Protective Stadium – good news or bad?
AL.com leaked a big story
See bottom of post for an update.
This past Monday AL.com published a story about the return of the USFL to play in the spring of 2022, specifically that as previously rumored they are working on a memorandum of understanding to play the entire season in Birmingham, primarily at the new Protective Stadium. Snuck into that story was this statement:
The MOU also includes a tentative schedule for the 2022 season, which excludes dates for an unspecified concert between May 30-June 5 and nine dates for the Birmingham Legion, although “dates have not yet been finally approved by the team,” according to the MOU.
The wording of this is somewhat murky, but at a minimum it means that the Legion plans to play 9 games at Protective Stadium next season. It could also mean that the USFL season, which will run from mid-April to early July, needs to schedule around 9 game dates to be used by the Legion during that period. That latter interpretation may suggest that the Legion intends to play its entire 2022 season at Protective.
That’s quite a leak, as the club has obviously not released any statement to the effect that they intend to make a move, permanent or otherwise. In some ways it’s a surprise, in others not. The presence of a brand spanking new stadium in the city with all the expected conveniences is obviously a big draw. It’s also clear the city wants to use it as much as possible. The major potential drawback (which we’ll get to) is the size of the place.
Before that, though, we have to consider the fact that the Legion’s lease at BBVA Field still has 5 years to run at $350,000 a year. The opt-out clause doesn’t kick in for another two years and will cost $1.05 million (which is three year’s rent anyway). The USFL is getting to play at Protective for free; does that means the same for the Legion? That seems unlikely for a full five years. It’s possible that the Legion will claim that UAB has violated the terms of the lease by not providing a consistently usable field – sand, drainage problems, etc. – and will negotiate some kind of early expiration of the lease. But don’t forget that the Legion also paid for some of the upgrades that were made to BBVA Field prior to its first season. That’s sunk money, granted, but still.
Everything is always about the Benjamins[efn_note]Full disclosure: this author is in the financial industry. I’m biased.[/efn_note], of course, so this potential move has to be in large part a money-driven decision. Supposing that the Legion cannot get out of the existing lease at no cost, the logical conclusion is that the financial benefits of the move exceed whatever it will cost to break the lease (or leave it in place). At most, it should cost $350,000 a year. That’s hardly chump change, right?
Well, maybe not. The Legion plays a minimum of 17 regular season home games. That works out to $20,588 a game. At, say, just $10 a ticket, that would be 2,059 tickets per game. Which by my guess is maybe a little less what the team is averaging this year (actual attendance numbers for the USL are hard to come by). And of course actual ticket prices overall are much more than that, absent special deals. So, not such a big deal after all. At worst, it would be fairly easy to break even on that little issue.
Beyond that, the financial benefits are likely extensive. Concession sales (of which the team would presumably get a cut) would be much stronger, even without additional ticket sales. By all accounts, the concession options are much broader than can be had at BBVA Field, and there will also be food trucks as at the Bank. Beer options are broad with almost all the local breweries involved, and apparently a very large number of taps to serve it up. Dread River is also on hand for cocktails.
That’s assuming you don’t want to opt for the growing number of food and drink choices outside the stadium in the revitalized entertainment district around the BJCC. And those outlets will doubtless be very happy at this news.
Which brings us to the big question: how well can the Legion fill Protective Stadium? Capacity is 47,100. That’s almost 16,000 more than the USL Championship single game record (set by FC Cincinnati back in 2018). Those USL teams that have a soccer-specific stadium are mostly under 10,000 capacity (the largest SSS in the league is Louisville’s Lynn Family Stadium at 11,700). Where teams share a stadium with other sports – baseball or football – the seats are often largely empty (or at least appear so on TV). MLS-owned teams that play in their parent’s stadium (such as Sporting Kansas City II) really do play before empty seats. that last isn’t going to be an issue much longer though. But most USL teams are in relatively small markets and frequently in areas where the established American sports absorb most of the local disposable income. that is, the soccer clubs have a tough time competing.
Now Birmingham isn’t really a small market, and there is no real competition from other professional sports. The Barons and Bulls both play at lower tiers than the Legion – and Bulls fans are something of a eclectic group anyway here in the South. And can you even name the two semi-pro basketball clubs in town? The real competition here, of course, is college sports, and specifically football. It’s always been nigh on impossible for any other sport to break the stranglehold college football has on this state. So the question is: does the Legion think it has a chance to do that?
Obviously, filling Protective is unlikely. Could the Legion get to, oh,10,000 a game? I think – or rather, I hope – the answer is yes. Here’s how I think it could happen.
First, the team needs visibility. Local media coverage here is next to nonexistent. Aside from dedicated content creators such this site and Kaylor Hodges’ Hammering Down podcast, no one in town is covering the Three Sparks on anything like a regular basis. Joe Goodman at AL.com gives the occasional shoutout, but there’s nothing on TV or radio to speak of. But here’s the thing: everyone loves a winner, and these days that’s especially true in Alabama. It is my suspicion that the Legion is banking on a deep playoff run this year, and that will get attention. Or it should.
Once that is achieved, an additional benefit of moving to Protective is the press box. The press box at the Bank is, well, let’s be generous and call it cramped. Not so at Protective. Plenty of space available. And if the team chooses to ply the fourth estate with food and drink (which they have never been known to refuse), they will come far more readily than they currently do.
The team also needs to be strategic in which seats it sells, though. A big part of that visibility is how the team is presented on screen. 3,000 or 5,000 spread out all over the stadium will look sparse indeed. That’s even a problem at the Bank. By necessity the TV cameras are located on the grandstand side of the stadium. That means they face the smaller stands on the north side, which are largely empty. Not a good look. But that’s not a problem at Protective. And if the fans are seated opposite the TV cameras, the place will look much fuller than it actually is.
Bear in mind also that the team filled over 10,000 seats for the game against Memphis at Legion Field this year. If they can get that many into a crumbling relic in an iffy part of town, there is no reason why they can’t do the same in a new facility in a better area. All the more so if they keep ticket prices low.
One other obvious benefit of moving across town would be a much more reliable venue, weather-wise. If the team chooses to play on the artificial surface, then conditions would have to be absolutely intolerable to cancel a game entirely. Lightning apparently won’t be too much of a problem either, as the stadium will be able to accommodate fans on site while they wait out a storm. Which likely also means extra concession sales. And there are TV screens everywhere to keep them entertained in the process.
It also seems likely that the football lines can be removed if desired (such as was done at Taft Stadium last weekend and is done at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium almost every weekend). It’s surprisingly easy to do – a big mobile washing machine that looks very much like an ice rink’s Zamboni putters around the field cleaning the lines off in a couple of hours. As a referee I rather appreciate the gridlines (they make offside calls waay easier), but from a spectator’s point of view I detest them, especially the wide boundary lines.
But it turns out that the field was designed in such a way that natural sod can be easily overlaid on the artificial surface. That would seem expensive over the course of a full season, but the option is there. In fact, it was probably done intentionally for soccer. Not necessarily for the Legion, but Birmingham now has the ability to host much bigger soccer events. The 2026 World Cup is a non-starter, but what if we could get some WC qualification games here? Or Gold Cup games? It also gives other teams much more of an incentive to play friendlies here. Atlanta United has already been here twice; who else might come? And what about that relationship with Birmingham City? The possibility of a transatlantic friendly just went through the roof.
Finally, there are no issues with a reduced width field. Unlike many football stadia – Legion Field for one – the sideline seating does not curve in at the ends, limiting the width of the field. It’s a true rectangle with plenty of space for a normal-sized soccer field. It was built as a multi-purpose facility, remember.
One problem that could occur (assuming that the Legion plays an entire season there and not just 9 games) is scheduling, at least through July. As the MOU suggests, that is an open issue during the USFL season, but immediately after that is the World Games which will take up two weeks in July. that could cause a few headaches. If, on the other hand, it’s just 9 games for the full year, that’s just over half the home schedule, and playing all 9 after the stadium gets less busy would make sense. We shall see.
Anyway: what do you think? Good idea? Bad idea? Looking forward to it or not?
And here’s the most important question: what is its nickname going to be? The Insurance doesn’t quite have the right ring, so we have to go with something else.
Since publishing this post it has come to my attention that there is some media coverage of the Legion. My previous comments were based on the general absence of additional media in the press box. However, it turns out that Birmingham Mountain Radio (107.3 FM) has regular features on the team, including interviews, ticket giveaways and calendar updates. My apologies to the station and thanks to Scott Register of BMR for bringing this to my attention.
Additionally, The Next Round has some limited Legion coverage, although its focus is the SEC.
BMR is a rock station, not a sports station and as such is putting actual sports stations to shame. Birmingham’s leading sports radio station, WJOX, doesn’t seem to have much interest, although I believe they have had team interviews in the past. The Legion isn’t even listed in its teams menu on the website, which includes the Braves, the Grizzlies (???) and the Titans. And a search for “Legion” gives this top result: