The arrival of the Birmingham Iron, the city’s entry in America’s newest pro football league, marks the latest in a series of franchises that have plied their trade at Legion Field. But they are not the only game in town.
Birmingham has gone from just one minor league team two years ago — the Barons, who have played baseball here since 1885, with a few breaks along the way — to four. In another year or two, that number is scheduled to increase to five, marking the first time Birmingham has hosted professional teams in the five major sports, according to BirminghamProSports.com, a site that documents Birmingham teams throughout the city’s history.
That’s a milestone for a place long known for its love of all things athletic. Before this, teams with the strongest claim to professional status were those sponsored by industries in the early 1900s.
The Iron have gotten off to a fast start in the inaugural season of the Alliance of American Football, winning their first three games before losing two. Crowds have been decent and enthusiastic, as they have watched former Alabama Crimson Tide star running back Trent Richardson lead the league in touchdowns. Richardson and his teammates are using the new league to try to get into the top echelon of pro football, the National Football League — or, in Richardson’s case, to try to return to the NFL after stints with four teams, plus a year with the Canadian Football League.
Boom Began With Hockey
The boom in pro teams began in earnest in 2017 as two familiar names appeared on the city’s sports scene once again: the Birmingham Bulls and their owner, Art Clarkson.
The Bulls, in their original incarnation, were one of the original franchises of the World Hockey Association, a league that aspired to compete with the established National Hockey League. The team first set up shop in Ottawa, Ontario, for the WHA’s first season, then moved and became the Toronto Toros, playing in the same famous arena as the NHL’s Maple Leafs. When that proved to be a financial disaster, owner John Bassett brought the team south and had it play as the Bulls for three seasons, until the WHA folded. Several of the league’s teams merged into the NHL, but Birmingham was not one of them. The Birmingham team landed in the Central Hockey League in 1979, playing a season and part of a second before shutting down in early 1981.
Since then, three other teams have played hockey under the Bulls nickname, with three other short-lived teams playing under different names. The most recent two versions of the Bulls have one main thing in common: Clarkson.
The 77-year-old sports impresario has been associated with many minor league teams in Birmingham and elsewhere. He worked in management for the Memphis franchise of the World Football League, the first league to try to go against the NFL. The Birmingham Americans were the WFL’s only champions.
Clarkson made other stops in southern California and Omaha before bringing minor league baseball back to Birmingham in 1981, six years after Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley packed up his Birmingham A’s farm team and moved it to Chattanooga.
Clarkson bought the struggling Montgomery Rebels and moved them into ancient Rickwood Field, then later to the new Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in 1988, under the Barons name. Clarkson sold the Barons to a Japanese corporation in 1991; it’s since been sold to a group headed by former Time Inc. President Don Logan.
Since then, Clarkson has been involved in several minor league teams elsewhere, including indoor football teams in Huntsville, Denver and Green Bay, as well as another hockey team in Biloxi, Mississippi. He tried to retire but decided to stay in Birmingham and give the Bulls hockey team one more try, this time in Pelham.
“People kept asking me, ‘When are you going to start the Bulls back?’” Clarkson said. “I felt like I needed to do this. It was unfinished business.”
The latest version of the team plays in the Southern Professional Hockey League, where his Biloxi team also played. The Pelham Civic Complex, where a handful of other minor league teams came and went over the years with little fanfare or support, upgraded its main arena to add more and better seating. The Bulls in their first season did well at the box office but not as well on the ice, missing the playoffs. Their second and current season, though, has been much better. The Bulls reeled off an 11-game winning streak to open the season and have been in either first or second place in the standings the whole way.
Other Kind of Football
While Birmingham has a long and storied history of American football, the other kind of football — what most folks here call soccer — is now gaining a foothold, and the city is home to a team that is one level below Major League Soccer, the top flight in the U.S. and Canada.
Birmingham Legion FC has opened its inaugural season as part of the United Soccer League’s Championship division.
Jeff Logan, a co-owner of the Barons and the son of Don Logan, and two other local businessmen were awarded the USL franchise in 2017. The team plays at what is now called BBVA Compass Field, tucked in between the western edge of the UAB campus and I-65; it’s also home to the Blazers’ NCAA team. Legion FC invested in upgrades for the stadium that increased its capacity to 5,000 fans.
While most of the roster is filled with players who hail from nowhere near Alabama, there’s one big exception. Chandler Hoffman, who paced Oak Mountain High School to a pair of AHSAA Class 6A state championships and then became an All-American at UCLA, was the first Alabama native to be chosen in the first round of the MLS draft. He went on to see action with MLS teams in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Houston, but he has been in the USL Championship division for the past three seasons.
Next Up, Pro Basketball
The fifth minor league team in Birmingham hasn’t actually arrived yet, and it won’t for two or three years.
The National Basketball Association’s New Orleans Pelicans have announced that they plan to start a team in the NBA G League, the association’s official development league that was known as the D League until Gatorade bought sponsorship rights. The team will play their home games at Legacy Arena, but that facility’s renovation is the reason the new team won’t arrive for a while. For now, the team will play its first seasons in Erie, Pennsylvania, as the BayHawks. Their name when they play in Birmingham is yet to be determined, though inheriting the NBA parent club’s nickname, or a variation, is common among the G League teams that are directly owned by NBA franchises, as most are.
Pelicans owners wanted to place their new G League team closer to New Orleans, mainly to make it easier for two-way players — two team members in their first four seasons of pro play split time between the G League and the NBA club.
The Pels originally looked at Shreveport and Pensacola. But when Shreveport city officials balked at building a new arena and Pensacola plans fell apart, the Pelicans started looking seriously at Birmingham.
Has metro Birmingham reached a saturation point with five pro sports teams? Clarkson, who knows the sports landscape as well as anyone, says he doesn’t really know, though he has mixed opinions on which teams will do well and which won’t.
“I’m not sure about the basketball team; Birmingham just isn’t a basketball area,” Clarkson said. “Hockey has done well here because it’s fast and exciting, and we’ve been around long enough that we don’t have to educate people about hockey like we did when the Bulls started. (Football) takes so much money, and this league only plays 10 games in a season, so they’re dependent on TV money. I’m not sure they (the Alliance of American Football) know this market.”
But one big thing that has changed since Clarkson first arrived in Birmingham is the media. The fall of newspapers has given way to the rise of social media, in which the teams themselves do most of their reporting on games and team news.
“I can’t even name a sports writer in this town now, but we’re all over social media with the Bulls,” Clarkson said.
On the Web
- Birmingham Bulls: bullshockey.net
- Birmingham Iron: aaf.com/birmingham-iron
- Legion FC: bhmlegion.com
- Birmingham Barons: milb.com/birmingham
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