I’ll start with a simple premise: the UAB Blazers football program, if it expects to stay above water now that it has resurfaced, must at minimum have plans for a new stadium in place by the end of the 2018 season. And to prove why, I need to look no further than the South Alabama Jaguars, who play their football about 20 minutes from my front porch.
The Jaguars initially got a very stout crowd when their football team surfaced out of nothingness; in their first three seasons (the pre-FBS Jaguars) South Alabama played 20 home games and had a paid attendance of 20,000 or more seven times, with a paid attendance of less than 14,000 only twice.
The odds are low that the quality of opponent is what drew crowds, as this was two seasons of a parade of lower division programs, nor was it likely that the first few seasons of a team cobbled together from nothing produced its own awe-inspiring talent and performances.
No, the draw was in the novelty and curiosity. A city in Mobile which, like all of Alabama outside of Tuscaloosa, Auburn, Birmingham or Montgomery, had spent its entire existence rooting for one of the Big Boys from afar, now had its very own squad. That was bound to draw nice crowds if for no other reason than folks finding it appealing to do their tailgating and live college football watching 20 minutes from home instead of two to five hours away.
But eventually the shine wears off, and interest fades without anything new to replace the novelty when that goes away. Once the team is no longer “new” then in order to keep people coming it needs to be highly competitive. Or it needs to have a gameday environment and atmosphere that makes people want to make a trip once or twice a year, regardless of what’s going on down between the lines.
In South’s case, they weren’t world beaters but they played better at home: a 17-14 home record from 2012 – 2016 and eight losses by a single score, much better than the 8-22 road record they’ve posted in that time.
Yet the fans don’t come – in the five seasons the Jaguars have been in FBS, they’ve played 31 home games and have only drawn 20,000+ fans four times while drawing less than 12,000 fans another four times.
In fact, the only times they’ve cracked 20,000 since joining FBS are 1) in their two P5 home games (NC State and Mississippi State) and 2) in two of their three home games against their biggest rival, Troy. Not only that, but two of their four sub-12,000-fan games came the weekend after those two P5 matchups.
Hell, the fifth-best attended regular season football game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium during USA’s FBS tenure has been the 5th Quarter Classic, an HBCU matchup that just played it’s first ever iteration last season between Tuskeegee and Florida A&M in front of a paid attendance of 19,223.
So now that the newness of the Jaguar football program has worn off, they struggle to get fans to come to any home game that isn’t a Power 5 team or their biggest rival, despite playing much more competitive football at home than on the road. So that leaves the game experience.
I’ve harped on this a thousand times to anyone who will listen, but attending a game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium is not a pleasant experience. It’s a nearly 70-year-old stadium originally built to host showcase games, high school games, and as a reason for Alabama and/or Auburn to come to town once a year.
It’s seen a grand total of two renovations, with the $2.2 million facelift and skybox installation prior to the Jags inaugural season being the only major change in the last 20 years.
It shows in the wide swaths of concrete and basic metal bleachers. It shows in the extremely cheap, high-school grade concessions. It even shows in the parking and tailgate areas around the stadium that aren’t really maintained in any way.
So what’s my point? What does any of this have to do with UAB?
Well as you may have heard, their football program returns to action for the 2017 season, and for the time being, they will head right back to Legion Field. When I describe L-P Stadium to people, I describe it with the caveat that it would be the worst football stadium I’ve ever been in… if I had never visited Legion Field.
Everything that I described as wrong with Ladd-Peebles is true to another exponent with Legion Field. This stadium is entering its 92nd season of operation, and it is in sad shape, in large part because it has had basically no renovation done any time recently.
There are 40 other FBS football stadiums that are at least 85 years old, and all but six of them (Army, Northwestern, Kansas, Arizona, Georgia, Ohio) have made at least one renovation of $20 million or more in the last 15-20 years^*. Legion Field’s only renovation in the last 25 years was $730,000 two years ago for a bunch of lighting and plumbing patchwork.
^I’m referring to individual renovation projects totaling $20 million or more, not cumulative dollars spent.
*USC gets a pass here because they’ve made no renovations, but have a $270 million project starting the end of this year.
If you think things are bad for South, UAB is in an even older stadium that’s in an even greater state of disrepair, in an even more blighted area relative to the rest of the city. Add into that the much greater closet full of skeletons that will get brought up if they don’t succeed on the field, and the Blazers have even less margin for error in this territory.
So what’s on the horizon? Nothing certain yet. We’re a few years into very serious discussions about a master plan for updating and renovating the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center (BJCC) and as of a couple years ago that master plan now includes the potential for a football stadium within the updated footprint. But everything beyond that is a sticking point.
Is it open air or closed, and regardless of which type, how will it be paid for? The rumored price tag is $225 million for an open-air, 30 to 40,000 seat stadium, and the price tag could almost double if they want a roof to make the facility more viable as a year-round multipurpose facility. This is all something that is desired by the people who can make it happen, but whether they can agree on how to make it happen and then actually execute the plan are other conversations entirely.
I’m not saying that UAB has to have a certain size or type of stadium, and I’m not saying that they have to have it right this second. What I am saying is that the Blazers need to finish the 2018 season with a minimum of a concrete plan to have a stadium built within two years (ready for play in 2021) or whatever momentum they’ve got will begin eroding faster than you can say “The Return.”