David Lane has a secret. Make that secrets. Plural. Like the name, logo and team colors of the New Orleans Pelicans’ new G League franchise coming to Birmingham for the 2021-2022 season. You can ask for the details, but the general manager won’t tell. Patience, young grasshoppers.
Wait. Is that it? Grasshoppers? Starting a franchise from scratch isn’t new to Lane, whose last professional challenge was helping to birth a minor league baseball team in Fayetteville, NC., named the Woodpeckers. In 2019, their first year of existence, they cracked the top 25 in merchandise sales among all 160 minor league clubs.
You’ll have to wait just a bit longer for the Birmingham name drop. Lane also has seen internal renderings of under-construction Legacy Arena, the new digs of the Fill-in-the-Blanks, but why spoil that surprise? All in due time, but fortunately for Magic City basketball fans, due time is coming faster than Birmingham native Eric Bledsoe on a fast break.
The city’s first professional basketball franchise since the short-lived Bandits played one season in the Continental Basketball Association in 1991-92 will make its home debut in January. The organization decided to start the season on the road in November and December rather than play some home games in local college arenas until Legacy Arena is ready for takeoff.
“You only get one chance to make a first impression,” Lane said. “We want the focus to be on Legacy Arena. That will be our home.”
The team’s home office has shifted from the kitchen table in Lane’s condo to temporary space in the Forum Building, which is part of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. Eight employees have been hired in addition to Lane, who said, “It’s starting to feel like an organization.” Finalizing and announcing radio and TV partners is on the horizon, as is offering ticket packages to a sports-hungry population.
You can feel Birmingham buzzing as you drive along the new downtown stretch of Interstate 20/59 – complete with its color-changing accent lighting – past the gleaming glass facade of the arena, which will provide a massive window into the excitement inside. Long-time visitors won’t recognize the place inside or out because, as explained by Tad Snider, the BJCC Authority’s executive director and CEO, “everything inside was stripped down to the concrete shell. We’re putting a new building inside the old shell.”
If launching a new franchise inside a new arena weren’t ambitious enough, those wheels are turning while construction continues at the other end of the BJCC campus on Protective Stadium, a brand-new outdoor multipurpose facility. Its anchor tenant, the UAB football program, is scheduled to play its first game there Oct. 2 against Liberty University.
Keeping those projects on schedule and on budget would’ve been a challenge in the best of times. Doing so during the Covid-19 pandemic increased the degree of difficulty for the BJCC’s team of staffers, contractors and subcontractors, and yet within the next eight months, football and basketball will be played in those sparkling new facilities.
Snider has worked with the BJCC for more than two decades. He’s a Birmingham native. Being a part of this transformation, he said, “is tremendously rewarding. It’s going to impact this community for the next 40 years.”
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said the decision by the Pelicans to place their G League franchise in Birmingham helped validate the city’s decision to take on this massive infrastructure upgrade, which represents a combined investment in the arena and the stadium of $330 million.
“When we made the commitment to invest in the renovation and expansion of the BJCC, we were focused on securing big-time events and opportunities,” Woodfin said. “We’re thrilled the G League will soon call Legacy Arena home. The 2022 World Games will hold opening ceremonies at Protective Stadium. Then March Madness will return to Birmingham in 2023.
“Sports fans who visit Birmingham will have a transformed area to cheer their favorite teams while enjoying great food and nightlife, not just at Uptown but in all of our entertainment districts. We are stamping Birmingham as a destination city.”
The Pelicans’ G League affiliate will be at the heart of that transformation. Both Woodfin and Snider expressed their appreciation for Gayle Benson, governor of the Pelicans, and her belief in the future of Birmingham.
“It demonstrates a strong commitment from the Benson family and their organization to this city,” Woodfin said. “The team will not only play in Birmingham, but they will be housed in a separate practice facility. The team’s corporate offices will be located here, and the team has made a verbal commitment to work with the city’s youth and connect with the community on various levels. Also, with the Pelicans having Kira Lewis Jr., who played at the University of Alabama, and Eric Bledsoe, who played at Birmingham’s own Parker High School, we know there will be lots of local fans following this team.”
This team that will be known as? Lane, the GM, will say only that the name “has ties to the community.” It won’t be long before everybody knows their name, and then, come January in their new home, cheers.