From 2015: Over the past five years, they have allocated money toward improving the appearance of 87-year-old Legion Field. Though structurally sound, it has needed some attention aesthetically, Mayor William Bell said. (Kelsey Stein | firstname.lastname@example.org)
Every time I bring it up, people accuse me of hating Birmingham. Or UAB. Or sports. Or progress. Or concerts. Or hope.
But here we go, one more time for the people in the back.
I’m thrilled that the Birmingham Hammers are being bumped up to the United Soccer League and I’m happy for UAB fans that their football team is returning, but…
The last thing Birmingham needs is a new publicly financed stadium.
If the market wants to provide a privately financed stadium or a stadium paid for by UAB student fees, please do.
Ham-fisted Mayor William Bell is out on the heels of the Hammers announcement pushing the narrative that Birmingham’s new soccer team has renewed urgency for a $174 million stadium with 45,000 to 55,000 seats next to the BJCC.
It’s a neat little message. In a nutshell: we have a new pro team so we need a new venue to house them.
But the numbers just don’t add up.
When the (now defunct) Steeldogs played at the BJCC, their average attendance started at a high point in their first season – 8,925 per game – and slid each year until their final season, 2007, when they had an average attendance of 5,995.
After their heralded return downtown, the Birmingham Barons have averaged a little better than 6,000 attendees per game.
Meanwhile, the average attendance for a USL game in 2017 is 4,400 nationally, up from 3,439 per game in 2016. The team with the highest average attendance in the USL is FC Cincinnati, who have averaged 20,466 fans per game this year. They play at Nippert Stadium, the same stadium used by the Cincinnati Bearcats’ college football team. Nippert Stadium is a beautiful concrete arena that holds 40,000 people and was built in 1924.
Three years before Birmingham’s Legion Field.
…whoa. That’s not where I saw this column going at all.
I had a whole spiel worked out about how we didn’t need to build a 45,000 seat stadium for a 4,000 seat sport. I’d tried out arguments on Twitter about how the Hammers could just use UAB’s new 2,500 seat BBVA Compass Field or play at Regions Field or at the BJCC. And that study after study after study shows that publicly financed stadiums are bad deals for cities.
I would’ve pointed out the hypocrisy of Mayor Bell’s cynical election strategy of announcing a "Gentrification Task force" out of one side of his mouth while asking a city with 31 percent poverty rate to foot the bill for a new stadium downtown. In that argument, I’d have noted that Birmingham had to take out a $50 million loan just to pay to improve roads, that we haven’t paid off Regions Field yet; and that the city has abandoned schools, polluted land, unkempt parks, and no real public transit system. But for Mayor Bell and his developer donors, a new stadium downtown is the priority. That any argument about needing to improve a city’s "living room" before we can pay to fix up the rest of the house is all well and good except for when it’s the people who live in the basement and attic who foot the bill and only the fancy neighbors are ever made to feel welcome in the "living room." And if I’d had time, I’d have pointed out that from the beginning, Birmingham has built lavish buildings and entertainment regions on the backs of the poor and minority communities, through a steel empire built on convict-leasing to state legislators that change the law to prevent access to a decent wage. And maybe that would’ve all persuaded a few of you.
But let’s explore this Cincinnati angle for a minute.
So, let’s see… you’ve got an historically industrial city that has rebuilt its economy around biomedical research and a university. You’ve also got a gorgeous stadium built in the 1920s. So how did Cincinnati handle this issue?
From 2012-2015, the Bearcats spent $86 million to renovate Nippert Stadium, adding suites, concession stands and restrooms, club seating and other amenities while also improving in-stadium traffic flow. The renovation was financed by student fees and private donations.
In addition to having record-breaking USL games, the stadium has also developed a reputation as one of the best venues in college football.
Look, realistically, the best option for the Hammers is to play at a small stadium like Regions Field or BBVA Compass stadium. Using this announcement as a justification for a 45,000-seat arena is lunacy. Contractors don’t care about a soccer team any more than they care about UAB football.
On principle, I’m opposed to publicly financed stadium when money can be better spent on things like transit, but if y’all are dead set on this…
If Birmingham is going to spend money on a public arena, why do it near the BJCC? Then you’ll have two empty stadiums on the city’s books, Legion Field and the BJCC arena.
That area is already well trafficked and will only become more so when Top Golf opens. A truly renovated Legion Field could revitalize the area surrounding Birmingham-Southern and Rickwood Field, establishing a broader footprint for the city near Regions Field and Railroad Park.
Birmingham already succeeded in resurrecting the UAB football team. Now is the second act. Soccer is here, y’all, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Birmingham is carving out a special niche by revitalizing old hotels, power plants, department stores and parks. Why not add the College Football Capital of the South to that list?
One crucial difference between Nippert Stadium and Legion Field? The city of Birmingham owns its stadium while the Bearcats own Cincinnati’s.
That’s an easy enough fix. The city of Birmingham could sell the University its stadium, with a guarantee that the school renovate it and support revitalization of the surrounding area. The city makes a commitment to help finance those renovations, through historic tax credits, to include the Hammers as a tenant and to rent the stadium each year for the Magic City Classic.
In exchange, UAB gains control over its own stadium (something denied them for years by the UA Board of Trustees) and the city gets an injection of capital into an area thirsty for it. Bell has the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone – revitalize an overlooked neighborhood and develop a world class home for UAB football and the Birmingham Hammers.
If Birmingham hopes to make the jump to a world-class city, we’re going to need to start focusing on improving areas beyond downtown. And we’ll need to start thinking beyond the tired stadium debate the city has been having for decades.
Anyway, Go Hammers. Blaze on. Etc. I’ll stand by for your emails and tweets.
Correction made at 8:58 a.m. August 11, 2017. An earlier version of this story characterized the USL as a semi-professional league.