COLUMN: Pro sports becoming a mainstay in Alabama

Published 7:57 am Friday, December 15, 2023

I’ve been to Birmingham more times in the past year than I have in my entire life. Some of it was for work, some for fun and some for health reasons.

I’ve been told the surgeon that will do my surgery next year is one of the best cancer surgeons in the entire country. UAB has that kind of a reputation, which I’m very, very grateful for. During this time, outside of doctor visits, I’ve actually found Birmingham to be a fun place to be, especially for sports fans.

When I was growing up I was obsessed with alternate sports leagues and professional sports in Alabama, in general. There have been few and far between of those over the years. When I was a kid, I got to root for the Birmingham Bolts – who actually had some local flavor on the team with Troy graduate Eric Sloan at cornerback and Brundidge native Quincy Jackson at receiver – for one season. A few years ago, I got to cover every home game that the Birmingham Iron played at legendary Legion Field and the last two years I got my chance to cover a fair share of Birmingham Stallions games.

The Birmingham Squadron is Alabama’s NBA G-League team. (Photo by Josh Boutwell)

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Professional sports in Birmingham now isn’t just relegated to spring football, however. That’s something I got to enjoy first hand in my recent trip to Birmingham. Since I was going to be there, I wanted to do something fun along with the not-so fun stuff that is accompanied with cancer treatments.

I went to my very first hockey game when I checked out the Birmingham Bulls last Friday night. I’ve never been too much of a hockey fan but the live experience is absolutely worth it. I was shocked that there was at least 2,000 fans that packed the small ice arena in Pelham.

The Bulls put together a unique, fun live experience. Alabama receiver Jermaine Burton was on hand signing autographs and taking pictures with fans. The Bulls even offer fans a special VIP experience that allows fans to sit on the players’ bench during warm-ups and stand out on the ice during introductions. The Bulls even wore special Superman jerseys, while their Huntsville Havoc opponents wore Batman inspired jerseys.

The game is physical and the fans get into it as much as any football crowd I’ve been a part of. Unfortunately, the cold of the arena started to make my feet go numb – a symptom of the Chemo – and I had to leave before the third period. Also unfortunately, the Bulls lost 2-1 but it was definitely a fun experience.

On Saturday night, I made my way to beautiful Legacy Arena to watch my very first professional basketball game just as a fan when the Birmingham Squadron faced the Rio Grande Vipers. I had seen one other Squadron game, but that time I was covering it as working media. This time, I sat in the crowd with everyone else, ate popcorn, bought a hat and just had fun.

The game wasn’t much of a game considering the Vipers won 132-99 but the play was fast paced, exciting and had a ton of dunks. The Squadron also do an awesome job with the live experience, offering up free prizes throughout the game and even fun halftime entertainment. They also gave out free Squadron toboggans to every fan. I think that’s one of thing I’ve noticed with every league in town, they try to make the live experience one you want to come back for.

The Birmingham Stallions is the only professional football team in Alabama. (Photo by Josh Boutwell)

In March, pro football is back as the Birmingham Stallions will look to win a third straight championship. What that league will be called is still unknown – the USFL and XFL are merging – but the Stallions will be back. If football, hockey and basketball isn’t enough, there’s even more for you. Birmingham now has it’s own professional soccer team, the Birmingham Legion FC, which plays at Protective Stadium. There’s also the longstanding Birmingham Barons, the minor league baseball affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. There’s also things like the Birmingham Negro Southern League Museum and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame right there in Downtown Birmingham, which are must visits for all sports fans.

There’s going to be plenty of Pike County folks – and people from all over the Wiregrass – that are going to be heading to Birmingham later this month for the Birmingham Bowl. With so many sports options – about a two-hour drive away – maybe some of those folks in the Wiregrass can become as addicted to pro sports in Alabama as I am.