Birmingham Legion FC is the focus of our latest USL Expansion Ramble.
With expansion news coming hot and heavy recently, we, Brian Cook and Richard Rainwater, are taking a look at each of the new teams gearing up to begin play in the USL. We will be covering the teams already announced to join the league and will be looking at how the teams can be successful, what struggles they face, and what we think the outcomes will be.
It’s the Expansion Ramble! We continue on to a team trying to appeal to the masses, Birmingham Legion FC.
Already known for their dominant college sports teams, the state of Alabama loves their sports. Football and baseball have thrived here for decades, and Alabamians are finally getting their first independent professional team, right in the heart of the city. The team was the first expansion side, out of this group, to announce their team name and colors, choosing black and gold. With an identity that connects to deep sports history in the city, and a city that is on the rise, Legion FC look poised to finally put more of the Deep South on the sports map.
What will make this team successful?
Richard- So far, exactly what they’ve been doing. They have a local owner, who also owns the local minor-league baseball team. He knows the community, the community knows him, and he knows how to operate a successful professional team in that market. That knowledge is priceless, especially since smaller cities can be much more difficult to reach than larger ones. A tone-deaf owner who sets up shop for the city’s “potential” doesn’t stand much of a chance.
They also have their team name and colors announced, which has led to strong marketing efforts in and around the city. The name itself is a call-back to the history of sports in the region, as well as it’s working-class history. Rather than going the traditional European route (Swope Park Rangers, ALL 55,000,000 “United” teams), or naming the team after natural disasters (San Jose Earthquakes, Chicago Fire), they have a unique name the fans can rally behind.
Finally, they have the benefit of being the biggest game in town. The team doesn’t have to compete against a local NFL, NBA, MLB, or even MLS side. On matchday, they will be the biggest attraction in Central Alabama, and that works greatly to their benefit. Add in the rivalry against Memphis from the start, and a lot of attention is heading in their direction next season.
Brian – Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Birmingham’s decision to bring Chandler Hoffman back home was the best first move I think we will see from USL expansion teams. The signing makes sense on the field and makes even more sense off the field. His presence will bring better brand awareness with his name already being big in USL. The name choice of Birmingham Legion is also an interesting choice. It’s almost refreshing to not see a new expansion team slide into the FC/SC mantra so quickly. Alabama as a market is just generally interesting for soccer. It will be interesting to see what kind of players they bring in at that D2 level and what their attendance numbers are for their debut. It’s that intrigue that makes them likely to be a success early on.
One of the biggest benefits this team will have is it’s not only in a downtown area but it avoids being close to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which is home to the University of Alabama. There shouldn’t be much of a clash and Alabama getting a pro soccer team makes sense for the state.
What will make this team struggle?
Richard- While the area is booming, there is a reason other professional teams haven’t set up shop in certain areas. It is difficult to support the infrastructure needed for a professional team in smaller cities, especially when the novelty of a new team wears off. Legion will feel pressure to make sure that the expected attendance dip in years 3-5 isn’t so severe that they can’t make ends meet.
Birmingham will also be competing with college football, whose season starts during the climax of the USL regular season. Most of the issues with this competition can be resolved through proper scheduling and planning. However, they might run into problems if there isn’t enough money to go around. Marketing, promotions, and ticketing will be especially important for this club to remain relevant on the weekends.
Finally, there is the stadium situation. The connection with the local minor league team has most fans expecting at least a season in Regions Field downtown, but the club is also searching for other venues in the city. Where they choose to play will have a significant impact on their long-term attendance and viability. The team will need a quality location to start to build.
Brian- This team could struggle. A lot. Soccer is an interesting sport to drop into markets and for soccer in Alabama, you are dropping into a football state. Much like Columbus Crew and Ohio State, the University of Alabama college football team is as close to a professional football team as a college team can get. Even though they aren’t extremely close to each other (around 50-60 miles distance from Birmingham to the University of Alabama), I expect that the university will play a role in the success of the team. Even if it’s not direct, Birmingham’s biggest challenge should be to tap into Alabama’s college students and the University as quickly as possible.
What do you think is more likely with this team: MLS Expansion, Successful D-2, Future D-3 Superstars, Soon-to-be ghost of American soccer past?
Richard- Let’s get this out of the way: MLS will not be setting up shop in Birmingham, AL. But, out of all the teams in this list, Birmingham has the best chance to be a strong, stable, success at the D-2 level. They have taken their time to plan things out and are making smart choices that will pay big dividends as the team moves forward. Signing local players, having smart branding, and having an owner with knowledge of running sports teams in the city all spell good times ahead for the legions of Birmingham fans.
Brian- Birmingham is just interesting to look at as a soccer market. You can always joke about “Oh let’s stick a team in North Dakota…” or “Let’s put a team in Wyoming” and to no fault of the state, Alabama hasn’t really been on the radar of soccer markets. That being said, being the first professional soccer team in the state and with the announcement of such a strong first signing with Chandler Hoffman, Birmingham Legion fans have every reason to believe this team can be a solid D2 team. These first few years will determine where they are at in the landscape but they look to be on a good start.