Birmingham’s best bet for major league sports

John Harbert
John Harbert

Today’s guest columnist is John Harbert.

Birmingham is one of only a few large metros in the U.S. with no major league sports team. (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, or MLS)

We have the baseball Barons, the basketball Squadron, and now the football USFL Stallions.

But none will likely lead us to major league sports.

Our best hope is MLS Soccer

While those teams are wonderful for our city, to go along with the World Games and UAB football’s continued rise, the biggest potential for Birmingham to finally join the ranks of city’s with Major League sports teams comes from Birmingham Legion FC, the city’s homegrown and locally owned USL Championship soccer franchise.

After a successful 2021 campaign, placing 5th league wide in the standings, the Legion will kick off its fourth season with a move to the new Protective Stadium to better accommodate the growing fan base now and to better position the organization for future growth.

Look what happened to Atlanta United FC

A great example of this growth and the potential for soccer in the Deep South was highlighted when Atlanta United FC came to town recently for a preseason exhibition. Atlanta United plays in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and packs the house week in and week out just like their football brethren the Falcons.

For the 2021 season, Atlanta United ranked 9th globally in average attendance, similar to European giants such as Manchester City and Athletico Madrid. This incredible fan support was organic and shows what the future could hold for Birmingham Legion FC.

Birmingham could follow the lead of FC Cincinnati 

Atlanta United’s road to the big leagues was straightforward, with a billionaire owner in Arthur Blank making it happen, but other franchises, such as FC Cincinnati, have forged paths that may be a better fit for Birmingham. After a number of years of on the field success and incredible fan support, FC Cincinnati, along with some key new investors, was able to make the jump to the MLS. Legion FC is already in a great position in a great league but this dream of major league sports in Birmingham is not farfetched.

Birmingham Legion’s incredible success

While Legion FC aspires to these big dreams, it is already succeeding in so many ways. The team has had strong on the field success, being the only expansion team in the USL Championship to make the playoffs in each of its first three seasons, with marked improvement each season. Off of the pitch, Legion has been highly involved in the community with active partnerships with the United Way, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Children’s Harbor, amongst many others. The team has additionally partnered with local youth soccer clubs and established a developmental team to showcase the best players in Alabama against other USL-backed “D-League” teams.

Importantly, the team is locally owned and the players who come to play for Birmingham, whether they be from Brazil or Ghana, Japan or Montgomery, all live in Birmingham year-round and make it their home. This buy-in from ownership and management to players and staff is one of the many things that makes Legion FC so stirring.

Heading in to this season, there is a lot to be excited about for Legion FC. In addition to the new home field at Protective Stadium, Legion is also finalizing plans for a world class training facility in Shelby County, further expanding the franchise’s investment in the metro area. Importantly, Legion’s home opener on March 13th against the powerhouse Tampa Bay Rowdies will be nationally televised on ESPN2, providing more great coverage of our wonderful city.

The opportunity is in front us now: to throw all of our enthusiastic support behind this compelling team and build something special in Birmingham. With enough support and enough success, Birmingham Legion FC can be the next big thing for our city, uniting fans across the metro in the pursuit of a Major League sports franchise. So come on out to a match and Hammer Down!

John Harbert was born and raised in Birmingham and following high school spent 10 years away in Charlottesville, New York, London and Atlanta before returning home. In addition to his job as a Director of Investments in the U.S. Real Estate Group of Harbert Management Corporation, he serves on the Boards of Birmingham Legion FC, Harbert Realty Services, Hand in Paw, Red Mountain Theatre Company and the McWane Center. John and his wife Kelly are expecting their first child in April.

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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  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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2 thoughts on “Birmingham’s best bet for major league sports”

  1. I have been saying this for years!!! Birmingham Legion FC are the city’s best shot for a pro team. I grew up in Alabama and have since moved all around the country. Use this momentum, World Games and The Legion to prove to the world a team and city will receive support. And make sure they pack it out for the match on ESPN2. I’m supporting from afar.

  2. So long as Alabama and Auburn sports dominate the state, there won’t ever be a professional sports team in Birmingham. Prove me wrong, Birmingham.

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