ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is Scott Crawford . If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.
Chattanooga used to be a sleepy, smelly, backward southern industrial town.
Chattanooga has made one shrewd decision after another.
Chattanooga built a great Riverwalk, an amazing Aquarium, and it saved its historic train station. (Chattanooga Choo Choo)
Actually, Birmingham had a much more magnificent train station—but we tore ours down. (Terminal Station)
Chattanooga also built a FREE downtown electric shuttle system, and amazed the world a few years ago when it rolled out a lightning-fast public owned fiber network which accelerated Chattanooga to the forefront of cutting-edge technology.
But I’m going to take us in a different direction.
I’m going to talk about professional sports.
Birmingham is at a cross roads and we must get it right.
Birmingham’s bleak history with professional sports
Have you ever wondered why Birmingham seems to be behind the curve when it comes to supporting professional sports franchises? We’ve cycled through so many teams and leagues; sometimes it’s hard to keep up.
The beloved Barracudas of the Canadian Football League are no more.
The darling Thunderbolts of the XFL are now defunct.
Who remembers the early 1990’s basketball team, the Birmingham Bandits? Don’t worry. Even Wikipedia has a hard time with that one.
Why have all of these teams failed? One word: pride.
Birmingham is a community filled with champions.
We support the Crimson Tide of Tuscaloosa and the Tigers of Auburn. And despite that neither of these teams play in the Magic City, how could anyone reasonably expect a population of rabid football fans to revel in Nick Saban’s “process” on a Saturday afternoon, and then on Sunday fully embrace Vince McMahon’s pitiful attempt to create an alternative to the NFL in a mostly empty stadium?
We demand perfection from our college football teams, and many times we get it. We want teams that we can be proud to support, organizations that represent who we are as a city. But so far, not many of our sports franchises have captured the spirit of Birmingham.
A future where our city has another professional sports team to call its own isn’t doomed though. The success of the Birmingham Barons demonstrates that our community will rally around forward-thinking organizations that provide a great experience for their patrons. According to a 2015 American City Business Journal study, Birmingham has the capacity to support another professional sports franchise.
The only question now: what sport?
Another One Bites the Dust
There are five major sports in the United States: football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer. All but one of these has no chance of surviving at the professional level in our community. Let’s work through this list together, shall we?
Football: Auburn and Alabama already fill this slot. An NFL team, or any other second tier football franchise for that matter, has no chance to ever pull our loyalty away from the Tigers or the Tide. #Truth.
Baseball: We have the Barons to cheer for all summer long. I’m sure ownership is more than thrilled with their record-breaking attendance over the last several years. Why would we need a second baseball team? #WeWouldNot.
Basketball: Joining the NBA is just too expensive and there aren’t any viable second level league options. The franchise fee for a new NBA team can fall anywhere between $300 million to $600 million. And that’s just getting your foot in the door. #ItsAHeavyDoor
Hockey: There is a lot of talk about bringing back the Birmingham Bulls. But here’s the thing: there isn’t a long-term support structure for hockey in Birmingham. Kids around here don’t grow up playing the game. And while the Bulls had an on-again off-again fling with the city in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s, interest in the team eventually faded and ownership cashed out to a California investment group. Ice and Birmingham don’t mix. #JustAskSpann
Yes, the other football: soccer. Let me paint you a picture:
Soccer’s popularity is growing exponentially in our country. In the 2013 ESPN Sports Poll Annual Report, a study found that for the first time Major League Soccer was as popular as Major League Baseball for children aged 12-17.
And what about stats more local to Alabama? According to participation data from US Youth Soccer and the Alabama Soccer Association, the number of children playing soccer in the state of Alabama was up 56% from 2013 to 2016. This growth is quite evident in Birmingham. Just go to any of our local youth clubs’ soccer fields on a weekend. Soccer kids are everywhere.
Furthermore, the Magic City loves to watch the beautiful game on television. According to Neilson ratings during the 2014 World Cup, Birmingham was ranked the 35th highest media market in the US for the global tournament. We were ahead of other cities like Louisville (KY), Indianapolis (IN), Nashville (TN), San Antonio (TX), St. Louis (MO), and Detroit (MI). All of these cities either already have viable professional soccer teams or will be debuting a professional franchise in the next year or two.
Soccer is going to be the sport of the future in Birmingham.
What Chattanooga knows that Birmingham doesn’t
Do you know what’s great about modern soccer in the USA? Professional teams can grow organically from grass root support. Look at teams like Indy Eleven of the NASL or the Philadelphia Union of MLS. These franchises ascended to the professional ranks mainly due to a groundswell of support in their communities.
Hell, Chattanooga, TN has fielded a soccer team for over 10 years in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). Think Single A Baseball as an equivalent. Not only is their team successful on the field, but they also averaged just under 5,000 fans per home game in 2015 and 2016, with their largest crowd topping north of 18,000 fans. Nothing to sneeze at for a metropolitan area half the size of Birmingham.
Get to know our Birmingham Hammers
We too have an NPSL franchise. A visionary group of soccer fans created the Birmingham Hammers in 2013, and the team’s popularity has been growing ever since.
Make the summer of 2017 the year you check out your first match.
What? You think Chattanooga can really outpace us here? Have some, <ahem!>, PRIDE in your city.
The way I see it, Birmingham doesn’t have to be last in the nation when it comes to supporting a professional soccer club. We have the ingredients in place to make this happen. With the right mix of vision, support, and investment, the Birmingham Hammers can be that other sports franchise our city has been waiting for.
Chattanooga has its eye on the future.
It’s painful that we’ve been outsmarted by Nashville, Charlotte, and Austin.
Let’s not allow Chattanooga to pass us too.
It’s time we unite behind the game of soccer in our community. Our children and grandchildren will be glad that we did.
Scott Crawford is a hospital Revenue Cycle Director by day and Birmingham soccer blogger by night. He is the founder and the main content creator for the Birmingham Backline. You can find his soccer-related work at bhambackline.com.
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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.