Roy S. Johnson: The future home of the Magic City Classic? It’s a no-brainer

By Guest Columnist Robert Johnson

Roy S. Johnson is a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist for commentary and winner of 2021 Edward R. Morrow prize for podcasts: “Unjustifiable”, co-hosted with John Archibald.
Magic City Classic 2021 Halftime (AP)

Now that everyone’s gone and it’s just fam, let’s talk about the one subject everybody (and nobody) wants to address: the future home of the Magic City Classic.

Specifically, when—sorry, I mean should the huge annual battle between Alabama A&M and Alabama State, our two largest historically Black colleges traverse 2.9 miles east from its habitat since 1946, historic Legion Field, and be held at still new-car-fresh Protective Stadium?

Should the nation’s largest HBCU football classic move downtown, leaving the proud residents of Birmingham’s west side who see the stadium and Classic as family jewels?

Or should it stay, remaining in a deteriorating facility, a lady who’s been old and grey longer than many of us have been alive, a stadium surrounded by neighborhoods untouched by the city’s steady economic rise? Stay and eschew the new stadium with its enticing amenities and environs?

Yeah, I’m poking the beast in the room almost everyone is ignoring—publicly, at least. I’m grabbing a slice of the cake languishing uneaten in the middle of the table because nobody wanted to appear rude. Or greedy.

No time for that now. No more time for covering our eyes or laughing off our hunger pangs. To borrow, with a twist, a metaphor often used by Mayor Randall Woodfin: The classic can can’t be kicked down the road, down Graymont Avenue, any longer.

Time to open it up.

What’s inside—more classics at Legion or new chapters at Protective—will be determined by the leaders of the two institutions, ASU President Dr. Quinton Ross and Dr. Daniel K. Wims, the new kid in this game, of a sort. Wims became A&M’s 12th president on Jan. 1, 2022, after serving as the university’s provost. Welcome to the hot seat, sir.

They’ll certainly solicit significant and vital input from Woodfin and others in the mayor’s office, from city councilors, county commissioners, business leaders, and community stakeholders, particularly those in the neighborhoods that claim Legion as their own. Ultimately, it’s A&M’s and ASU’s call.

Decision time is imminent—or should be—because the current agreement between the city and two universities expires at the end of the 2022 Magic City Classic. On October 29. In three months and change. Gentlemen, you’re on the clock.

Some have not been shy about weighing in, taking to social media after the World Games to cast their vote. Dr. Anthony Hood created a list of recent events in and around the new stadium and wrote: “Hot take: I literally can not name 1 person who has attended [them] and still holds to the idea that the Magic City Classic has to stay at Legion Field.” Hood’s post incited nearly 200 comments.

Oh, the parties could kick this can. They could sign, say, a one-year extension to give us time to blah, blah, blah….

Please. Folks have been pondering this decision since March 2018 when the council voted 6-3 to approve spending $3 million annually for 30 years to support the stadium construction and renovation of Legacy Arena. Longer even. The county commission approved its 30-year, $1 million annual contribution two months prior. Neither of those decisions was likely made without someone projecting the financial impact of the Magic City Classic—an event said to pour $25 million annually into the city’s economy—being played at the new venue.

Delaying a decision now would be disingenuous folly. Especially now, after the stadium has hosted two football seasons, a season of soccer, Garth Brooks and 45,000 of his closest friends, and the World Games opening and closing ceremonies. Now, after nearby City Walk has proven to be a magnet for skateboarders, a stage for concerts, and a potential platform for local entrepreneurs. (And, ahem, tailgating?)

Open the can.

Money is at the core of the decision, of course. Will the Magic City Classic, the largest annual fund-raiser for ASU and A&M, generate a bigger check for each institution at Protective or Legion?

Last year’s fall classic (2020′s “COVID” Classic was delayed until spring 2021) generated a largest-ever $739,575 payout for each school. (The spring classic resulted in $415,364 for each institution.) What makes the presidents pant over Protective like Pavlov’s pets is its number of corporate suites there—34, about three times as many as at Legion.

Do the math.

No one’s yet run the numbers or created an economic projection. (Or they’ve not yet shared it with me.) It wouldn’t take very long to do so. Nor, with today’s technology, would it be difficult to create a visual model of what tailgating might look like utilizing City Walk and its well-lit acreage beneath the interstate. It’s not likely the impossibility many have long maintained.

Ticket sales are another factor. Classic attendance, folks who actually go into the stadium, has steadily declined in recent years, into the low 60,000. That still far eclipses Protective’s 45,000-seat capacity. Some, though, see a sold-out stadium as an incentive to purchase tickets earlier rather than relying on walkup availability, which thousands do every year.

There are also nuanced political matters. The city, for instance, owns Legion Field and controls it (the facility is overseen by the Department of Parks and Recreation), generating revenue from ticket sales, parking, and concessions (although not enough to cover the overall cost of the classic.) That said, in 2019 colleague Anna Beahm, reported that Legion Field was nearly $1 million in the red that year, generating $416,065 in revenue with operating (mostly maintaining) costs totaling $1.3 million.

The city does not own Protective (the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Authority does), nor does it control or gain any of the revenues from ticket sales, parking, concessions or any City Walk activities. The city ultimately benefits from any taxes paid on the revenue, which prompts this: To solidify support to fund the stadium and renovation, Woodfin committed to pouring any taxes generated by events held at Protective (and Legacy) into a Neighborhood Revitalization Fund to benefit long-neglected areas of the city. Not so with money generated at Legion.

Pros and cons. Open the can.

No matter what Ross and Wims decide, city officials must decide this soon, too: It’s well past time for someone to create an actual plan for reinventing, repurposing, and revitalizing Legion Field and the 14 acres upon which it sits, a likely multi-use space that will elevate the west side and its residents.

That can’s been kicked down the road for way too long.

Such a project might be the area’s best and only hope of retaining the classic. A viable vision for a too-long undelivered promise just might incentivize the presidents to consider a classic compromise—say, an, oh, four-year agreement in which the event alternates sites every other year: downtown in 2023 and 2025, at Legion in 2024 and 2026.

Open the can. Time to digest what’s inside.