Untapped Potential: Can local sports achieve growth in a college football market?

Untapped Potential: Can local sports achieve growth in a college football market?

By Jacob Taylor

Legion Midfielder Enzo Martinez controls the ball against Louisville City FC.

Alabama is all about college football. Families are divided between Auburn University and the University of Alabama. It seems impossible to grow up in Alabama and not take a side. Many towns in which college programs operate are built around the universities themselves. 

Local professional sports are a different animal altogether. Without the support of a major collegiate budget and institutional support, many smaller professional organizations operate on tighter budgets. They often rent out the arena where they compete, making it difficult to have a true feeling of home-field advantage.

So how can local professional clubs even begin to compete to draw eyes away from college football? Two fairly new local professional teams, the Birmingham Legion FC and the Birmingham Squadron, are working to figure out how they can attract attention and build support for their teams.

Birmingham Legion FC  

Birmingham Legion FC is the only fully professional, independently operated sports organization in the state of Alabama. Legion FC joined the USL Championship for its first full season in 2019, making them one of the state’s younger franchises.

In its first season, Legion FC made the playoffs, a pleasant surprise for fans watching them compete for the first time. Despite this early success, it hasn’t always been easy for Birmingham Legion FC.

“Everything you can think of, we’ve had to fight against,” said Legion Director of Marketing and Communications Clayton Humphries. “Our first-ever season we’re announced as a team, Birmingham Legion Football Club, and then a semi-professional football team at Legion Field got announced and then started playing after we did, which was confusing [for fans].”

Legion FC made the playoffs in its first season, before being forced to cancel its second season due to COVID-19. 

Football, and college football, in particular, is by far the most popular sport in the state. While soccer has seen an increase in popularity across the U.S., it has yet to overcome college football.

Humphries feels that while college football is more dominant, there is still room for smaller professional teams to build their own support through local fans.

“Firstly, in the abstract, it’s differentiating ourselves and leaning into the fully-professional aspect, explaining how we’re different,” said Clayton Humphries. “Secondly, it’s being aware of the realities. Birmingham’s not as big, but we’ve got plenty of people to tap into.”

Birmingham Squadron

The Birmingham Squadron is a G-League affiliate of the New Orleans Pelicans, a team in the National Basketball Association. The G-League has become a developmental league where players young and old can compete for their own championship. 

All G-League players also have the chance to compete for a spot on an NBA team. While each player is part of a different team, they are all able to be “called up” to an NBA team if they are chosen. This creates so much competition because for most of these players, joining an NBA team has been their dream all along. That means that Squadron fans could very well see their favorite players playing for different NBA teams throughout the season. Those call-ups were especially frequent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Squadron joined the G-League for its first full season last year in 2021. Despite it being their first year, they made the playoffs after winning their last five games. While they ultimately lost in the playoffs, their first year laid a foundation of high expectations for the years to come.

Squadron forward Zylan Cheatham signed with the Miami Heat for a month before returning to the Squadron. Guard Jared Harper was signed to a two-way contract with the Pelicans, before ultimately signing a contract with the top Spanish basketball league, Valencia Basket. The Atlanta Hawks signed Squadron forward Malcolm Hill to a 10-day contract last December. Former Squadron two-way player Jose Alvarado played his way into earning a 4-year, $6.5 million contract with the Pelicans.

All those players are evidence of the importance of local professional sports and how players are able to get called up at a moment’s notice, impacting the game on a national stage. After seeing these players get called up to the NBA, other Squadron players are excited and ready to begin another successful season.

“I’m ready to go, I was actually playing in Puerto Rico before this and got done in early June, so it’s been a while since I’ve gotten to play in live action and real games, so to say I’m ready to go is an understatement,” said Birmingham Squadron forward Jordan Swing, a local alumnus of Vestavia Hills High School and UAB.

Birmingham Squadron Manager of Public Relations and Broadcast Dawson Boyd says, “I mean when you think about Birmingham, you think if all the college football players that have come through here. Birmingham really is a basketball community too, and we have to lean into our basketball history too, and when you really uncover what Birmingham is made of, you uncover that it’s really a basketball community as well as a football community, especially in the city.”

The Squadron’s goal to reach fans is to simply let fans know that they are here. Because they are so new, many people in Birmingham may not even know that they are here. One way that the Squadron was able to promote itself before the start of the season was during the NBA preseason game held in Birmingham.

The New Orleans Pelicans played the Atlanta Hawks in a preseason game at Legacy Arena, the home court of the Birmingham Squadron. In front of a sold-out crowd, the Pelicans defeated the Hawks 120-111.

The Squadron is hoping that the interest from that game carries over into their own regular season and that they can continue to build a passionate and loyal fan base here in Birmingham.

“Through social media, whether they’ve seen them on TV, or even through getting autographs and high-fives, a personal connection with the team really goes a long way with engaging fans in your community,” said Boyd. 

In both soccer and basketball, each organization focused on the importance of the local fans themselves as the main driver of success. While it may look good to have a large social media following, the true recipe seems to be engaging with local fans and alerting them of your presence in the city. 

You might not be able to drag those college football fans away from their teams on Saturday nights. By building relationships with local fans and media, Legion FC and the Squadron hope to establish themselves and create an experience that will have fans excited for the next time they can come to watch their team play.