I've followed the Birmingham sports scene professionally, in some form or another, for 30 years. And I like to think I've gained some insight into our city's pluses and minuses when it comes to the games people play.
And here is one insight I can offer as the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC) prepares to pick an architect for a proposed $500 million domed stadium: The facility simply MUST have a retractable roof.
College football will be one of the prime events at the stadium. And when people rhapsodize about the popularity of college football in our part of the country, they often forget about one of the main reasons for that: We have gorgeous weather in the fall.
Southerners love football for a variety of reasons. We are the most violent region in the country, and the sport's collisions appeal to our Scotch-Irish heritage.
But I've long contended that Southerners are no more into the actual sport of football than folks from any other region. For Southerners, football is a social event. They love the pageantry, the tailgating, the sights, sounds, and smells.
A large part of that is associated with the weather. In the South, the most pleasant season is the fall--the heart of college football season. And it tends to be dry. I can count on one hand the number of times I've watched a Southern college football game in rainy or cold conditions.
That's why a true dome is such a bad idea for Birmingham--and a retractable roof is a great idea. It would allow the facility to host true indoor events throughout the year, with the roof closed. It would provide a pleasant setting on those rare times when we have bad weather for football. But it would provide an open-air setting, which is so much a part of the Southern football experience.
Consider that UAB football is likely to be one of the stadium's primary tenants. Alabama and Auburn have massive stadiums on their campuses, and they usually pack them, so they don't play in Birmingham anymore. But UAB's fledgling program has no on-campus facility and has called aging Legion Field home.
Most of UAB's crowds are in the 15,000 to 20,000 range. If you put that small a crowd in a true dome, the place is dead. Just look at the Superdome in New Orleans when Tulane University plays there. Tulane draws modest crowds, and with the Superdome, it has probably the worst atmosphere in college football.
But put a UAB crowd in an open-air stadium, on a gorgeous fall afternoon, and you have a nice event.
And here's the kicker: The two finalists for the design job are HOK Inc. of Kansas City and HKS Inc. of Dallas. HOK officials said they think the Birmingham stadium could be built for $410. If BJCC officials opted for a retractable roof, it would add about $30 million to the cost.
Now, $30 million is a lot of money, but it's not much on a $410 project. Apparently, the technology for retractable roofs has improved, bringing the cost down.
HOK has designed a proposed new baseball stadium in Tampa that would use a fabric-based retractable roof. Perhaps a similar plan could be used for Birmingham.
Domed stadiums have been on the decline in sports for years now. Detroit, Houston, Seattle, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and Tampa are just a few of the cities that have, or plan to, move away from domed stadiums.
For years, Birmingham has been seen as several steps behind Atlanta, its bigger, bolder neighbor to the east. But Atlanta is stuck with the Georgia Dome for the foreseeable future, and some folks already are calling that facility obsolete.
A retractable-roof stadium would be a sign of visionary thinking for our city and give us a leg up on Atlanta. I like the sound of that.
Let's hope BJCC Chairman Clyde Echols and his associates are listening.