Whenever you think about sports in Alabama, you automatically think about Alabama and Auburn football. In a state that lives for the sports programs here, many people feel like a professional sports team would be successful in this state. However, I completely disagree, unless there are a WHOLE lot changes.
The first problem that you’ll face when trying to decide to either relocate or move a pro sports team to this state, is what sport would be successful? The sport that is growing faster than any of the “big 4″ is hockey. The fact that the Thrashers recently moved from Atlanta opens up a void for the NHL in the south that Alabama could fill. However, most Alabamians couldn’t tell you the first thing about hockey, so that’s out. The next fastest growing is MLB. However, Alabama is part of “Braves Country” so it’d be hard to find a lot of fans that would convert from cheering on the Braves to cheering on a new expansion team. Sure, people may go to the games because they might be closer, but you probably wouldn’t see a dedicated following. Besides, baseball isn’t a huge deal in Alabama. The slowest growing sport is the NBA and there is very little reason to believe a team would be successful in Alabama. Just look at the teams in surrounding states and note that they all have poor attendance (Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Hornets, Charlotte Bobcats). So the one sport that I skipped, is the third fastest growing, and that’s the NFL. This is the one that most people believe would be the best fit because of the fact that Alabamians live football. However, I feel like that is one of the major setbacks. People around here LIVE for college football, but don’t really care about professional football. An NFL franchise isn’t going to move to a state where their team is going to play second fiddle to a couple of college teams.
The second problem is where in the state are going to have a team? There are really only four possibilities: Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham. Huntsville just doesn’t have the size to compete with other major metro areas, or the population to really support a professional team. Montgomery is too much of a ghetto (however getting a a team may help revive the city and help it turn around). However, the problem with it is the size as well. It just isn’t big enough to have a professional sports team. Mobile, in my opinion, would be an ideal place for a pro team, but I don’t see it as a realistic possibility because of the proximity to New Orleans. So that leaves Birmingham. Many people feel like Birmingham is the best choice because it’s the largest city and a major metro area, with over 1.2 million people. It’s also a decent distance from the other major metros in the south (Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Tampa). So let’s finish up assuming the only choice is Birmingham.
So when looking at Birmingham, you have to decide what sport would fit best in the city. You have to believe that football is the most favorable (although hockey is the most likely). So where would you put an NFL team? You have Legion Field, but the stadium is a dump. No one wants to play there, not even UAB. Alabama used to play there, but doesn’t anymore. The AHSAA state championships used to be held there, but not anymore. The SEC championship was even held there before, but not anymore. So no NFL is going to want to come there. Plus with all the illustrious new stadiums these days, you wouldn’t want to move a pro sports team into a toilet bowl of a stadium. The other problem with Legion Field is that it’s in a horrible neighborhood. I remember the first time I ever went there, I thought I was lost. The neighborhoods around the stadium are totally run down and looks like post-Katrina New Orleans minus all the water. No one is going to through money into restoring the neighborhood in the area that it’s in (it’s even worse than Turner Field in Atlanta). So a new stadium is a must, and ideally, you would want something located downtown. There has been rumors of the idea being floated around of building a state-of-the-art domed stadium in the downtown area, but I’m sure that’ll never happen, simply because there’s: A) no one to finance it, and B) no one to fill it. The financing part is the biggest problem, since they wouldn’t even pay to build a new stadium downtown for the Birmingham Barons (who are currently playing in Hoover). If they wouldn’t build a minor league stadium, why would they build an MLB stadium? The BJCC is really too small to host an NBA team, but would be a good size for a hockey team.
The next problem with Birmingham is demographics. Birmingham is a large city for the state, but would be a very small market for a pro sports team. When you look at the smallest markets in each of the Big 4, Birmingham would have a tough time competing. The smallest market in MLB is the Kansas City (KC metro has a population of just over 2 million people). The smallest market in the NFL is Jacksonville (metro population of around 1.6 million). The smallest NBA market is New Orleans (1.2 million in the metro). And finally, the smallest NHL market is Buffalo (with a metro of 1.2 million). So by comparisons, Birmingham has a metro of around 1.2 million. So you can see, if Birmingham landed a pro sports team, they’d be either the smallest market or close to the smallest, by population, automatically. When you look at the other cities, New Orleans is one of the most important US cities because of the ports there. Jacksonville is a popular tourist destination because of the beaches there. Kansas City might be the smallest MLB market, but that’s because the teams have sucked and ownership is bad. They’re large enough to have a successful franchise, and they do, with the Chiefs. So what does Birmingham have? No ports, poor state, no other sports teams, certainly no beaches.
Finally, the last thing standing in the way of a pro franchise moving or opening up here is simply because of the lack of financial support. There are virtually no Fortune 500 companies in Birmingham, and no reason for any of them to move there. There is no one to bankroll a new stadium, fill ad space, etc. So if you want to see a pro sports team in Alabama, you better hope you can vote for competent leaders to send to Montgomery and think of ways to grow the state and get it out of the “at least we’re not Mississippi” mode that we’re in now. We need to be recruiting companies to help build this state.
Check out my latest blog post on Birmingham’s possibilities on landing an MLB team after the Atlanta Braves announcing their move from major metro Atlanta to smaller suburban Cobb County.