Do you know what it means?
It’s one of thousands of acronyms that Army folk use to boil a complex situation down to a root truth.
I’ll clean it up a bit, just in case any kids still read newspapers: Fouled Up Beyond All Repair. And folks, what an apropos adjective it is for Birmingham’s sports scene.
Our local sports situation is FUBAR. It’s FUBAB (Beyond All Belief), it’s FUUSAB (Until Space And Beyond), and moreover, it’s TAUFU (Totally And Utterly Fouled Up).
We lost hockey’s Bulls in 2000, football’s Thunderbolts and Steeldogs in 2001 and 2007 respectively and basketball’s Power in 2005. The only major professional sports team Birmingham has – baseball’s Barons – is Birmingham’s team in name only, ever since former owner Art Clarkson abandoned historic Rickwood Field in favor of Hoover’s Trace Crossings subdivision in 1988.
Last week, Birmingham’s athletic malaise spilled over into the amateur ranks, as the Alabama High School Athletic Association pulled the Super Six football championships out of Legion Field and into a rotation between Auburn’s Jordan-Hare and Tuscaloosa’s Bryant-Denny stadiums.
Despite the grim news, city leaders bragged about hanging on to the state basketball finals for now, which is their prerogative to do. But raise your hand if you’d like to take basketball’s side in an argument over which sport the majority of fans in Alabama prefer.
Not everyone at once, please.
It seems a wild claim nowadays, but Birmingham’s sports heritage is actually pretty stout. Willie Mays and the Black Barons won the Negro League pennant here back in 1948. Hockey legend Gordie Howe scored his 1,000th goal at the BJCC, becoming the first in his sport to reach that milestone. The USFL’s Stallions were Birmingham’s entry into the greatest non-NFL football effort undertaken in this country since the old AFL. Hell, Michael Jordan wasted a year of his prime athletic career in our berg, striking out hundreds of times at both the Met and various gentlemen’s clubs about town.
But now we find ourselves in one heck of a sports drought. A 100-years drought; an Old Testament-style drought. And we need to know why.
Whenever I need answers to questions regarding the history of professional sports in Birmingham, I look no further than Gene Crowley. Years of old fashioned, pre-Google research yielded Crowley’s Web masterpiece: BirminghamProSports.com. It’s the Wikipedia of local sports, only you can believe every word on it.
Gene and I know one each other from my days with the Birmingham Steeldogs, the longest-tenured football team in our city’s history. We had a pact, I gave him Steeldogs game programs, ticket stubs, pocket schedules and media guides for his site and, in turn, he would provide valuable sports history information for me at a time of my choosing. This week, I cashed in.
“When you look at the last 15 years, this year is certainly the low point for professional sports in Birmingham,” Crowley says. “Last year was almost as bad as this year, but at least we saw the All-American Football League hold player tryouts and a glitzy player draft in anticipation of a 2008 kickoff.”
Unfortunately, kickoff for the AAFL never materialized. Advertisers are hard enough to woo as it is, but nearly impossible to corral during a recession. The league folded before it ever played a single down, having run out of money before there was anything to spend it on.
Therefore we have our first entrant into our whodunit sweepstakes: the faltering economy. However, it’s also our flimsiest excuse, as our country’s current fiscal health is poor, it has been so for only a little more than a year. Birmingham’s sports prognosis has been negative for far longer. Nope, can’t blame this one the economy.
Well, can we blame the University of Alabama? Don’t laugh, some do.
Before the three (soon four) Bryant-Denny expansions that have taken place over the past 15 years, the Tide played a handful of home games each season at Legion Field. But in the late 1990s, a decision was made to transition the school out of the Magic City and exclusively back to Tuscaloosa. From 1998 to 2003, Alabama went from a handful of games per season to one. And then it was none. In Gene’s opinion, the loss of the Super Six pales in comparison to the loss of Alabama football.
“I think there’s a sharp difference between three days of high school championships versus one day of an Alabama football game,” he says. “I have to believe we lost more with Alabama leaving.”
He’ll get no argument there. But can you blame Alabama for wanting to play games in its own backyard? That university is Tuscaloosa’s lifeblood after all, shouldn’t they be the one to cash in on it? Without a doubt, they should. Nope, you can’t blame the University of Alabama.
You can blame, at least in part, Legion Field. Our cornerstone venue is too past its prime to host national events, but its prime was prime enough to officially earn a “historic” tag. And it’s usually not advisable to put the wrecking ball up against something that’s historic (see Terminal Station, Birmingham).
Technically, it’s a downtown stadium. And Birmingham needs a downtown stadium. But that area of town is FUBAR. Make that FUUSAB. So pumping money into the place is turd polishing — too big a risk.
UAB hates playing there. It’s has too many seats. It’s unsafe. It doesn’t impress today’s recruits. However, UAB has no choice but to play there. There’s no other option, unless you want to give Lawson Field a go. (And believe me, you don’t.)
It’s the pawn that gets moved back and forth in the domed stadium argument. Nobody wants to come to Legion. Not even the high schools! If we had a dome to replace Legion, we’d have the SEC Championship back, etc.
The question of whether or not Birmingham needs a domed stadium has been argued back and forth for most of my cognizant lifetime. The answer is two-fold. Yes, Birmingham needs a new sports venue, but no, not a full-scale domed stadium.
Get a solid minor league hockey franchise back in the BJCC first. Field an A or AA franchise at Rickwood. Grow a full set of baby teeth before you start pulling for permanents. Right now, all we have is a mouth full of gums.
After that, build a state-of-the-art, multi-purpose arena to replace what we currently have at the BJCC. We’re talking 25,000-30,000 seats plus all the modern perks money can buy. Get the NCAA Regionals back in town, the SEC basketball Tourney, and who knows, maybe even a Final Four. Once you can sustain that kind of success, then you’re ready to start pricing domes. But not until then.
Because lack of appropriate venues is only half of Birmingham’s pro sports problem. The second half, a lack of major corporate dollars, is more complicated.
Corporate money is the lifeblood of professional athletics and the most effective means of diagnosing the health of a city’s local sports scene. Regardless of how passionate sports fans in a particular city may be, if corporate money isn’t there to pay salaries, fund media campaigns, fill signage at venues and buy up blocks of tickets, then pro sports don’t happen.
If you want to point to the moment in time that Birmingham lost its sports mojo, it was when HealthSouth’s star fell to earth. The world’s monopoly on sports medicine was a title sponsor for nearly every major sports franchise in the modern history of Birmingham. Without Scrushy’s millions pumping through the local sports economy, our pond dried up and the fish died off. We’ve yet to recover.
Before our city gets better venues, we’re going to need a corporate cash transfusion. That usually funnels down from large corporations that set up within the metro area. So how do you woo Fortune 500 companies to town? Well, responsibility for that leads us to our city and county officials.
That means that you start by not doubling the business license fees. Then you’ll avoid promising a lot of money for transit and then pull it off the table weeks later. It’s best not to make posters with fairytale endings to Aesop’s fables. And what ever you do, don’t push your county into a historical municipal debt.
Of course, if any or all of those scenarios have already taken place, then I’m afraid you’re SOL.
Look it up.
Upon Further Review is the Birmingham Weekly’s sports page. Write to email@example.com