Another Pro Football League Takes the Field in Birmingham. Will This One Stay Afloat?

Players for the Birmingham Iron pose for a photo by a fan at a meet-and-greet event, held at Iron City two weeks before the team’s first game. (Source: Robert Carter)

It’s almost become a tradition for football fans in the Magic City. Every few years, yet another professional football league comes to Legion Field, with aspirations to bring some semblance of high-level gridiron action to The Old Gray Lady on Graymont.

This time, the Alliance of American Football promises to help fans get over that difficult spell after the end of the traditional season and create an attraction that brings entertainment and dollars to the economy of a city, state and region that’s a sports hotbed.

Playing in the spring, as some other past leagues have done, the AAF bills itself as a developmental organization that gives up-and-coming players a chance to advance to the National Football League or provides a second chance for those who played in the big league previously and want to return.

The Alliance comprises eight teams, and the local entry is the Birmingham Iron, featuring mostly players who played college ball in the state. That means an encore for well-known names from the Crimson Tide and the Tigers, such as Heisman Trophy finalist Trent Richardson and quarterback Blake Sims from the University of Alabama and defensive standout Quan Bray of Auburn University.

The lead-up to the inaugural season was a bit of a rush. The AAF’s formation was announced last March, and the eight teams were set six months ago. All are owned by the Alliance, with no individual franchises like other leagues. Co-founder Charlie Ebersol took note of what worked and what didn’t in the last attempt at a new pro league, the XFL, which was backed by his father, Dick, a longtime executive at NBC Sports.

Players and coaches gathered for a unified training camp in San Antonio, while back in the eight host cities, management quickly put together sales teams and corporate sponsorships. Sometimes, front office staffs were pulled in several different directions as the first game drew near; several reporters who covered the opener said they had difficulties obtaining information or media passes before the season began. And players, coaches and staffers have sometimes struggled with difficulties posed by their home stadium, parts of which are nearly a century old and have seen better days. Locker room facilities, in particular, are worse than what most Birmingham-area high school teams have. If the Alliance hangs on long enough, the Iron are scheduled to use the new stadium being built near the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center.

Head coach Tim Lewis speaks to reporters after his Birmingham Iron won its first-ever game at Legion Field. Lewis has had extensive experience as an assistant coach at the NFL, but he hasn’t served as a head coach at any level of the game. (Source: Robert Carter)

The AAF has tried to stay close to the kind of football fans in Alabama are used to seeing, with two prominent exceptions. There are no kickoffs, with teams getting the ball at their own 25-yard line, instead. And there are no kicks for a point after a touchdown; going for a 2-point conversion is the only option. There’s no TV time outs, either, all in an effort to speed the game up to finish in 2½ hours, about 45 minutes quicker than an NFL game. Some rule changes were still in flux as late as three days before the first games.

The Iron has done well in their first two games, both of which were played at Legion Field. A shutout over the Memphis Express in the inaugural game and a come-from-behind victory over the Salt Lake Stallions were both watched by crowds of just more than 17,000, though the accuracy of that number is in question. Team representatives have said that gate scanners failed to register many tickets and the likely crowd counts were estimated at 21,000 or more.

Halfway through the 10-game season, the Iron has an enthusiastic fan base and decent crowds, though the attendance at the Week 4 loss to San Antonio — Birmingham’s first defeat — was hampered by the threat of severe weather. Television ratings for the league’s opening games on CBS beat out a National Basketball Association game on ABC and have also done well for cable channels since then. And while the level of play isn’t quite up to NFL standards, it was better than many expected. For the Iron, Richardson scored a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter of the opening-game win and another in the second game. At the halfway mark of the regular season, Richardson led the league in touchdowns, and the Iron’s record stood at three wins and two losses.

A Level of Skepticism

But if there’s a certain wait-and-see attitude among local sports fans, it’s a sense of déjà vu that comes honestly. Randy Campbell, who until recently was the Iron’s vice president of marketing, acknowledges that.

“There’s a majority of people we’ve talked to who have lived in Birmingham through the last couple of professional teams that this (the AAF’s viability) is the first thing they want to know about, and we understand that,” Campbell said. “We think we’ve got a product on the field, and once they see that product, they will continue to come back. … A lot of folks are skeptical, but a lot are interested just because they love football. Birmingham’s one of the top-rated television markets for sports in the entire country.”

Campbell said that corporate sponsors are just now getting on board, mainly because of how quickly the Alliance has fired up. “We didn’t really begin operations until the fourth quarter (of 2018), and most businesses had already made their plans for the first and second quarters of this year.”

The landscape of professional football in Birmingham is littered with the carcasses of at least half a dozen leagues, from those that tried to compete directly with the NFL to one that tried to mix the game with elements of pro wrestling. And while the teams that called Birmingham home often did well on the field and at the ticket window, the leagues they were part of did not.

“Some of the leagues that have been through here in the past have failed because of the league, but the teams haven’t failed. The fans have always supported them,” Campbell said.

A roll call of the pro football teams that set up shop at Legion Field:

  • Birmingham Americans and their immediate successor, the Vulcans, of the World Football League (1974-75). The Americans drew crowds of more than 50,000 early on and won the first and only WFL championship game — only to come off the field to find sheriff’s deputies waiting to repossess uniforms and equipment on behalf of unpaid vendor Hibbett’s Sporting Goods. The team reorganized as the Vulcans for the second year, which ended in mid-season when the league folded. A team called the Alabama Vulcans also played one season in the short-lived American Football Association in 1979.
  • Birmingham Stallions of the United States Football League (1983-85). The USFL played in the spring but touted itself as an equal to the NFL. The Stallions did well on the field and at the gate, drawing more than 60,000 for their second season opener. The league fell apart when some owners tried to move the schedule to compete head-on with the NFL in the fall and filed an anti-trust suit against the NFL. The USFL shut down before playing its fourth season, despite winning the lawsuit, but it won an award of just $1 in damages, tripled by law to $3. The settlement check from the NFL is still in the possession of New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump, who went on to bigger things.
  • Birmingham Fire of the World League of American Football (1991-92). This league was the only time the NFL sponsored a developmental league of its own, with some teams based in Europe. The league played two full seasons, then took a two-year hiatus before moving all of its teams across the Atlantic to become NFL Europe.
  • Birmingham Barracudas of the Canadian Football League (1995). The CFL’s ill-fated expansion into the United States included the ‘Cudas, who failed to catch on with fans; Legion Field also could not fully accommodate the larger field of Canadian football. The league retreated north of the border, where it thrives today.
  • Birmingham Thunderbolts of the XFL (2001). Conceived by pro wrestling magnate Vince McMahon, the league mixed entertainment elements of his World Wrestling Federation with football. Radio stars Rick and Bubba were the voices of the broadcast team for the Bolts, who struggled to a 2-8 record. NBC, which invested in the XFL and broadcast its games, pulled the plug after one season. McMahon has announced a revived XFL for next year.

Indoors, the Birmingham Steeldogs of Arena Football’s second-division league played at what is now Legacy Arena for eight seasons, the longest tenure of any pro team in the city.

Questions remain about the viability of the Alliance, particularly after news broke Feb. 18 that the league was almost out of cash and that players had not been paid for their first two games. In a story first reported by the subscription-based website The Athletic, the Alliance received $250 million from Tom Dundon, who is the majority owner of the Carolina Hurricanes of the National Hockey League and a primary investor in Top Golf. As a result, Dundon was named chairman of The Alliance the next day.

Starting quarterback Luis Perez, seen here at a press conference following the Birmingham Iron’s inaugural game, is a former NCAA Division II Player of the year at Texas A&M-Commerce, despite having never played high school varsity football. He’s hoping to use his time with the Alliance of American Football squad to catch the eye of National Football League teams. (Source: Robert Carter)

The AAF characterized the money as an investment, not a bailout. Iron General Manager Tom Pendry, in comments to CBS 42, blamed the payroll issues on a switch in processing companies that ran into a “glitch.” Dundon told reporters during a press conference that he had been approached by the Alliance early in its development, but decided to take a wait-and-see approach — and when Dundon liked what he saw in the first two weeks, he jumped in.

“Once you have the ratings, see the football, see the reaction, all the people who watched and it looked real good, all of a sudden it seemed less risky,” Dundon said later in an interview on PFT Live, a football talk show on the NBC Sports Network cable channel.

Ebersol, in an interview with sports talk show host Rich Eisen, said that Dundon’s investment “completely changes the game,” adding that Dundon told him, “you will never want for money again.” Ebersol also blamed the payroll issues on difficulties with a switch in payroll processing companies, adding that there was money to cover paychecks.

Dundon’s investment should give the Alliance financial breathing room to finish the season and beyond and be more than enough to cover payrolls. Players have a standard three-year contract that pays them $70,000 this season, escalating to $100,000 in 2021, plus various incentive bonuses. There’s an escape clause in case the NFL calls up a player.

The top two teams in each of the Alliance’s two divisions will move on to a two-round playoff, with the championship game scheduled for April 27 in Las Vegas.

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This article has been changed to reflect that Randy Campbell, who was vice president of marketing for the Iron at the time of these interviews, has since left the organization.