Birmingham’s Changing Tide

Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

 
Many people, who have been raised in Birmingham, know college football is number one in Birmingham. It has been number one for decades. The University of Alabama was winning when everything else in Alabama was losing. There has never been an NFL team or any other major professional franchise in Birmingham. The area has become entrenched in one of the most consistently successful college programs in the country, the University of Alabama. Alabama was traveling to California by train to win Rose Bowls before the South was even considered to be civil. The South was viewed as primitive and undesirable by many in other parts of the country. The perception of the South was not necessarily reality; however, the South certainly added to that perception with segregation and “Jim Crow “Laws during the last century.
The State of Alabama was synonymous with racism and segregation while pretending the two sins were different from one another. When the dust settled after the Civil Rights Movement, most Southerners woke up from their “George Wallace “trance. Many Southerners were embarrassed at their hateful actions during the Jim Crow years. There are monuments and museums erected in the city which remind and teach us about our regrettable past. People come from all over the country to remember and learn from what happened in Birmingham.
Birmingham is very different now. The city moves to a different drumbeat. It moves with more vigor, diversity, and acceptance. Its people and economy are becoming more diverse. It’s coming out of its state of depression, and “woe is me” state of mind. A city, which never considered itself desirable, is now awakening with pride in itself. Throughout the 20th century, Birmingham was known for steel and Alabama football. For many years, Alabama played multiple games in Birmingham, and the state school was a beacon of segregation and elitism before the Civil Rights movement. However, it is a very different school, and Birmingham is a very different city.
According to Forbes, the city is currently “one of the most important business and banking centers in the Southeastern US.” The city’s growing attractions, food, and entertainment scene are making Birmingham a destination for tourists and job seekers from across the country. An unprecedented 1.9 billion was spent in Birmingham by visitors to the Magic City last year. The city, which regarded itself as having very little relevance, is now finding itself much more desirable.
Birmingham has been primarily painted in crimson for a hundred years. If you don’t believe me, ask Pat Dye. The former Auburn Coach constantly reminded everyone that Birmingham was an Alabama Football city. However, there are plenty of Auburn graduates living and working in Birmingham. But loyalties may look a little different in the coming decades. There are some early signs the winds may be changing, and things could look different in 10-15 years.
Most everyone knows the story of UAB football. It abruptly ended several years ago without much effort to solve the issues which faced the program. The screams of protest from students, fans, donors, and corporations were louder than a steam explosion at US Steel in the 1960s. It was heard throughout the city, and during the process, gained enormous amplification from social media. Fans from around the nation were backing UAB football and the efforts to bring it back.
In 2017, UAB football was reinstated. However, the story does not end there. The Blazers led Conference USA in attendance in 2017. The program won its conference and won their bowl game in 2018. The critics, who criticized UAB for years, and accused it of being a perpetual money pit, vanished faster than Nick Saban after the “kick six” at Auburn. When you couple UAB’s diversity and growth, enhanced athletic facilities, and a growing city, it is easy to see more diversity in the Birmingham sports audience over the coming years
Birmingham Mayor Woodfin and UAB Head Football Coach, Bill Clark, pictured here at the Protective Stadium groundbreaking.
Birmingham Mayor, Randall Woodfin, pictured here with UAB Head Football Coach at Protective Stadium groundbreaking ceremony.
 
Is it possible Birmingham might move away from the “ride or die” mentality regarding college football? Not any time soon. But could it eventually happen? Yes, it could. I am not suggesting that Alabama football will not be King over the next ten years. After all, the city is just 45 minutes from the University of Alabama campus. However, if one takes a close look at things happening in UAB athletics, the UAB campus expansion, the UAB and Alabama enrollment demographics, and the Birmingham renaissance, there are early signs of changing winds. The King may lose some territory in the coming years. In addition, the pace of territorial loss may become rapid over the next 10-20 years.
 
Birmingham Legion hosts Atlanta United
Birmingham Legion hosted Atlanta United in front of a sellout crowd in Birmingham this past February.
UAB might not be the only entity to grab loyalties over the next couple of decades. With the influx of young professionals, soccer passion is high in Birmingham. Birmingham Legion FC hosted Atlanta United in an exhibition match back in February. The stadium was overflowing with fans, and the crowd was electric. Legion FC has big dreams for their future, and they are developing a loyal following.
The University of Alabama, as well as UAB, have seen huge population growths over the last decade. The University of Alabama population is largely from out of state. Current Alabama students don’t share the same deep roots in Alabama football as generations before them. Many of these “out of state” students come from affluent families in other parts of the country. The University currently has 1,100 students from the state of Illinois alone. According to the University of Alabama’s “out of state” enrollment numbers, “out of state,” students make up 56% of the University’s total enrollment. That number was good enough to rank Alabama third in the country for “out of state” students. That is a staggering number and will obviously cause a huge shift in the demographics of graduates from the University of Alabama. In addition, according to the University of Alabama, 47% of those currently graduating, are finding employment in Alabama after graduation. Some of the leading employers are Alabama Power, AT&T, Southern Company, UAB Health Systems, and Mercedes. Birmingham is second only to Tuscaloosa in the number of Alabama graduates in the workforce. Students from the North East and the West Coast, which is where most of the “out of state” students originally lived, grew up with significant pro sports. As more and more of the new breed of Alabama and UAB students enter the
Birmingham workforce, the demand for pro sports will increase.
University of Alabama’s First African-American SGA President, Elliot Spillers/Huffpost
University of Alabama’s First African-American SGA President, Elliot Spillers/Huffpost
UAB Students/ UAB.edu
UAB Students/ UAB.edu
The city of Birmingham is changing as well. Britney Summervill, head of” Birmingham Bound,” reported to the Birmingham Business Journal that 11 companies have committed to moving to Birmingham.” Birmingham Bound” works under the umbrella of Shipt, which is a Birmingham tech company that was purchased by Target for 550 million dollars in just their 5th year in Birmingham. As young professionals fill Birmingham’s growing job market, Birmingham’s culture will change.

The impact of these new jobs and new education trends are in their infant stages. However, over the next two decades, the impact will reach adulthood. The effects over the next 10-20 years will be significant. As jobs continue to grow in the Birmingham metro area, more and more of those “out of state,” students will be working in Birmingham.

Cranes are being erected all over Downtown Birmingham.
New construction projects throughout Downtown Birmingham
UAB is an economic powerhouse. The University is the largest employer in the state of Alabama, with over 24,000 employees. In addition, UAB broke another enrollment record this past year. UAB’s enrollment is now over 22,000. For a little perspective on that number, that is more than the University of Alabama had ten years ago and is slowly gaining on Auburn as the state’s second-largest University. Hundreds of UAB students are from all over the world, and students from “out of state” make up close to 20% of UAB’s total enrollment. If you add the University of Alabama’s “out of state” enrollment to UAB’s “out of state” enrollment, there are around 23,000 students attending those two universities who are not from Alabama.
The key to the culture shift will be the job market in Birmingham over the next decade. The area’s job market was stagnating as late as 2017. However, from 2010 to 2015, there were signs of a new and interesting trend. According to data from the BBA, the number of young people living in Birmingham grew by 56.2 percent from 2010 to 2015, the seventh-largest increase in the nation (the national average was 17.6 percent) (source: Birmingham Now). And if 2018 is another indicator, Birmingham is about to see a large increase in jobs. The Birmingham metro area added 4,500 jobs in 2018 and currently ranks ahead of cities like Louisville, Memphis, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City in job growth. (source: wallethub.com) In 2018, Birmingham set a new record for job growth. In 2019. Birmingham was recognized by Forbes magazine as a top 10 job potential market for 2020. This is coming after Birmingham added 10,000 jobs in 2019. The Forbes survey even gave Birmingham a slightly better job outlook than Nashville and Atlanta. A large part of the growth is coming from the tech industry. Shipt’s new CEO Kelly Caruso recently said this:
Shipt “represents a Birmingham that’s rapidly revitalizing — especially in the technology sector. There are about 12,000 tech jobs in the city today. We’ve seen an increase of 75% in the number of engineering degrees coming out of Alabama colleges over the last five years. (source: wbur.org)
Pizitz food hall in downtown Birmingham. Pizitz is a mix use building which houses apartments, restaurants, theater, and leisure space.
Pizitz food hall in downtown Birmingham. Pizitz is a mix-use building that houses apartments, restaurants, theater, and leisure space.
Tech companies from Atlanta, Nashville, and San Francisco have recently announced moves to Birmingham, and many business leaders expect this sort of growth to continue. Edwin Moss, executive vice president of commercial real estate firm J.H. Berry & Gilbert recently said this:
We do relocation work for Regions Bank and the UAB School of Medicine, and we’re seeing young professionals coming to Birmingham for the first time who want to stay.” It wasn’t that long ago that young professionals came here and checked off what they needed to do on their resume so they could get to Nashville or Atlanta. Now we’re starting to capture them.” (source: Birmingham Now)
It is inevitable that these numbers will affect entertainment, the workforce, and culture in Birmingham over the next 10-20 years. Birmingham won’t resemble its current self in 20 years.
When you combine job trends, growth climate, education trends, and more qualified graduates, it is easy to see the changing tea leaves in Birmingham’s culture. Birmingham loves college football, and it always will. However, there are changing demographics that are inevitably going to make the “playing field” more equal. Sports loyalties will spread out more evenly in the coming years. Don’t be surprised if Birmingham adds Major League Soccer and/or other major professional sports teams in the next 15 years. Once that happens, it will probably affect Alabama Football’s number one status in Birmingham. However, Bama fans shouldn’t be worried or upset about this. As certain as Death, Taxes, and Google, you will certainly be able to find Bama on television in 2034.

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