Whenever you hear sports talk in Alabama, it’s about “Alabama or Auburn.” But what if sports talk in the city could also include a major (or another minor) league team?
Birmingham is the largest city in Alabama, but it would still be a very small market for a pro sports team. However, some cities that have “Big Four” sports teams – football, basketball, baseball, and hockey – like Buffalo and Raleigh are roughly the same size as Birmingham.
That said, despite what some may argue, it’s still very unlikely for Birmingham to become home to a “Big Four” sports team.
Hockey, which is among the world’s fast-growing sports, is unlikely since most Alabamians could not name a hockey player other than Wayne Gretzky and would not bother to learn how to pronounce mostly Eastern Europeans’ names. Right?
Actually that’s not entirely true. Birmingham has an interesting history in professional hockey. In the early 1970s, the Birmingham Bulls were a major league hockey team under the World Hockey Association, a professional hockey league that failed to compete with the NHL. Attendances averaged over 7,000 fans a game throughout three seasons during the late 70s, so the Bulls were actually popular back then. Unfortunately the league wasn’t sustainable and collapsed.
With the popularity of the Bulls decades ago, former Barons’ owner, Art Clarkson, flirted with the idea of bringing professional hockey back to Birmingham in 1991. He succeeded in relocating a minor league team, the new Birmingham Bulls, under the East Coast Hockey League to the BJCC. The team lasted nine seasons with solid attendance numbers except for during their final season — pretty impressive a hockey team in Birmingham.
As a child, I remember having great experiences going to a few Bulls games with my family. After watching and playing — yes I can play ice hockey — countless hockey games during my college years in Rochester, N.Y., I would definitely go to more Bulls games again if the team came back. But there hasn’t been a “Mighty Ducks” movie in almost a decade and the clamor for professional hockey in Alabama seems low.
So the NHL’s out.
The next candidate is the MLB. It would be interesting to see part of Braves Country try to convert from cheering on the Braves to cheering on a new expansion team. However, baseball isn’t as popular as football in Alabama. Sure, many would attend the games because it’s closer than Atlanta, but it would be difficult overcome the existing passion for the well-established Braves. Not to mention, Birmingham already has a successful minor league team in the Barons and just built a beautiful new minor league ball park. So the MLB is out.
The NFL in Alabama talk seems much more realistic than the NHL and the MLB. College football is in Birmingham’s blood, and it’s not hard to imagine the city having an NFL team. The city is also much larger than Green Bay, which is home to one of the league’s most successful teams. Alabamians, myself included, blow huge sums of money each year to attend Alabama and Auburn football games, but that may not be enough to attract an NFL team.
All “Big Four” sports teams depend profoundly on corporate dollars. It’s hard to imagine enough corporate dollars to support the NFL, while continuing to contribute the same amount to Alabama and Auburn sports. Birmingham, for instance, has the state’s sole Fortune 500 company, Regions Financial. However, Regions recently committed $500,000 a year for to secure the naming rights of the new Barons’ home. That’s a lot of money, to be sure, but not the type of money that could woo a major sports team.
Another challenge is providing a stadium. Legion Field is crumbling, so that’s not even a remote possibility. Although the city is financially sound, Jefferson County’s recent bankruptcy makes it difficult to raise enough public money to entice a potential owner for a team. The fact is that the majority of money spent on new stadiums comes from the public. In order to finance a new stadium, the city would need to pass tax increases or partner with Over the Mountain communities to expand the tax base. Even if those challenges could be overcome, an NFL team would likley struggle to make a place in the heart of “Roll Tide” and “War Eagle” country.
And so people continue to argue that an NBA team would be very successful in Birmingham. Sure, Birmingham is the football capital of the South, but we have a big secret. We love basketball, too. On ESPN, regular-season NBA games in 2012 drew a 2.4 rating in Birmingham. That was good for second in the country behind Memphis and way above the 1.4 national average.
Born in Memphis and raised in Birmingham, you can see why I love basketball. Wouldn’t it be exciting for Birmingham to have a Kevin Durant or a Stephen Curry? Even Lebron-haters in Birmingham could quickly become his biggest fans.
However, the truth is that it would be just as difficult to attract an NBA team as it is for an NFL team. The city and the region simply doesn’t have the combination of public-private financing to build a new venue. The existing option, the BJCC, can only hold about 17,000 and doesn’t have the brand-spanking new feel that NBA owners love.
However, there’s an opportunity outside of the professional “Big 4” teams that Birmingham could and should pursue.
Birmingham could host an NBA Development League team. The NBA Development League, or NBA D-League, is the NBA’s official minor league basketball organization. The opportunity costs are much smaller than a full-fledged NBA team and we don’t have to worry about limits on expansion. To complement the success of the Barons, the city should double down on minor league teams.
The NBA D-League is much newer than minor league baseball. It started small with eight teams in 2001 and expanded to 15 teams in 2005. D-League teams can be affiliated with one or more NBA teams. There are currently no D-League teams in the Southeast but the league is growing in relevance. The number of NBA players with D-League experience is close to 30 percent and could hit 50 percent in the not-too-distant future. The Spurs’ Danny Green played in the D-League and so did pop-culture phenomenon Jeremy Lin.
Birmingham has a great history of hosting minor league sports teams starting from the Barons to the Bulls. Most Birmingham natives usually have a great amount of pride for our successful baseball team and its history of 14 titles, Michael Jordan’s summer, and contributed hall of famers including new member, Frank “Big Hurt” Thomas. The atmosphere of the Barons fan base was reenergized when the team moved back to downtown recently.
With current success of the Barons and the past success of the Bulls, it would be worth Birmingham’s while to shoot for a basketball team under the D-League. The Magic City’s “Birmingham Magic” could seek an affiliation with the Orlando Magic — who currently co-own a team with five other NBA teams.
Wouldn’t it be cool if we could tell our kids stories someday about watching some of the NBA’s star players that played in Birmingham for development like we did with Frank Thomas and Michael Jordan playing for the Barons?