(Cartoon courtesy J.D. Crowe and acquired through AL.COM)
December 2, 2014.
UAB shuttered its much maligned football program, despite recording its best finish in 10 years under Coach Bill Clark’s first year. Dr. Ray L. Watts cited that the program could not be sustained through the University’s funding and cited a study the University had conducted over the last year assessing such. Fans and supporters of the program cited faults in the study, and several firms and Sports Economists, such as Andy Schwarz (@andyhre) created their own studies to show how UAB Football was indeed feasible.
June 1, 2015.
The most unlikely scenario finally occurred. Dr. Ray L. Watts announced that UAB Football would be returning with a few notable changes: the University (Board of Trustees) would cap the amount of funding directed to the program and the rest would need to be raised through donors. No ifs ands or butts, UAB Football will come back, but they’d make it clear that the powers that be want nothing to do with it. For now.
There are a few things we know: the decimation of the UAB Football program was done by the Board of Trustees, if you want to take the time to search the saga at AL.com, John Archibald did a fantastic job helping connect the pieces for those who sit outside of Birmingham or Alabama in general and are unaware of the politics of the state (I’ll link to some of those pieces at the end of this article). This hit job has been in the works since UAB started an Athletic program under Gene Bartow decades ago, and really got personal when UAB “overstepped their boundary” and launched a football program in the 90s.
Yet somehow, through all of the red sights that were pointed at this program, through the concerted effort to shut the program down by 2017 that was accelerated due to Clark’s 4-2 start in 2014, through the faulty studies orchestrated with a predetermined goal in mind, UAB Football rose from its grave. Why is this important? Because UAB Football can generate massive advertisement for the University, in the same way other Group of 5 Schools can, and that advertisement can turn into students, who can then turn into alums who pay into its donor base. NCAA Athletics are huge, powerful sources of income for those at the Top, but massive venues for advertisement at the lower rungs.
Don’t believe me? The University of South Alabama announced its football program in 2008, set to play their first season in 2009. At the time, the University had a total enrollment of just over 14,000 with 10,613 enrolled full time (Source: USA Enrollment Data). Since the rollout of that program, USA’s attendance has increased to 16,699 with 13,594 full-time students, a jump from 74% to 83%. The football team isn’t the ONLY reason for this jump, but it does play a major role, suddenly the view of USA changes from “commuter school” to “traditional University”, students have been flocking to USA from all over the country. Again, while this isn’t JUST because of Jaguar football, there is a snowball effect that occurs simply from its existence. Fan interest or Television appearances generate intrigue, intrigue could lead to branding and discussion, and as the University increased its undergraduate recruitment presence, they were able to reach more and more students through familiarity. In short, it works.
When UAB cancelled football in 2014, they saw their undergraduate enrollment and enrollment of first time freshmen DROP for the first time since 2007. The Admissions Counselors stated that it added difficulty to their position because students and parents hear about those things and attribute it negatively towards all aspects of the University (Source: Former coworkers from the Office of Admissions at UAB).
There are still major question marks and hurdles regarding this return. This biggest naysayer argument is that “no one cares about UAB Football”, which on a national, and even statewide scale is true. It doesn’t have to be the case for the city.
“Nobody really cares” about Marshall football, or WKU football, or Coastal Carolina football….from a national perspective. But I bet in the Huntington area, in other parts of West Virginia, and to alum of the university, Marshall football matters, same to Western Kentucky and CCU. Those programs have been allowed to breathe, succeed, and sustain their success. They’ve been free to hire coaches of their choice, which UAB was forced into with Neil Callaway. The only real bad hire that UAB made on their own accord was Garrick McGee, who at least had the track record to get a shot. Bill Clark is easily the best coach the program has ever had, showcasing this by turning a 3-9 team into a 6-6 program that could have arguably finished with 8 wins. He’s found a way to bring in JUCO players and freshmen to revive this program, players have had their eligibility frozen, and watched this rebuild from the sidelines. They’re excited, they’re ready. If this team can generate excitement and showcase talent and success, why wouldn’t the city of Birmingham galvanize around a program that rose from the ashes?
If you live in Birmingham, why wouldn’t you drive over to Legion Field on a warm fall Saturday, pay $5 to park, $10 a ticket, get quality seats to see a quality team play college football? Especially if you don’t feel like driving to Tuscaloosa, or Auburn, fighting the traffic, paying higher ticket prices, when you can just record the game and watch at home?
The second major hurdle is the aforementioned Legion Field and the perception that will come with it. The photo above is the crowd from UAB’s final home game prior to the shut down vs. what was then an undefeated Marshall team. That was an announced crowd of over 28k, which considering the stakes behind the game were massive. Those look like dots in the outdated and dilapidated Legion Field, which seats over 60k. Some of you may scoff at that, “Well Alabama brings in 100k a game!”
That’s SEC. This is Conference USA.
The highest average attendance over the course of the 2016 season for Conference USA? 28,588, set by Southern Mississippi. That’s in the Top 10 for all Group of 5 programs.
Think about the energy and electricity of the UAB/Marshall game in 2014. If Bill Clark and company can pull off the unthinkable, they’ll bring that to every home game from here on out, and you’ll see UAB putting up those numbers. Maybe even climbing into the Top 5 with the benefit of being home to the largest College Football market in the country.
Hopefully, the city of Birmingham will be able to make the dream of an Uptown stadium a reality soon. That’ll help with perception. It’ll help with recruitment. It’ll be a huge development for the city.
If you live in Birmingham, or if you’re near, UAB plays its first official Spring game on Saturday, April 1st at Legion Field. I urge you to attend. If you can’t attend, stream it on ESPN3. UAB needs for you to have their back. Birmingham needs you to back UAB, and whether the state will admit it or not, it needs you to back the economic engine and largest employer in the state of Alabama.