re not gonna have any weak sister, so to speak.”
The Iron’s strength is that Birmingham is football country, Ward said.
“Birmingham is the highest-rated college TV market in the country, number one out of every TV market in the country—and it has been for 16 consecutive years—so we know we’re in the right spot right here,” he said. “I’m sure there will be skeptics. Anytime you have something new, there will be skeptics, but we think we’ve got the formula here.”