Budget cuts have college teams across the U.S. on the chopping block. Could losing sports tourism preserve other city infrastructure in the long run?
The host city of the 2021 World Games—essentially the Olympics for alternative sports—will be officially announced Thursday morning. And Birmingham, Alabama, will be anxiously awaiting the decision. Birmingham, population 220,000, is a long shot to be the first American city to host the World Games since 1981. Lima, Peru, and Ufa, Russia—each home to more than a million people—are also vying to host the event. *(Update: Birmingham has been named the host city of the 2021 World Games.)
But win or lose, the fact that Birmingham is on the list is symbolic: The city earnestly wants to be seen as an attractive sports hub.
"We are not New York City. We're not a tier-one city. We're not even a tier-two city," Marcus Lundy, Jr., a local councilman privy to the bid told me recently. "However, we are the best small city in the world... The world is paying attention to Birmingham."
But Birmingham's reputation as a budding sports town took a major hit recently. Last month, facing serious budget constraints, University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) shut down its football program. The controversial decision shocked the community. And now residents are grappling with the fallout: The city's most recognizable sports team is gone and its largest sports facility has suddenly been left without a permanent tenant.
The demise of Birmingham's Division 1 football program was a rude awakening for the college sports landscape; no major collegiate football program had been disbanded in nearly 20 years. And a debate is brewing over what it exactly means for the municipality. On one end, city officials are channeling local anger, suggesting the decision could hurt Birmingham's image and economy. Some economists, on the other hand, applaud the decision: "I don't think a money-losing program that's really drained resources from a university is going to make a difference to whether Birmingham is going to be an attractive city for sports events or not," B. David Ridpath, an expert on collegiate sports administration, told me.
According to CBSSports, the athletic departments of at least 26 colleges and universities ran greater deficits than UAB between 2012 and 2013. Some of these schools are located in major urban areas, including Las Vegas, Orlando, Houston, and Atlanta. Andrew Zimablist, the author of a detailed book about the finances of college sports, calls the current system, "insolvent." Without drastic reforms, more cities will see college teams disappear in the years to come.
A handful of outliers do exist, college programs so wildly popular that they fill large arenas and earn lucrative TV contracts. The Ohio State University in Columbus generates about $7.15 million during each home football game according to a report by the university paper. But this is the exception rather than the rule. Few cities host college sports that turn a profit at all, and if they do, its rarely anywhere close to the scale of Ohio State. The system has become so polarized—pitting a handful of revenue-generating sports and schools against the rest—that a recent New York Times report referred to it in terms of The Hunger Games.
"It’s going to get worse, it’s not going to get better," Zimbalist told CityLab. "You have coaches' salaries going up. You have facilities costs going up. Lots of schools are talking about eliminating different sports."
This is why the situation in Birmingham deserves a good look. UAB football was hardly a household name, even among college sports fans. Yet its downfall could foreshadow what other cities might face as their college teams are forced to shut down. Birmingham is getting its first taste of life without a major college football program, and nobody seems to like it.
Brian Hilson, president of the Birmingham Business Alliance, expects hotels and restaurants to face a crunch because the city will no longer generate tourism on game day. "We expect there to be some negative impact on the local economy," Hilson said in a December statement. Birmingham Mayor William Bell expressed similar concern at a public event last week. Beyond the financial ramifications, Bell worries that shuttering UAB football could damage the city’s overall reputation. “It does not help us in terms of image when we have athletics programs being shut down,” he said.
Still, the end of the program will open doors to preserving the greater good of the city. The school occupies 88 blocks of downtown Birmingham. It's the state's largest employer and accounts for $5 billion in economic activity, according to the local Birmingham News. Conversely, UAB's athletic budget was losing upwards of $17 million a year, a sizable chunk coming from football expenses.
The wounds to the city's tourism will be temporary. Cutting loose a money-sucking sports program will safeguard the salaries and pensions of professors and staff members. It will free up funding for more student services, better equipping UAB grads to strengthen Birmingham's work force. The financial health of a city's major university will win out over the popularity of its football team every time. A university can survive without its football team, but it can't work the other way around.
Birmingham's situation outlines how other cities' priorities should line up for the future. Standing up to the power of American sports culture is no easy task; "Local boosterism is a force to contend with," says Zimbalist.
But faced with a decision, university officials in Birmingham chose to preserve the city's academic longevity rather than its fledgling sports team. It wasn't a popular decision within the city, but it was the right one.
*This post has been updated to include new information regarding the city selection for the 2021 World Games.