Life after the World Cup: Can soccer find a place in Birmingham?
By John Killian
Birmingham is a sports town. We love sports. We can’t get enough of them. We’ll show up for anything. A turtle race? Book me a ticket. Hotdog eating competition? I’ll be there. Spelling bee? Not even sure it’s a sport, but it’s on ESPN so I’ll watch it. Anyway, my point is that we love sports and we will show up for them in large numbers.
Don’t believe me? Consider the Barons. When they left Rickwood for the Hoover Met in 1988, they all but fell from the cultural fabric of the city. Flash-forward to 2013. The Barons come home and open the season in a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility located in a part of downtown Birmingham that is ripe for renewal. All of a sudden it’s like the summer of Michael again, except every player is Michael Jordan and they’re filming Space Jam every week. We love it.
Basketball? There are some high school teams in the metro that could probably whoop Alabama and Auburn like they were the JV squad at the Alabama School for the Vertically Challenged.
Football? Please. It’s our religion. I didn’t know that Bear Bryant wasn’t an actual part of the trinity until I was old enough to vote. I’m still not sure he shouldn’t at least be considered an auxiliary member. Case in point: The Iron Bowl rivalry has gotten so intense that even Israelis and Palestinians have suggested that we calm it down a bit.
Soccer? Despite what your redneck uncle and his local Tea Party chapter think, soccer is not a communist plot to overthrow American values like freedom, democracy, and deodorant. It’s a sport and true to our nature as a sports-crazed city, we’re falling for it. Hard.
The truth is that people have been playing soccer in Birmingham for many years. UAB, Montevallo, and Birmingham-Southern have had great programs for years. Kids over the mountain have benefitted from premier soccer clubs like Birmingham United and Hoover Soccer Club.
There was a time when soccer was a game played Over the Mountain, and it definitely carried the tone of an elite sport. Now kids play in all parts of the city, in the black, white, and immigrant communities. The Northstar Soccer Club in West End, for example, is having a lot of success. There are men’s leagues, kids’ leagues, leagues all over the city.
Last month’s World Cup really showed how far we have come as a community that can embrace soccer. There must have been 10 different bars that claimed to be the World Cup-watching headquarters. The crowds, the experience of communal watching of the world’s best soccer was really extraordinary.
American Outlaws, a group that meets at Good People Brewery, is the largest soccer supporter organization in the country, one of 150 chapters throughout the U.S. Birmingham regularly has among the largest crowds at viewing events.
Here in Birmingham we have taken to soccer the same way we take to every sport. But in this town there is always a major caveat to any sports undertaking: We don’t like second-rate. Here, we know when a sport is being played well, we appreciate the best of athletic efforts, and we really don’t have time for anything less.
I think it is time to take this soccer interest to the next level, Birmingham. That’s why I am a part of a group of five individuals who are trying to bring professional soccer, The Birmingham Hammers, to our fair city. We have taken a measured approach to this effort. The first phase was to gauge interest. That is the stage we are in right now, and I have to say it has been very exciting. We hosted a match between a second-tier professional soccer team, the Atlanta Silverbacks, and the UAB varsity team. We sold a bunch of tickets, and people really came out to experience the game at that level.
The next step for us in the transformation of the Birmingham Hammers from a dream to a reality involves trying to find a place to play in the city, as well as finding investors who will do what needs to be done to make professional soccer grow here in Birmingham.