ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a more prosperous Birmingham.
Today’s guest blogger is Darin White. If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.
On March 9th full-fledged, professional soccer kicks off in Birmingham for the first time ever. The global game, that is played in 209 countries around the world, is coming to Birmingham.
Our team, Legion FC, is ripe for success for several reasons. Like so many other U.S. cities, the popularity of the beautiful game is surging in popularity in Birmingham. Nationally professional soccer has seen a 27% increase in interest in the last five years according to Nielsen and among millennials (adults aged 18-34), soccer is second in popularity ahead of basketball, baseball and hockey according to Gallup.
Two hours to our east we have witnessed the popularity of professional soccer explode in the city of Atlanta. Two years ago, Atlanta United F.C. began play in the heart of a major SEC college football market. High-level soccer executives, including MLS commissioner Don Garber, openly questioned the wisdom of starting a team in Atlanta.
In the short 24 months since the team began play they have shattered the MLS single-season attendance record with a total of 901,033 people attending a game last year. According to the team, the 2018 season average of 53,002 per game is 17th highest in the world in line with major European powerhouse teams like AC Milan, Liverpool and Newcastle.
Optimism for Professional Soccer in Birmingham
There are numerous indicators that imply that Birmingham is a viable professional soccer market. Executives with U.S. Soccer and MLS are closely watching how things unfold here in our city over the next few years with the hope that we follow the same pattern as Atlanta.
Birmingham consistently produces some of the strongest TV ratings in the nation for MLS Cup and other international matches. In 2014, Birmingham posted the highest ratings in the nation for the World Cup qualifying match between the United States and Mexico. A year later Birmingham drew the largest ever crowd for a standalone women’s national team match in the southeast when the U.S. Women’s National team came to town and played at Legion Field. In terms of soccer participation, Alabama is one of the fastest growing states for youth soccer in the nation.
Birmingham Legion FC will be playing in the USL Championship which is the second tier of professional soccer in the U.S. just below Major League Soccer.
Our team will play in the Eastern Conference with 17 other teams from as far north as Ottawa, Ontario and as far south as Tampa, Florida. Memphis, Nashville and Atlanta will be in our conference which will make for some heated rivalry matches. Legion FC will play home and away against everyone in the conference for a total of 34 games with the top 10 teams making the playoffs. All of the matches will be aired on ESPN+ and home matches will be played at the newly renovated BBVA Compass Field on the campus of UAB.
Bridging Cultural & Racial Barriers
If Birmingham does indeed support the Legion FC and the team becomes an important part of the fabric of our city, it will benefit our community in numerous ways. Professional soccer fan bases tend to be cultural melting pots representing people from all over the world. Barriers that exist in every other sphere of life suddenly disappear amongst like-minded soccer fans.
There is an inclusive feel to the game that encourages fans to value differences and appreciate that everyone in the fan base brings unique experiences, perspectives and ideas. An Atlanta United fan recently noted, “(At games) you hear different languages being spoken, so you feel that international sense of the game. It’s amazing … My seat neighbors are Latino, African and European in addition to the traditional, homegrown American.”
Because of this, soccer tends to play a unifying role amongst divergent groups of people in a unique way. Everyone belongs and feels welcome. The American value of equality reigns supreme.
Anthony Schiavo, Director of Football for Peace, who partnered with Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, at an event in the Middle East where they used soccer to bring Jewish and Arab communities together, said that soccer has the unique power to “save lives from misunderstanding that causes division. It saves lives from hate, violence and conflict. It saves lives from being devastated by prejudice. It saves people from feeling isolated and that makes football (soccer) really, really powerful.”
Prince William echoed these thoughts saying that soccer has the power to teach us to “play together and learn to confront pre-conception, stereotypes and negative ideologies.”
Our team, Legion FC, is a direct reflection of these ideas with players from around the globe including Japan, Germany, England, Ghana, U.S., France, Canada and Benin working together to achieve a common goal. In a very real way, Legion FC offers the opportunity for meaningful social change in Birmingham. Our team gives us a platform to build relationships across cultural and racial boundaries.
Twenty years from now we just might all look back and realize that Legion FC has become “the most American of American sports” in our state.
Darin White is the executive director for the Center for Sports Analytics at Samford University and founding director of the sports marketing program in the Brock School of Business. Follow him on Twitter @Sports_Biz_Prof
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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).
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