By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
Giving new meaning to the movie phrase “If you build it, they will come,” Birmingham will host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament for Division I men’s basketball in 2023 and the Division I women’s basketball Southern Regional in 2025. Each will be played at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, which is in the midst of major renovations.
“For far too long, we’ve had to watch other cities, particularly in the South, host the men’s and women’s Division I tournaments,” Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said during Wednesday afternoon press conference just beyond the BJCC construction zone. “But with the renovation you see behind me and the expansion of the BJCC, it is fair to say we are firmly back in the game and committed to competing for top-tier sporting and entertainment events right here in Birmingham.”
The NCAA’s announcement marks the first time for the NCAA Tournament to be in Birmingham since 2008 for men’s basketball. The BJCC hosted the NCAA Women’s Mideast Regional in 2001.
The decision to return March Madness to Birmingham follows a collaborative effort by the city of Birmingham, BJCC, Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, Knight Eady and the Southeastern Conference.
“This is a perfect example of cooperation between public and private partners to elevate Birmingham’s position as a great place to host world-class events like March Madness,” Woodfin said.
“The comprehensive renovation and expansion of Legacy Arena makes Birmingham the ideal home to once again host NCAA tournament basketball,” said Tad Snider, executive director and CEO of the BJCC Authority. “The improvements focus on fan experience, premium seating options, improved food and beverage options as well as new team and artist areas, with back-of-house operational improvements to support our event partners. Fans will watch the games from upgraded seats, modern hospitality suites and club areas with views to the event floor, and the teams will enjoy locker and coaches rooms on par with any other venue in the country. We look forward to hosting the NCAA in Alabama’s largest and newly renovated Legacy Arena.”
The BJCC’s Legacy Arena closed in April for a $123 million renovation and expansion. It is expected to reopen in 2022.
“Bringing NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball to Birmingham has been part of Knight Eady’s vision since we started the company,” said David Knight, president of Operations for Knight Eady. “Our team is thrilled to work alongside our team of partners in Birmingham to host two of the NCAA’s most prestigious tournaments. We look forward to working together to create an exceptional event experience for the teams, sponsors and fans who will visit our great city.”
A bid for an NCAA tournament requires a member institution or conference to serve as host. The Southeastern Conference, headquartered in Birmingham, will serve in that role.
“The Southeastern Conference is proud to serve as the host and join in the collaborative effort that will bring the NCAA Basketball Tournament to Birmingham,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a release. “March is annually one of the most exciting months on the college sports calendar, and Birmingham will be in the nation’s focus in 2023 and 2025. Our thanks to the city of Birmingham, the BJCC, the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau and Knight Eady for joining the SEC in this successful effort.”
Snider said the 47-year-old building was built so that it could be adapted for today’s customer expectations.
“We’re not a beer and hot dog culture like we were in the ‘70s,” he said. “You want to be able to walk in and get a wide sampling of different kinds of food and your favorite craft beer and sit in a very comfortable seat. And, if you want, sit in a club area and maybe talk to your friends and not even watch the show. It’s a different experience as a consumer today than it was in 1976, so we’re able to reset all that.”
Faye Oates is a member of the mayor’s sports and entertainment committee. This is a big accomplishment for the city, she said.
“The remodel gives us the flexibility to accommodate big events such as this, such as the NCAA,” she said. “It’s a huge win for us.
“The sole reason we were not in the discussions anymore was because of facilities,” Oates continued. “Events, sporting events particularly, are not just what’s happening on the court or on the field. You’ve got to accommodate media, which requires lots of technology, lots of bandwidth. You’ve got to accommodate teams, you’ve got to accommodate hospitality, press. It is a huge number of different groups you have to accommodate.”