Was hosting the World Games a mistake?

Birmingham World Games 2022
2022 World Games, Birmingham

By David Sher

Did Birmingham screw up?

When the World Games ended last month, it looked like Birmingham was the big winner.

It appeared Birmingham had pulled off the World Games without a hitch.

Lots of positive PR.

Big pats on the back by political and business leaders.

Then BAM!

The negative headlines hit.

World Games $14 million shortfall.”

The deficit is actually greater–$15,656,173 to be exact, with the possibility that some vendors, many of them local, may not get paid. (As of this writing, there is an effort to make up for the shortfall)

This brings back memories three years ago when the Birmingham Iron and the American Football League went bankrupt and many vendors were stiffed.

Now there’s the expected negative chatter on social media dumping on Birmingham.

Some commenters are reinforcing the historical negatives that Birmingham can’t seem to get it right.

Was hosting World Games a mistake?

The answer is, it depends.

It depends on our reaction and our response.

When the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce visited Charlotte in 2004 to learn about Charlotte’s successes, we were told about the gamble made by Charlotte’s elected officials in the 1970’s to invest huge amounts of money into Charlotte’s Airport. It took a while for the airport to catch on and many of the politicians were voted out of office. However, because of that gamble, Charlotte became a major airport hub that contributed significantly to Charlotte’s growth and prosperity.

Many of our community leaders have complained for years that our unwillingness to take risks is why Birmingham hasn’t progressed as expected.

Most business owners understand that if you want to be successful, you must make some strategic gambles.

Sometimes these gambles pay off—sometimes they don’t. The goal is to cut losses as quickly as possible and to build on the successes.

Birmingham debated for years whether to build a new football stadium. Finally, in 2021, Protective Stadium opened. Protective now hosts home games for the UAB Blazers football, Birmingham Legion FC, as well as the annual Birmingham Bowl. The 2021 Birmingham Bowl was a sellout. Every third year the stadium hosts the AHSAA “Super Seven” high school football championship.

The USFL played most of its 2022 games at the stadium and Protective hosted the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2022 World Games. Garth Brooks performed at a wildly successful performance at Protective and great concerts will likely follow.

None of this would have happened if Birmingham hadn’t taken the risk to build a new stadium.

Taking advantage of this learning experience

Our World Games were a great success! We’ve never done anything like this before and we pulled it off.

Birmingham is a city with a population of less than 200,000–with a metro of 1.1 million people. The 2025 World Games will be played in Chengdu, China, a city with more than 16 million people.

Ron Froehlich, a Birmingham resident, who has worked on every World Game since 1981 and global World Games president for 25 years, pointed out that the World Games depend on national government support. Froehlich said he is not surprised Birmingham struggled financially. Germany, England, and all other countries funded their host cities. Birmingham raised $30 million from sponsors–ten times more than the previous World Game cities combined, but received zero federal dollars.

The World Games opened our eyes to the progress Birmingham has made. Venues like Protective Stadium, the newly beautifully remodeled Legacy Arena, the amazing CrossPlex; the creative new City Walk BHAM, located underneath the brightly lighted I-59/20; and the newly lit historic Sloss Furnaces received a lighting facelift.

Birmingham leaders collaborated with one another…politicians, corporations, and universities.

Jefferson County and Birmingham along with 15 other cities sent officers, patrol cars and equipment. Even the State of Alabama shared 91 state troopers.

We’ve discussed regionalism for years—but this was regionalism in action.

Now’s not the time for negativism.

Let’s grab our big win and run with it.

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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Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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28 thoughts on “Was hosting the World Games a mistake?”

  1. David, the positive PR enjoyed by BHM and and the metro area is immeasurable. The civic pride created by TWG2022 is beyond simple “good feelings.” It will resonate when we discuss what we can do in the future. This event should prove to us that with regional cooperation, so much is possible.

  2. I went to the city walk with my family for the WG. What a nightmare! No vendors in the shaded walk way; instead they were placed out in the blazing hot sun for no reason. No drink vendors or local brewery stands that we could find. Police overkill – there were more cops then guests. I hope $15M is worth some PR. The reality is the WG were mis-managed from top to bottom which is ridiculous because there were years to plan this out better.

  3. I agree that Birmingham needs to “not be afraid to succeed!” Calculated risks go with the territory. Win some – lose some…like what happened to NASHVILLE: many years ago , they did something unthinkable- the City/County CONSOLIDATED its Public Services! WOW! And, it went from there to a HUGE SUCCESS STORY today! They bet on ONE GREAT CITY.
    How about our City/County/leaders roll the dice out on that issue again? It’s all about YOUNG PEOPLE WHO MUST HAVE OPEN SPACES AND GOOD JOBS AND A FUTURE! If we design our METRO for THEM, they will come! Let them VOTE!

  4. David, Your column was fair. We do have to take risks. Many ventures will fail, but we have had some good successes, which you pointed out.

  5. David:

    Very thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.

    We HAVE to try. It’s ok to fall short, but we had to give it a go. Short-term, there are many issues to deal with, and I’m sure that many folks are working on it. (Tropical rains and heat didn’t help matters!)

    Long-term, my guess is that the benefits will be enormous. Seed were planted in ways we won’t understand for a generation. I look forward to seeing the investments pay off!

  6. The World Games lost money, but it may have been worth it. Here is an analogy. If I buy a ticket to see a movie, I lose money and do not get any money back. But I am okay with it because I get to see the movie. I guess my point is that not every expenditure is made for the purpose of making more money.

  7. “Our World Games were a great success!” Really? The Games weren’t a success for the numerous vendors that haven’t been paid. Many of whom are individually owed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

  8. There are so many unique wonderful things about Birmingham that go unrecognized. Yes, this city & community has issues but, what other city, community, state or municipality is without its own issues. I have deep historical roots in both Nashville & Charlotte as well as Birmingham. Each of these cities has dealt with problems & handles them in different ways. Some successfully & some not so successfully. What they do have over Birmingham is unification that alters the internal divisions(bickering) we are still experiencing. (Mountain Brook vs. Homewood vs. Vestavia vs. Hoover, etc. etc. etc.)

    What I have learned from my enjoyment & associations with all 3 municipalities is that it takes combined, focused effort, & hard work to achieve success. Oh yes, and that thing called compromise. For a municipality as fractioned as Birmingham has been since the 60’s to be able to recruit & host the World Games is an accomplishment to be proud of. Was it done flawlessly….NO! I do wish there had been a stronger marketing program focused on promotion throughout the Southeast & federal financial assistance. But, this one can certainly go into the success column.

    For all the individual municipalities to be able to come together in a unified effort is remarkable. The logistics of coordinating, police, medical, volunteerism, safety, & services between all the communities used in the activities is something to be proud of! Neither Nashville or Charlotte would have had the challenges of multiple municipalities. They are both city/county forms of government. The city of Charlotte is comprised of a City Council of only 7. Five (5) districts & two (2) at large members. Their economic recruiting efforts includes all 5 counties surrounding Mecklenburg so if one county doesn’t have what a company needs, they show them the other counties.

    When Nashville tried to put a train system down West End Ave., the local voters came out in mass numbers & soundly defeated the referendum. It was a very bad idea, poorly planned, & would have been obsolete before it was completed. When they wanted to cut down the cherry trees for an NFL sports event, the local voters again came out in mass numbers & the trees were NOT cut down. Nashville also has built one of the best alternative road programs in the US. Residents familiar with the secondary roads can stay off the interstate system. However, they have serious traffic problems! There are 4 interstates that dissect the city bringing good & not so good problems, Green Hills is a disaster to get around, their Mayor was impeached for sexual relations with her security protector, & they envy our wonderfully engineered downtown area. Their buildings abut the streets & sidewalks while ours is laid on an engineering grid with wonderful deep setbacks.

    Yes, we have issues & always will! But, everyone who visits me here is amazed by how lovely our city is. I hear constantly from friends that the reality of this area is grossly misrepresented. As long as we remain a conglomerate of individual municipalities, there will not be a unification of focused efforts that would ultimately benefit us all. Maybe our younger leaders will figure out a way to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We have a wealth of potential to work with.

    1. AMEN! But, wonder if the long-serving Mayors , Police Chiefs and Public Servants in our (90+) separately incorporated municipalities would be willing to “swallow the sword”
      – give-up their jobs- to help create that ONE GREAT CITY?

      1. Not very likely! Historical inertia is incredibly difficult to overcome. The Games DID prove, however, that more regional cooperation is possible.

      2. They will have no sword to swallow! They will remain completely employed with a more efficient condition in which to get their desired and important jobs done, and even better

        1. Good with me, but an important economic /cost savings consideration to establish ONE GREAT CITY will likely be the elimination of “duplicate jobs/services “.

    2. Thanks for your comment. Since we moved to Nashville in 2016, I continue to follow life in Birmingham through this blog and other online publications. I’ve occasionally drawn comparisons here between Music City and the Magic City, my wife’s home town and where we lived for 27 years. Knowing David’s interest in promoting regionalism in the metro Birmingham area, my comments – like yours – focus on the benefits of Nashville’s metro form of government.

      If we had not been traveling out of the country during the World Games, we definitely would have returned to Birmingham to attend a few events. Because we didn’t, and because we don’t live there any more, I certainly won’t criticize the Games’ debt or try to answer David’s hindsight question. I will venture one comment, however, based on his enthusiastic applause for the regional cooperation the Games created. In that spirit of cooperation, I hope the Games’ organizers will reach out to the surrounding cities and towns for financial assistance at this time of need. (Would I be incorrect in stating that a sizable – maybe majority – of the Games attendees came from the more well-to-do OTM communities?) Since David lives in Vestavia Hills, and we lived there our entire 27 years in the Birmingham area, VH might be the perfect city to get the ball rolling by pitching in with a generous contribution.

    3. You’re right about the streets and the downtown grid in Birmingham. One of the nice things about a young city is that when it’s downtown was laid out, the grid concept had caught on. This sets Birmingham apart from Charleston,SC and Savannah, GA and the bigger cities of Atlanta, GA and St. Louis,MO where the streets are narrow, curved, and confusing.

  9. The world games are on a slightly smaller scale than the Olympics but the facts were already out there regarding the costs of carrying out these types of events: “The average overrun is 172%, according to Oxford University. From bridges and dams to roads and reservoirs, no other category of megaproject has such a miserable record. No city in the modern era has ever profited from hosting the Olympics, except for Los Angeles in 1984. ” There are many stories on the economics of hosting the Olympic games and all the pitfalls that those cities have faced. And, Birmingham didn’t have to build extra venues for the World Games so that helped, however finding enough people to attend, stay over and spend money could never have made it a profitable event. Our population base in the region just couldn’t make that happen. Getting folks to choose this large event as a vacation destination post Covid was also not going to happen. So now with $15 million dollars needed to get out from under the debt, decisions will have to be made regarding the lasting value of this big idea. Better call Saul.

  10. Well said David. As a long time resident I’m encouraged to see Birmingham making progress on many fronts.

  11. Listen, those who love to bit*h are going to bit*h, no matter what anyone does. 26 years later, there are people that say Atlanta hosting the Summer Olympics was a mistake. I am here to tell the world it was the BEST THING ATLANTA EVERY DID. The negative folks are fast to bring up the bombing. We were in Centennial Olympic Park when the explosion happened. Yes, it was horrific. It was felt by everyone, BUT Atlanta REFUSED to be defined by that incident. We picked ourselves up, took care of our injured, mourned deeply for those we lost. Then, in their honor, went forward to have a spectacular Olympic Games, knowing this is what they wanted to see done. I made friends during that time, from all over the world, that I still have to this very day, grateful for each and every one of them. One one of the few days off I had during that time, I had the honor of attending am Olympic Soccer Game with my friend’s mother. Before that evening, we really did not know that much about each other, her son and became friends in college. I learned a lot from her that night and learned more going forward. I admire and respect her greatly. Eric Rudolph set off a bomb in Birmingham too. I will never forget that morning, both hearing and feeling that blast, nor will I ever forget desperately trying to reach my partner, who’s route to his office took him right by the site of the blast, and being so very grateful that he was OK. We deeply mourned losing Officer Sande Sanderson – a friend of mine. We prayed and did everything necessary to help Emily Lyons heal from her serious injuries. We also picked our collective selves up, dusted our selves off and moved forward. Like Atlanta, we REFUSED to allow the disgusting acts of a narrow minded, hate filled creature define who we are. Thing is, Birmingham has been bouncing back my entire life. Birmingham is never going to allow anyone or anything keep it down, nor should it.
    Did Birmingham make a mistake hosting The World Games? So there is no misunderstanding, I will give you the long answer – NOT NO BUT HELL NO!!!!!! In 20 years people will look back and say Birmingham’s hosting The World Games was a turning point for the city. The successes from the Games will pave the way for many great things in Birmingham’s future. Remember, FINALLY, Birmingham City Hall, today has a Mayor and City Counsel who are VISIONARY, REVOLUTIONARY, AND PROGRESSIVE. They want the city to thrive. I believe it is on track to thrive in a very big way.
    It is a sad =, but true fact that no matter how great the outcomes are, they are going to be those who can only bit*h, bit*h, and bit*h. Once you notice that it’s their same tired routine, just say OK and KEEP ON KEEPING ON!!!

  12. For the financial difficulty: 1. Place the local vendors at the top of the list. They hire local people. They keep running, their employees retain their jobs, Birmingham’s tax base remains viable. 2. For the rest, pay it off as best as can, as able. What are they going to do, come repo the Games. Fat chance of that.
    3. The renewed venues, the new Protective Stadium, Regions Park, the newly revived USFL, the positive outcome of the games are going to pay off. It is going to take more than 6 to 8 weeks though. 4. Best thing I can say is come Holidays, send the bigger vendors outside of Birmingham this, Money’s short, Time’s they be hard, Be damn glad you are getting as Christmas Card – and a vow that the bill will get paid as quick as possible. 5. Look to Atlanta, London, Los Angeles, Athens. How were they able to pay off the debt from their hosting The Olympic Games??? Their leaders will be glad to share their experiences. A wonderful person to reach out to for advice/guidance is Billy Payne. It’s not time to sweat that much yet. The Summer of 2022 has been an investment in the Birmingham of tomorrow. It;ll all payoff in due time.

    1. I too no longer live in Birmingham. In 2007 I stopped sharing time between Birmingham and Atlanta and made the full move to Atlanta and I’ve lived here ever since then so I I too keep up with to this side and I also keep up with what’s going on because of my friends over there and so it’s it’s still I keep up and I’m just happy to see he’s growing and doing great things.

  13. One thing that Birmingham in Atlanta on both have in common and this is also the same thing with with other cities as well we have suburbanism. They forget in the suburbs that without the main city the suburbs are not going to live either and so that’s something that they need to remind them of vestavia is a little bit better than most about stepping up but Hoover is one of the worst. I agree that the suburbs need to pitch in and do their part and I think they will but you know like I said too we don’t this it’s going to take time to pay off it doesn’t have to pay off right now if you want to but that’s just not how it realistically works most of the time it didn’t here in Atlanta with the Olympics.

    1. This is true and for both it is a problem. Two points here, Atlanta’s Olympics were shared right in Birmingham with soccer games as I recall.
      Also, Atlanta is now know to be one of the worst sprawled cities in the USA. Birmingham’s is bad enough as daily demonstrated by 280 south. There quite simply is far more sprawl than any city should have, and the needed parallel roadways for better distribution of traffic are missing. It is always worsened by widening the main roadway, and true damage will be witness if that hideous idea of an overhead expressway returns.
      Atlanta’s sprawl and traffic that is so very dangerous, I will only look for excuses no to go there, and ever for one to go there. That airport is stressed out as well. Who ever wants a place like that?

      World Games did a fairly good job of bringing Birmingham out of hiding, showing it to be a better than than previously known as trying its best to hide it wicked history. Those days are mostly gone, and that is another ‘pro’ for Birmingham: survival and progress. And that has been tough. Birmingham is good and can get better, now seeming to have found possibilities even those that might involve risk. We must be bold and take well considered thoughtful risks, like World Games – and more.

      Another subject for later, Birmingham does a poor job of advertising itself.

      1. Roy, I have to clap back a bit about Atlanta. I lived over 43 years in Birmingham. However, I live in Atlanta now. Metro population here is closing in on 6,500,000 people. When you have that many people you either have an area like Manhattan – which don’t get me wrong is a good place – or you have some sprawl. As for the traffic. Yes, this is the Los Angeles of the East. However, I tend to judge economic and employment successes by the traffic. Yes, rush hour here is painful, especially when the sky goes to cry, which it did big-time this afternoon. Keep in mind that Atlanta is a Transportation Mecca, has been since it’s very earliest days, showing it in the original name of the city – Terminus. I grew up with the old joke, Doesn’t matter if you are going to Heaven or Hell, you have to go through Atlanta to get there. 70+ years ago when Delta was choosing a home, Birmingham was thought to be the best place, until Mayor Hartsfield sat down with Delta decision makers and explained Bull Connor. Delta came to Atlanta. As Baby Boomers start to, for lack of a better term, fade into the background more, and younger generations that only know of that terrible creature Connor from learning in History to never allow it to happen again, will the city really take off. Birmingham is right on the verge of that lift off to new heights and take it’s rightful place as a leading US city. But you gotta do the work or it ain’t gonna happen. It’s as easy and as hard as that. And I hate to say it, but a major roadblock/hurdle is going to be the State of Alabama and the terrifying number of people who don’t give a flip about our Democracy. 54% of GOP advocate a 2nd US Civil War. If anything could destroy future dreams everywhere, it’s that. NO ONE WINS IF THAT HAPPENS. I’m all about Free Speech, but this crap I’m hearing out of rural Alabama is terrifying. Someone needs to remind them that without a viable and strong Birmingham, without a strong Tuscaloosa, without a strong Huntsville and Mobile and Montgomery, the State dies or at the very least becomes like a lymph wet dish rag. This would hurt the entire country, which needs a strong Alabama and for it’s cities to be strong too. I’m just saying.

  14. I agree the overall “look” of WG was good for Bham, but who was really watching? You really think it’s going to increase tourism? You really think the world is buying plane tickets right now to visit the Civil Rights Museum? No.

    When you stiff vendors, especially local ones, you ensure they will never support you for another large event. Other larger cities have other means to take a hit and pay back shortfalls but Birmingham really doesn’t have those options.

    Again, when you screw your local vendors and you can’t pay Thompson Tractor ~$600k, no one will support you.

    Who do you think will end up paying for that. That’s right, the Birmingham people will pay out of their own pockets.

    “Oh but it made us look good and now the world thinks differently of us”… No they don’t. No one is moving to or traveling to Bham because they saw the WG.

  15. Yeah. Sure. All useless and bad! NOT SO! Who expects a jumping jack rabbit for any place like you suggest.

    Do nothing and you go backwards into the deep and dark. Lets look for the positive benefits, that Birmingham builds upon those thing move forward, and even if slowly, still forward.

    BTW.. I do hope the proposed ‘forum’ – center on a full block or two right across from 16th Street Baptist Church will happen soon. That is intended to have international and positive attention. AND the design concept has been done by world renowned Sir Norman Foster. Look him up. He is not a nobody. Look up his design. It is magnificent. Yes world, there of things worthy of your attention happening in Birmingham.

    1. You’re right. Growing is something that can never be allowed to stop. Stop means risk of stagnation and complacency. Time has come for Birmingham to show the country that they are worthy of a world class city and are ready to make it happen. Make no mistake it’s never going to be just handed to them. You have to E A R N IT!!!

  16. YES! Bham should have attempted the WG in spite of the odds…but…

    Why did Bham’s WG miss its budget and lose money? Not enough local, national and International visitors…not my opinion…the WG’s excuse. Why were there not enough visitors? COVID? Maybe. Too much media-covered crime? Maybe…

    Governor Ivey (after the fact) decides to help Bham handle endemic shootings and interpersonal crime. Great timing, Mee Maw!


    1. I remember back to 1986, when Kay Ivey was about the only state elected official that was able to form words that became sentences that made sense. Back then, She placed right vs wrong above party BS. Looking back at that time when Bill Baxley and Charlie Graddick were at each other’s throats over a primary runoff election. Back then, both were still in the Democratic Party, in the Dixiecrat wing. As we all recall, in 1994, the conservative / Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party went full on Republican. Again, Kay Ivey was one of the few sane voices.
      But that was then and this is now. Today, Kay Ivey has fallen in complete lockstep with the rest of the GOP ilk. Before, we had Law & Order, and Kay Ivey’s word was something one could take to the bank. Today, Kay changes stories more often than she changes undies, just like the rest of the GOP since Mango Mussolini systematically destroyed the GOP, converting it into one tall tale and one yarn after another. Hell, even the lowest of the low used car salesmen who sell way out at the far end of the metro area, dont lie like this bunch now does. If it comes down to it, if the State continues to refuse to send Birmingham the check they promised, if it were me, I would not think twice about taking legal action via the courts.

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