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Double Tide: After years of talk and the World Games on the way, midsize Birmingham debuts two new sparkling venues

By Bret McCormick
UAB played the first of five home games at Protective Stadium this season in early October.Courtesy of Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Authority

In early 2015, the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s football program had just disbanded because of financial concerns, leaving its football-crazed city without an FBS-level program. Birmingham’s hopes of funding a new stadium to replace its nearly hundred-year-old Legion Field felt as bleak as ever.

 

City and county council meetings, public comment periods, referendums, and private backroom conversations had gotten Birmingham no closer to the domed stadium mirage that first appeared in the 1990s.

But almost as soon as the UAB football program disappeared, a successful effort to revive it began. And with it so did the story of Protective Stadium, a 45,000-seat, open-air venue that opened in September. The football stadium project’s momentum helped jump-start Birmingham’s complete renovation of 18,000-seat Legacy Arena, which sits two blocks away and will reopen on Sunday, Dec. 5, as an almost brand-new building.

“There are a lot of entities that came together to make it happen, but while everyone’s role was critical, there would not have been a need to have a stadium or a need for everybody to step up if there was no UAB football,” said UAB Athletic Director Mark Ingram. “We’re not more responsible for it, but it was the catalyst towards the effort.”

In all, the publicly funded two-year construction projects cost a combined $330 million. A 20-plus-year revitalization of the surrounding downtown area meant the two venues weren’t isolated on an unvisited island. And the stadium and arena come on line just in time for Birmingham to host the World Games, a major international multisport event, in the summer of 2022, a moment that those involved in the projects hope puts the city on the global sports map.

“I think they’re both statements that Birmingham is ready to be a player,” said Tad Snider, executive director and CEO of the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Authority, which owns the arena and the stadium. “The football stadium serves a lot of needs, very useful and a huge steppingstone in recruiting for UAB. But the reinvestment in the arena more than anything laid down a marker that Birmingham as a destination wants to do more regional and high-profile events.”

The new stadium gives Birmingham a 45,000-seat facility to replace aging Legion Field.Courtesy of Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Authority

‘Ready and waiting’

Efforts to build a new football stadium began in the 1990s, including a penny sales tax that would have funded a $300 million domed stadium but ultimately failed, according to David Galbaugh, vice president of sports sales and marketing for the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Populous has worked with the BJCC on potential stadium plans for two decades, said Principal and Senior Architect Jim Swords. He joined the effort about five years ago just as UAB’s football program was coming back to life and the stadium project finally gained traction. 

Decades of urban exodus had begun to reverse, and development revitalized the center of the city, which has about 200,000 residents (with a million in the metro area). Regions Field, home of minor league baseball’s Class AA Birmingham Barons, opened in 2013, and breweries and restaurants proliferated. According to the nonprofit Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, the number of 24- to 35-year-olds living in downtown Birmingham increased 58% between 2010 and 2014, more than triple the national average.

Magic City sports timeline

April 2013: $64 million Regions Field opens in downtown Birmingham, home to the Class AA Birmingham Barons.
December 2014: The Birmingham Jefferson County Civic Center Authority, owner and operator of the city’s arena, and officials of Legacy Credit Union announce a five-year, $2 million naming-rights contract for the venue.
January 2015: The city is awarded the 2021 World Games, with Protective Stadium as the host of the opening and closing ceremonies. The event, which will include athletes from more than 100 countries competing in 34 different sports, was rescheduled to July 2022 due to the pandemic.
2018
March: Birmingham City Council approves a contribution of $3 million a year for 30 years toward the expansion of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, which will include a new downtown stadium and renovation of Legacy Arena, which opened in 1976.
November: The New Orleans Pelicans announce that their G League affiliate, later named the Birmingham Squadron, will call Legacy Arena home.
2019
June: Birmingham-based Protective Life signs a 15-year, $15 million deal to have its name atop the new stadium.
2020
May: The 2025 World Police and Fire Games, a 10-day, multisport tournament that attracts 10,000 first responders from around the world, are awarded to Protective Stadium.
October: NCAA awards the first and second rounds of the 2023 Division I men’s tournament and the 2025 Division I women’s basketball tournament to Legacy Arena.
November: A $30 million renovation concludes at the 757-room Sheraton Birmingham, one of two BJCC-owned hotels located next to the stadium and arena.
2021
April: Legion Field, which opened in 1927 and displayed an entryway sign proclaiming it to be the “Football Capital of the South,” hosts its final UAB event, an intrasquad scrimmage.
Oct. 2:37,167 football fans watch UAB play Liberty at Protective Stadium’s inaugural event.
Dec. 1-3: The Alabama High School Athletic Association’s seven football championships, known as the Super 7, are scheduled to be played at Protective Stadium, along with 2024, 2027 and 2030.
Dec. 5: The NBA G League Birmingham Squadron takes on the Mexico City Capitanes to reopen Legacy Arena.
Compiled by David Broughton

“Any sports project at this point, those contributing factors are much more important than ‘where can I go buy the cheapest land to stand up a stadium and all the parking spots I need,’” said Ryan Austin, president of HPM, which served as the owners representative for the arena and stadium.

The fleeting disappearance of UAB football galvanized the community. At a 2015 meeting to discuss the program’s future with prominent city residents, Ingram remembers a man saying he’d never been to a UAB football game in the previous 25 years of the team’s existence, but that he had been struck by the effect of the team’s absence on the city. On the spot, he pledged a million dollars to support its return.

That set off a cascade of donations around the room, and a stadium plan was born. Organizers sold 20 suites in the proposed venue at $50,000 per year for 10 years to raise money for the effort. That paved the way for the BJCC to go the public bond markets and get loans to fund both the new stadium as well as a long-overdue modernization of the 45-year-old arena.

In March 2019, the Birmingham City Council committed to providing $3 million per year over 30 years for the BJCC expansion plan, and was joined by Jefferson County, which pitched in a million dollars annually during the same term. UAB and corporate partners pledged a combined $4 million a year for 10 years through a long-term lease agreement, sponsorship and naming rights. And the BJCC — which oversees a convention center and owns the arena, the stadium, two hotels, and an entertainment district, all in Birmingham’s downtown — is paying $10.7 million to the project’s annual debt service.

The last hurdle: a change to the Alabama state constitution so that Jefferson County could impose a tax on car rentals to help fund the Birmingham projects. UAB hired a political consultant to sway opinion in favor of Amendment 14. The amendment went to a statewide vote and passed, and the car rental tax was confirmed in March 2018. Work on both venues commenced in 2019.

Courtesy of Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Authority

One shot to get it right

The south side of Legacy Arena was torn off and replaced with a new 35,000-square-foot entrance lobby and glass façade. The seating bowl was left intact, but the building was otherwise stripped down to its concrete shell and 12 new suites and an upper-level club section were added. A new center-hung scoreboard and LED ribbons were installed, and locker rooms and dressing rooms were refurbished. Snider thinks back-of-house improvements like a new eight-bay loading dock for trucks, plus the addition of the G League Squadron, will help the building to host at least 65 to 70 events annually, 20 more than before the renovation.

Protective Stadium has the fifth biggest scoreboard in college football, measuring as wide as the playing field, a spacious, 360-degree concourse and a drink rail that circles the top of the lower bowl. Thirty-four suites and 1,700 club suites enhance UAB’s ability to benefit from its boosters and alumni, while a student-specific end zone plaza creates atmosphere. Sitting across the street from the Southeastern Conference’s headquarters, Protective Stadium averaged more than 27,000 fans for UAB’s first four home games this fall.

Courtesy of Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Authority

“We gave them a product that they can use and grow into,” said Swords. “Anything they can think of to put into the two facilities, they can handle it.”

Birmingham’s journey to essentially two brand-new, modern sports venues was emotional and taxing.

“We know this is kind of a historic event for our community, and you partner that with the fact that we have the World Games coming, we understood we had one shot to get it correct,” said Austin.

Getting it right could help show the sports and entertainment potential of the city with a population just north of 200,000. Sure, the city and state are a football stronghold, but it’s more than that, Snider said. Birmingham is also a top-50 TV market, likely an NCAA Tournament basketball mainstay in the coming decades with men’s and women’s games already awarded to the arena in 2023 and 2025, and next summer, the host of World Games events.

“I think it’s maybe a little bit under the radar,” Galbaugh said. “I wouldn’t say overlooked, but I think there is potential there that could be leveraged and accommodate more events.”

And now, he added, “We’ve got some new arrows in our quiver.”

Birmingham’s new venues

Legacy Arena

Cost: $120 million 
Capacity: 18,000 for sports, up to 19,000 for in-the-round performances
Owner/Operator: Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Authority
Tenant: Birmingham Squadron (G League) 
Architect: Populous, Studio 2H Design, CCR Architecture & Interiors 
Owners’ rep: HPM 
General contractor: BL Harbert International 
Structural engineer: Walter P Moore 
Venue naming rights: Legacy Community Federal Credit Union 
Concessionaire: Centerplate 
Legacy/founding partners: N/A
Vendor providing stadium/arena seats: Irwin for all fixed seating, Hussey for retractable seating (floor)
Suites/premium areas: 12 suites, 2 clubs
Suites/premium spaces capacity: Suite capacity 1,175
Concessionaire: Centerplate   
Soda pouring rights: Coca-Cola 
Video boards: Daktronics
Wi-Fi/DAS vendors: AT&T

Protective Stadium

Cost: $210 million 
Capacity: 45,000
Owner/Operator: Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Authority
Tenant: UAB football 
Architect: Populous 
Owners’ rep: HPM
General contractor: Brasfield & Gorrie 
Structural engineer: Walter P Moore
Venue naming rights: Protective Life Insurance Co. 
Concessionaire: Centerplate 
Legacy/founding partners: Alabama Power, Protective Life, Regions Bank, Vulcan Materials
Vendor providing stadium/arena seats: Camatic
Suites/premium areas — (named/sponsored areas): 34 suites, main level club (end zone to end zone), south end zone terrace open air premium area, field level club in south end zone
Suites/premium spaces capacity: roughly 3,000
Concessionaire: Centerplate   
Soda pouring rights: Coca-Cola
Video boards: Daktronics
Wi-Fi/DAS vendors: AT&T

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