Birmingham’s collegiate sports addiction
(Note: This blog entry was submitted by UAB history undergrad Keith DePew, who finished an internship with the Birmingham History Center last week. DePew, 22, from Trussville, is a second baseman for the UAB Blazers baseball team and will graduate this year with a degree in secondary education, with plans to teach high school history. He sifted through several sports collections during his internship, including one with artifacts from the long-gone Birmingham Bulls.)
While working an internship for the Birmingham History Center, I began to run across Birmingham Bulls hockey artifacts. These items included trading cards, attire, and hockey sticks. I even saw a jersey that I used to own as a kid. Growing up in Birmingham, I can remember going to games with my dad and wearing that same jersey and laughing at the uproarious fans rooting for the Bulls.
As I continued to find Bulls memorabilia, I wondered why the team was no longer in Birmingham, which led me to question why hockey and other new professional sports in Birmingham have had so much trouble staying in the city. As I see it, Birmingham is just too focused on college athletics. The story of the Bulls hockey team provides a better understanding of the city’s condition.
Hockey once flourished in a city that was lucky to see snow in two months out of the year. The Birmingham Bulls of the East Coast Hockey League had major success in Birmingham following its inaugural season in 1992. According to The Birmingham News writer Clyde Bolton, hockey was thriving in the Magic City.
Each game, thousands of hockey-loving fans turned out at the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center to support their Bulls. In fact, opening season for the Bulls ranked among the top four in league attendance, averaging 7,500 fans per game. Sports enthusiasts were apparently excited to watch a game that they knew little about–Bolton even referenced some fans calling the hockey puck a ball.
The initial support of the team left people of Birmingham thinking the sport would last. By the turn of the century, however, things began to change. Like all sports, winning is a big factor in local support. The Bulls posted a losing record in both the ‘99-’00 and ‘00-’01 seasons, resulting in poor attendance. The News reported that attendance had dropped to less than 2,600 fans at the conclusion of the ‘00-’01 season and by the summer of 2001, the team was moved to New Jersey. Birmingham no longer hosted Bulls hockey.
The quick tenure of the Birmingham Bulls helped me to understand why the city has trouble holding new professional teams. Although there was a short burst of excitement over hockey, Birmingham is too much of a college sports city and cannot sustain any new professional teams. The type of sport has nothing to do with a team lasting. The Birmingham Bolts of the XFL proved that professional football could not survive in the city. Along with this, losing has relatively little to do with keeping a team. Professional teams all around the country lose games but continue to stay in their cities. Like Kevin Scarbinsky of The News stated about Birmingham, “…(we) lose teams the way other cities lose games.”
Ultimately, Birmingham is so focused on college sports that a professional team cannot be supported. Collegiate athletics are just too important.
There is one team, however, that seems to be immune to the sickness of professional Birmingham sports. The Birmingham Barons baseball team has survived over 100 years in Birmingham. They originally played at Rickwood Field and then later at Regions Park in Hoover. The team is now moving to a new home in downtown Birmingham in 2013.
The fact that the Barons have been a part of the city for so long is the reason they are still surviving today. If baseball were introduced in the last thirty years, it is likely that the team would have failed. However, the Barons were on the scene before college athletics infiltrated the city and have therefore endured. Hopefully their new stadium in the heart of the Magic City will continue to keep the Barons off the list of Birmingham’s unsuccessful sports teams.