|The Magic City Classic parade through downtown Birmingham.
A sizable debt left from Birmingham hosting the 2022 World Games is driving the financial irregularities now plaguing the Magic City Classic, which is held annually at Legion Field and has become one of the top draws in college football involving historically Black universities (Alabama A&M and Alabama State). That's from an article by longtime Alabama attorney and sports enthusiast Donald Watkins, who writes under the headline "Magic City Classic Promoters Ran Up Massive Debt With 2022 World Games":
The sports promoters at the center of the financial scandal involving the Magic City Classic are the same guys who ran up $15 million in debt with the World Games 2022. We are talking about World Games 2022 CEO Nick Sellers and Bruno Event Team CEO Gene Hallman.
According to the Regions Bank news site, Doing More Today, the Bruno Event Team was “The Secret Behind the World Games.” Of course, the World Games were a financial bust.
While World Games vendors struggled to get paid, the Bruno Event Team (now Eventive Sports) found a way to make millions of dollars from the debt-ridden World Games.
Watkins focuses on this fundamental question: Who Bailed out the World Games, and Why Does this Matter for the Magic City Classic?
World Games promoters Nick Sellers and Gene Hallman failed to meet their financial projections for this sports event, in a big way. So, who bailed them out?
The answer to this question begins with the city of Birmingham, Alabama. Remember, Nick Sellers and Gene Hallman also promoted and managed the Magic City Classic together from 2017 to 2020, via the Alabama Sports Council, Inc. After Sellers left the Council in 2020, Hallman continued to promote the Classic with the Council’s new chairman, Birmingham businessman Larry Thornton.
Since 2017, the city of Birmingham and Jefferson County have been the Alabama Sports Council's financial partners in producing and promoting the Magic City Classic.
Birmingham has developed a habit of bailing out various White entities, and that has put a strain on the Magic City Classic, which is one of the city's primary cash cows. Writes Watkins:
Apart from the Classic, the taxpayer “piggy bank” for bailing out struggling, cash-strapped, White organizations and institutions in Birmingham since 2017 has been the city of Birmingham. For example, in March 2018, the city committed $90 million in neighborhood improvement funds to help build a new football stadium for the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).
In July 2023, the city gave $5 million to the developers of a new downtown open-air amphitheater.
In August 2023, the city gave financially destitute Birmingham-Southern College (BSC) $5 million to keep this historically White, private college afloat. Additionally, city officials, together with Jefferson County legislators, served as the proud drum majors for $30 million in loans to BSC from the state of Alabama. In stark contrast, these same officials have not lifted one finger to help Alabama A&M University (AA&MU) collect the $527,280,064 debt the state owes this historically Black institution. They have been as quiet as a church mouse on this important subject in the Black community.
In August 2022, the city of Birmingham gave the World Games $5 million from its reserve-fund money for debt relief. In exchange for this much-needed cash, Nick Sellers promised to provide “data and professional consulting services … to better assist the city in hosting future large-scale international sports and entertainment events,” including a database of sponsors, volunteers and corporate donors and training on security protocols.
Whether the city has received $5 million worth of "data and professional consulting," a "database of sponsors, volunteers and corporate donors," and "training on security protocols" from World Games promoters, as promised, is an open question. If it has, no one at City Hall is talking about it. Instead, they are busy looking for the next failed project to bail out in a city that is reeling from decaying neighborhoods, failing schools, and a surge in violent street crime.
The bailout mentality goes beyond the City of Birmingham, but once again, the entities that benefit tend to be under White leadership, Watkins reports:
In September 2022, the Jefferson County Commission joined the city in the World Games bailout crusade by giving the debt-ridden Games a $4 million bailout In 2023, the state of Alabama and other entities picked up the tab for the remaining $6 million in World Games debt.
In 2021, Gene Hallman secured millions of dollars, via funding from UAB and the Jefferson County Department of Public Health, for the Bruno Event Team to work on COVID-related projects. Hallman's sports-management company: (a) oversaw a COVID program for college students that involved contact tracing; (b) managed an advertising campaign that encouraged Alabamians to get the controversial COVID-19 vaccines; and (c) distributed these vaccines on campuses for all college football programs in Alabama.
Reportedly, the Bruno Event Team's COVID contact tracing program was a “debacle,” while its software app for the program was considered a “joke.”
Against this backdrop, the city of Birmingham never conducted proper audits on the financial books and records of the World Games, or the Alabama Sports Council, or the Bruno Event Team, or the Magic City Classic, even though the city has poured millions of taxpayer dollars into the World Games and the Magic City Classic.
Who gets largely left out of the Magic City Classic cash flow? Watkins says it is Alabama A&M and Alabama State, the Black institutions that generate the funds in the first place:
The Magic City Classic is the largest historically Black college football Classic game in the country. It attracts more than 60,000 attendees each year, who purchase tickets to the game. The Classic is a "cash cow" for everybody affiliated with producing and promoting this event, except ASU and AA&MU.
Despite the demonstrated revenue generating power of the Magic City Classic, the money paid out to Alabama State University (ASU) and AA&MU after the game is little more than “pocket change” or “tip” money.
The entities that drove the Magic City Classic to become a mega-hit, have not been able to conduct a proper audit related to the event -- partly because documents they have received are largely useless for auditing purposes, Watkins reports:
Like the city of Birmingham and Jefferson County, neither ASU, nor AA&MU, has properly audited the financial books and records of the Alabama Sports Council or the Bruno Event Team. What is more, ASU and AA&MU have never known or certified all of the ways the Bruno Event Team derived tangible economic value for itself from the Magic City Classic platform.
In 2021, alone, the Alabama Sports Council and Bruno Event Team made between $1,289,378 and $1,487,258 in “management fees” for Magic City events that produced $3,897,417 in reported revenues that year. The $716,789 portion of the management fees that was paid to the Alabama Sports Council helped this non-profit entity end the 2021 tax year with a hefty $534,333 surplus of funds.
In an upcoming article in this series of investigative articles, we will tell you who got the rest of the money from the 2021 Magic City Classic events, how they got it, and why they did not want their names revealed in the annual financial statements that were eventually provided to ASU, AA&MU, and the city of Birmingham.