Column: Birmingham sports are better together

Published 9:29 am Monday, January 22, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

In most high school sports, teams have to wait until deep in the playoffs to play in the biggest arenas and stadiums in the state.

For the Pelham Panthers boys basketball team, they didn’t have to wait until the last week of February to take the floor at Legacy Arena in downtown Birmingham.

The Panthers were one of four teams that got to play in the inaugural Birmingham Squadron Squad Slam on Monday, Jan. 15, a special high school basketball showcase after the Squadron played their annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day game.

It was a tremendous opportunity for Pelham’s players to showcase their talents on the same court that the best players from the NBA G-League play on every week.

While the crowd for Pelham’s game against Altamont was noticeably light, which was somewhat expected for the final game of a tripleheader that was just announced a week ago, seeing the spectacle in-person left me with just one thought.

We need more events like this.

When I first moved to Birmingham, I wasn’t familiar with the local sports culture outside of Alabama, Auburn and the then-recently-folded Birmingham Iron. However, from professional and college sports to the high school sports I now cover for a living, I quickly fell in love with sports around the city.

With that said, I have noticed in my five years in the Birmingham area that the audiences for these teams don’t always overlap. The same people who pack out arenas for Thompson, Oak Mountain and Montevallo basketball aren’t always making their way to UAB or the Squadron, and vice versa, whether that’s because of a lack of awareness of those teams, busy schedules, an unwillingness to go “over the mountain” or simply apathy for other teams in town.

As a fan of Birmingham Legion FC and the Birmingham Stallions who rarely misses a game and someone who spends most weekends at a Samford game, I can’t help but want more people to see all of the great sports that Birmingham has to offer each week, from professional to college to high school and beyond.

I believe events like these are a great chance for teams to introduce themselves to a new audience and potentially create more fans. There’s a chance that some Squadron fans who stayed after the game may make their way to Pelham for a Panthers game soon, and also for Pelham fans to make a return trip to Legacy Arena for a Squadron game before the year ends.

In addition, it gives high school players the chance to play in the same college and professional venues that they grew up going to. They may even get the chance to meet and learn from the players from their favorite teams as well.

While the AHSAA already does a great job at this by putting playoff games at places like Auburn, Alabama, Jacksonville State and UAB, there’s a great opportunity for regular season events like the Squad Slam to open up the doors to even more venues than just the ones that host playoff games and give teams that don’t make it deep in the playoffs a chance to play there.

Events like this are already happening throughout the state, from next month’s inaugural Huntsville City Soccer Festival, where high school and club teams will play in tournaments alongside Huntsville City FC’s first-ever home preseason friendlies, to the annual Perfect Game High School Showdown at the Hoover Met.

However, there’s room for so much more in all sports. For example, what about a day full of football jamborees at one of the many college stadiums in the state, or spring games with the Stallions? A high-school soccer showcase leading into a Birmingham Legion match? Baseball games at Regions Field, or even the newly-renovated Rickwood Field? A basketball tournament at Samford or UAB? Or maybe even a 6v6 tournament featuring high school teams playing indoor soccer like Magic City SC?

The possibilities are endless and can only lead to growth and rewarding moments for everyone involved. However, it’s up to the gatekeepers at professional and college teams around the city to create opportunities to bring the Birmingham metro area’s sports communities together into something stronger, building a single community to support the great sports of this region at all levels.