By Mara Casey
Alabama may be football country, but there are plenty of opportunities for another professional sport … or three.
Birmingham is home to three professional minor league sports organizations: the Birmingham Barons, the Birmingham Bulls and the Birmingham Legion. Those organizations are vital parts of the Birmingham community and its heartbeat.
“Watching these teams compete provides valuable entertainment options for both residents and out-of-town visitors,” David Galbaugh, vice president of sports sales and marketing for the Greater Birmingham Conventions and Visitors Bureau, said.
“The facilities that these teams use are often a catalyst that spurs additional developments in our community…[they’re] utilized in recruiting other massive sporting events.”
However, with COVID-19 and its effects, minor league sports were not the priority on everyone’s minds. Those organizations’ resilience was challenged, and they had to find ways to overcome the trials of the pandemic and remain intact. How did they do it?
From Rickwood Field to Regions Field, the Barons have played an important role in the Magic City since 1885. Whether it was the Barons of 1887, the Black Barons of 1920, the Birmingham Athletics of 1964, or the most recent Barons established 2013, that organization has provided a consistent entertainment option for the community while also contributing to the overall economic growth and lifestyle of Birmingham. Despite college football being a top sport here, baseball plays an important role in Birmingham’s social scene.
Barons General Manager and President Jonathan Nelson said the baseball season that was cancelled due to coronavirus hurt their organization.
“We are a small business, and the absence of a baseball season along with other events throughout the year significantly hurt our organization,” Nelson said, “we tried hosting a variety of events, but none came close to equalizing a normal year.”
However, the absence of a 2020 season brought a raised level of desire and enthusiasm for what was to come as things slowly got back to some normalcy.
“We were fortunate to host a baseball season in 2021, even though it was shortened,” Nelson said, “we look forward to continuing to build on hosting games and events, hoping people will get a slice of what life was prior to the pandemic.”
According to Birmingham Bulls Vice President of Communications David Koonce, you would never know that Birmingham is a big hockey town unless you grew up here in the 1970s and 90s.
“Anyone who is anyone in the late 1970s came through Birmingham to play hockey,” Koonce said.
The Bulls originally came to Birmingham in 1976 as part of the World Hockey Association but later folded after the WHA merged with the NHL. They were bought back in 1992 but sold and ceased play in 2001. The current version of the Bulls started back up in 2017 in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
“Several generations of Bulls fans hoped the team would return,” Koonce said, “those that were kids in the 1990s are now bringing their families to games … it creates a wave of nostalgia.”
The 2019-2020 season was curtailed by COVID-19, but the Bulls were fortunate to have a 2020-2021 season amidst the pandemic by lowering their crowd capacity to 70% and following very strict protocols set by the league.
“It definitely made the season challenging,” Koonce said, “but our fans stuck it out with us.”
A lot of fans still came to games, while others supported the Bulls through purchasing merchandise and bidding in their online jersey auctions.
As for the 2021-2022 season, the Birmingham Bulls are ready to bounce back in big ways just by getting things back to normal. They are doing more game promotions to draw fans into their high-quality product of hockey and family entertainment.
“Fans coming back from last season plus the fans that had to stay home are even more fired up to get their tickets and see some live hockey,” Koonce said.
Birmingham Legion FC
The Birmingham Legion FC launched in 2018 as the Magic City’s first and only locally owned and operated professional soccer franchise. According to a study done by the Legion organization, interest in soccer is very high in Birmingham . Over the past decade, the total number of youth signing up to participate in youth soccer organizations has been higher here than in any other state.
With that, the Birmingham Legion had an opportunity to build something special from the ground up.
“We feel like we have a lot of pretty genuine support,” Director of Communications and Marketing Clayton Humphries said.
“Our total season ticket holders are really die-hard fans that are relatively small but really invested … for our level, that is a really good place to start.”
After a great year full of support in 2019, the Legion wanted to start the 2020 season off strong and planned to have Atlanta United – one of the most popular teams in the world – come play them at home in Birmingham.
“We had a sellout crowd, standing room only, great atmosphere, and we’re thinking we’re set for big things in year two … then, COVID put a halt to all of that,” Humphries said.
Like the other two organizations, it was tough for the Legion team in 2020 as they were not naïve to the fact that professional, second division soccer was not at the top of everyone’s priority list during the pandemic.
The Legion is also known for making appearances in the community with the United Way, Children’s Hospital and Alabama Red Cross, but COVID-19 made this impossible on top of an already derailed soccer season.
“I felt bad for those guys because being a part of the community and getting to know Birmingham was everybody’s favorite,” Humphries said, “so we’re excited to have been able to do a little more of that this year and look forward to being able to do that more in 2022 and the future.”
Looking forward seems to be the theme for all these Birmingham sports teams, and their goals are just to win championships and put themselves on the map. While COVID-19 put these goals on pause, these teams believe they will bounce back effectively in their upcoming seasons and continue to do so in the years to come.