By Solomon Crenshaw
For the Birmingham Times
The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) football program did more than generate excitement on the field when it returned in 2017—it sparked economic-development opportunities for area governments, businesses, and other entities.
UAB Athletics Director Mark Ingram said the reinstatement of football has played a role in the city’s revitalization: “It’s sort of recharged the interest in the downtown stadium. That took a partnership of a lot of people: the county, the city, the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC), the private sector. A lot of folks were involved in making it happen.
“I think the reinstatement of football is what stoked that fire again to make that a reality.”
UAB’s football program was discontinued after the 2014 season, but a groundswell of support from students, fans, and local government and businesses brought it back. The Blazers’ return has been successful both on the field and at the ticket booth, and that success is even greater this year as Head Coach Bill Clark’s team is set to play in the Conference USA championship game on Dec. 1 against the winner of the East Division.
Before the football program was reinstated, UAB President Ray Watts asked Ingram to assess the school’s athletic facilities. The athletic director determined that each sport needed at least some enhancement to its facilities. Those enhancements came with heightened buy-in from multiple parties, including fans.
“In the 2014 season, we sold 1,400 season tickets,” Ingram said. “Last year, we sold 10,800, and we’re at about that same number this year. People have bought in. Whether a person makes a gift, buys a ticket or a T-shirt, they’re supporting us in some way.”
Ingram spoke to the ownership group of what is now the Birmingham Legion professional soccer team shortly before the football program was reinstated.
“We got together initially to see if there might be some synergies together, where we could partner on facilities we could use for football and they could use for soccer,” he said. “They weren’t far enough down the road for us to be able to do anything like that.”
A year later, those discussions began anew, and the Legion is set to play its first season in 2019, using an expanded BBVA Compass Field at UAB. The facility is on the western edge of the UAB campus, just beyond the University Boulevard off ramp of Interstate 65 North. The upgrades include a 20-foot-by-40-foot video board and a 4,000-seat grandstand to increase seating capacity to more than 5,000.
“It’s gonna be great for our two teams, plus it’s going to bring [tens of thousands] of their fans to our campus every year,” Ingram said. “The advantage for our campus is getting all those people exposed to how beautiful it is and how it’s evolved since the last time they [may have visited]. To see all the progress that’s been made on campus will add to enrollment growth, as well.”