We learned more details today about the preseason game that is set to take place in Birmingham with the Houston Rockets. Former Alabama player Robert Horry was on hand to explain more details about the game that was announced back in August 2017. James Harden made an appearance at Parker High School, home of current Milwaukee Bucks player Eric Bledsoe, to announce that the Rockets would play a preseason game here, but that was all we knew at the time.
Now we know that the Rockets will face the Memphis Grizzlies on October 2 at 7 pm at the BJCC in what they are calling the BBVA Compass Iron City Showdown. It is the first NBA game in Birmingham in 12 years after the Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks played at the BJCC back in 2006. The last time the Rockets played here was 1999 when they faced the Detroit Pistons.
So with that, I was tasked with coming up with the five biggest games in various sports that would create the most excitement for local sports fans. I had to choose one of each from the following:
– NBA Preseason Game
– NFL Preseason Game
– MLB Preseason Game
– NCAA Football Bowl Game (intriguing Birmingham Bowl match-up)
Here’s what I came up with:
1. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Boston Celtics (Legacy Arena)
I should note – replace the Cavs with whatever team LeBron is playing on if it’s not the Cavs after this year, which there is a good chance it might not be.
The first thing is to get LeBron to come to Birmingham to show off. Doesn’t matter what team he’s playing for. I chose Boston as the second team, although that could change depending on who the other team is, but I feel like I see a decent amount of people who like the Celtics in town. I assume anyone that is a Boston fan became a fan during their championship runs in the 60’s, 80’s or late 2000’s.
However, another reason to cheer for the Celtics now is the Brad Stevens factor, after what he did at Butler and being a somewhat successful NBA coach so far. He also had a player from Homewood on those two Butler teams that made runs to the championships, so that is another big reason for some local people to love Brad Stevens and now the Celtics. Butler played UAB at Bartow Arena back in 2009 and it was an amazing game with a sold out crowd – but a big part of it was a ranked Butler team came to town with a local player on it, and also Gordon Hayward and Brad Stevens with the team. That was the first year they made a title game run.
LeBron makes any team a contender and the Celtics, when healthy, are arguably the best team in the East. If you want to feed Birmingham’s NBA appetite, give them the best the league has to offer, and LeBron is the best player, and a healthy Celtics are one of the best teams. Seeing LeBron, Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Brad Stevens and more would be a thrill for Birmingham sports fans.
2. Atlanta Braves vs. New York Yankees (Regions Field)
This is a match-up that we aren’t as likely to get, but yet they did play a few times this past spring so maybe we could get it here. Spring Training facilities aren’t much bigger than some minor league facilities. Regions Field holds 8,500 people and Champion Stadium, the spring home of the Braves, holds 9,500.
I thought about making this Braves vs. Nationals since I actually know a decent number of Nationals fans, including plenty here at Jox, but that is a match-up we see all the time. Braves vs. Yankees is much rarer. The Braves have only actually played the Yankees 31 times in the history of Major League Baseball, but of course that doesn’t count spring games.
The Braves are a team most people in Birmingham cheer for in Major League Baseball. The Yankees a team that probably has one of the biggest fan bases in general in all of sports. Spring Training is in Orlando anyway, so they keep it in the southeast already. If it happened now, or in the near future, fans could see the young Braves team that is playing well right now plus see players like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.
3. Nashville Predators vs. Washington Capitals (Legacy Arena/Pelham Civic Center)
There is an appetite for hockey whether anyone wants to admit it or not. Many people don’t care to watch it on TV, but the same goes for baseball. If an NHL game came to town, people would get excited. People got excited for the Bulls returning, and even though it’s not at the BJCC and a really low level of hockey, they still did alright in their first season from what I’ve heard. I still hear people reminisce to the good old days of Bulls hockey at the BJCC and I can remember going to a ton of games when I was younger.
The success of Nashville in the NHL has brought a new fever to hockey that people didn’t have at first, especially in the south. The problem is finding another team that people would be excited for, because there aren’t many other NHL teams nearby. Atlanta had one for a while, but the franchise moved to Winnipeg (and that is who Nashville is playing right now in the playoffs). The nearest teams outside of Nashville are probably the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes. Only the Lightning would be worthwhile to bring fans in.
However, the Washington Capitals are actually not that far away compared to other teams, and they are one of the best in hockey with arguably the best player in hockey with Alexander Ovechkin. He is the kind of star that people would turn up to see and strictly based on skill, these are two teams that could realistically make Stanley Cup runs as well.
There is also a contest they run in the NHL called “Kraft Hockeyville USA” where a bunch of small towns get nominated to host a preseason hockey game, and the winner is announced at the beginning of the playoffs. Each town has their dedicated hockey arena and the winning town gets $150,000 to upgrade that arena and that arena hosts a preseason hockey game. Clinton, NY won this year’s contest and a preseason game will be held at Clinton Arena, a 2,000 seat arena that Pelham would put to shame, much less if it were at Legacy Arena.
Alabama had six ice rinks listed on the Kraft Hockeyville page, but Pelham was the only one in Birmingham. The rest were in north Alabama and Montgomery. But don’t think it’s all northern states, as Shreveport, Louisiana was one of the four finalists.
4. Tennessee Titans vs. New England Patriots (Legion Field/New Stadium)
Some people may think football should be #1 on the list, but it isn’t. The problem is, we get enough from our college teams each week that if Birmingham were to have an NFL team, it may not be incredibly successful. Is the average fan that goes to Alabama or Auburn or UAB games going to make an entire day out of going to those games on Saturday, then get up the very next day and do it all again? Football games in the south are day-long events and it’s exhausting, especially the bigger games.
So if a preseason game is going to hype fans up, I feel like it has to have something to it to get people excited. I thought about going Titans vs. Falcons here, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I don’t think I know a single person that is a Falcons fan, yet I know tons of people who are Titans fans, myself included. Sure, plenty of people have enjoyed watching the Falcons over the years when they had Michael Vick at QB, UAB’s Roddy White at receiver and now Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley from Alabama at receiver – but how many people are actually die-hard Falcons fans? Maybe I’m just not friends with any, but there are plenty out there.
If you’re going to choose one team to bring in to generate buzz, the easy answer is the Patriots. So why not play just a few hours away from Nashville and bring in the best franchise in the sport? Besides, they just met last year in the playoffs and are two of the better teams in the league.
Another option would be Titans vs. Panthers. We get Falcons vs. Panthers all the time, but bring Cam Newton to Birmingham and you generate some buzz. A fun option could be Panthers vs. Bills so we could get a Cam Newton vs. AJ McCarron match-up that we just missed out on seeing in college.
The problem with all of these match-ups is that the stars that we want to see probably won’t play and if they do, it will be for a few minutes at the start. I feel like in all of the other sports, we would still see more of the big names.
5. Auburn Tigers vs. Central Florida Knights (Legion Field/New Stadium)
The problem with this ever being super exciting is that it’s typically the bottom of the SEC that is barely bowl eligible vs. a decent AAC team (at least as far as bowl tie-ins go). It all depends on match-ups, and who gets invited to the New Years Six bowls, but you’re typically going to have a #1-#3 AAC team and the #9-#10 SEC team.
Last year, the SEC didn’t even play in it due to three teams making the NY6 bowls including two in the playoffs and only nine teams being eligible for bowl games period.
The most well attended Birmingham Bowls were in 2013 when Ole Miss played Pittsburgh (then in the Big East) and then when Auburn played Memphis in 2015.
Here are the top 5:
2015: Auburn 31, Memphis 10 – 59,430
2013: Ole Miss 38, Pittsburgh 17 – 59,135
2010: UConn 20, South Carolina 7 – 45,254
2014: Vanderbilt 41, Houston 24 – 42,717
2011: Pittsburgh 27, Kentucky 10 – 41,207
You will need excited fan bases to create a lot of buzz. The last two years have featured South Florida vs South Carolina (31,229) and Texas Tech (28,623). Even though USF was ranked in the top 25 last year, it was the least attended game ever in the history of the bowl game.
Not only do you need an SEC team, you need one with a fan base. The highest totals are from two of the closest schools in the SEC to Birmingham – Oxford is about three hours away and Auburn is about two hours away and in the same state. The only other two schools that are close are Mississippi State (two and a half hours away) and Alabama (one hour away).
The easy choice would have been Alabama making it, but I just don’t see that happening any time soon. Auburn has been before and they could end up there again, assuming they fall off which I don’t see happening. But if you’re going to pick one AAC team for them to play, it has to be the one that beat them in Atlanta only a few months ago in UCF. Central Florida is one of the many former Conference USA teams that is now in the American Athletic Conference, so UAB fans know them. Auburn fans want a revenge win, although the Birmingham Bowl isn’t the place you necessarily want to do it because that means UCF has had a decent season and Auburn has had a 6-6 season.
Still, it would generate buzz and get the most fans in the stadium minus perhaps Alabama being there. I could have gone Alabama vs. UCF since it would be champion vs. champion, but it would be sad to see a team that hasn’t won less than 10 games in over a decade fall to the Birmingham Bowl.
Honorable Mention: Atlanta United vs. Manchester United (New Stadium)
I would have included this in the list, but I imagine we’ll never get a soccer match of this caliber. At least not unless Birmingham actually gets an MLS team. It would be great promotion for our USL team if a major soccer match happened, but with Atlanta playing at Mercedes Benz Stadium as their home field, there is no need to ever come to Birmingham. Birmingham has to put itself in a position to get these friendlies, and if teams are going to come from abroad, then Atlanta, Nashville or Orlando are all way more intriguing than Birmingham, even if the new stadium is awesome.