Birmingham residents seek to bring pro soccer to city

Atlanta Silverbacks Birmingham Hammers Eric Wynalda John Killian Morgan Copes UAB Men's Soccer

UAB men's soccer-Atlanta Silverbacks

BIRMINGHAM — It was nearly a year ago when Morgan Copes and John Killian met up at one of their favorite bars, Pale Eddie’s Pour House, in downtown Birmingham to watch soccer with several other friends and enthusiasts of their beloved sport.

That night, July 31, 2013, the MLS’s best took on A.S. Roma from Italy’s Serie A in the MLS All-Star game in Kansas City, which, for fans like Copes and Killian, just meant another excuse for a night out watching soccer.

The group essentially received VIP treatment from Pale Eddie’s management, needing only to buy a set amount of drinks to gain permission for a viewing party of the match on the top floor of the bar — a challenge they had no trouble meeting.

The drinks were sold, and the viewing party went on as planned. It made no difference that Roma dominated the All-Stars in a 3-1 win because the night had still been won.

Copes and Killian were there to raise awareness about their own local soccer team, and everything they saw that evening was encouraging for what they were trying to do.

The game was successfully watched, the crowd was bigger than expected and even merchandise was sold, all in support of their team, the Birmingham Hammers, at their first fundraiser.

But the Hammers are no ordinary team. They’re more of a goal, a dream, if anything, to bring a professional soccer team to a city that, aside from a minor league baseball team, has no pro sports franchises. Yet it’s a dream nonetheless that they believe they can achieve.

“Do you think we could do that? Do you think we could develop that in Birmingham? Do you think it would work here?” Killian said. “I grew up here, so I’m very fond of the city. I tend to think the best things about Birmingham; I’m optimistic about the city in general. So yeah, I think we could do it.”

The Hammers are born

Soccer is in Copes and Killian’s blood.

Both grew up around the game, playing, watching and falling in love with it from a young age – Copes in Texas, Killian in Birmingham.

The pair met at the University of Mobile in 2005, where Copes was a forward on the school’s soccer team and Killian was one of the team’s most loyal supporters.

When the two graduated from Mobile, both, by coincidence, ended up in Birmingham where Copes found a job in banking and Killian in a sports branding company. The two remained close, largely through soccer, with the pair always seeking to hangout to watch the sport with each other and other friends as often as they can.

So, when Copes called Killian in December 2012 about a soccer-related thought, Killian was all aboard. Why not bring soccer to Birmingham?

Copes had read online about the Brickyard Battalion, a supporters group in Indianapolis, pushing for the creation of a professional soccer team in their city with nothing more than a vision.

And by that next month, January 2013, a grassroots movement for a professional soccer team in Birmingham, with Copes and Killian as co-founders, began as well.

With the help of a small committee, they settled on the name “Hammers” because of its denotative meaning that pays homage to Birmingham’s steel industry of the past, and its connotative meaning of building for a new Birmingham.

Then, through a branding company, a logo with two crossing red hammers and a gold gear and rays was created. The crossing hammers are based off the crimson cross on the Alabama state flag to represent the state, while the gear and rays come from the Birmingham city flag to embody the city. Both colors are on the city flag.

“We knew what we didn’t want. We didn’t want something that said ‘We only do steel,’ because that’s not only what we do anymore,” said Killian, who along with being a co-founder is the vice president of the Hammers. “The city’s changed a lot and we wanted something that represents both our past and we wanted something that kind of spoke to the future and the building of a new city.”

Building a foundation

The Hammers technically don’t even exist yet. There is no coach, no players and no owner. It is still simply an idea, but one that is increasingly moving closer to becoming a reality.

Copes and Killian knew they would support a soccer team, and they knew some people who would support a soccer team, but they needed to know if Birmingham would support a soccer team.

So, the two went out to local breweries – a typical melting pot of people and sports fans – in Birmingham with scarves – a popular clothing item for soccer fans that were specially customized with “Birmingham Hammers” sewn into the seams – in hand to find out.

UAB Men's Soccer-Atlanta Silverbacks

“We talked and said, ‘Hey, if we had a soccer team in town would you think that would be cool?’ Everybody was always really receptive and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, that would be awesome,’” said Copes, who is the president of the Hammers. “Our next question, ‘Would you buy a scarf?’ and most people were like, ‘Yeah, depending on how much it is, I’ll buy it, that would be great. I’d love to support the city and I love soccer.’

“It turned into that and we ended up designing our limited edition scarves that are mainly gold and red. We ended up going through those in two and a half to three months. It didn’t take long at all – it was 100 – just like that, they were gone.”

The movement took off from there.

They used that start to order T-shirts, stickers and koozies, too, all to sell to prospective fans. On its official Facebook page, the Hammers have over 3,400 “likes” and on Twitter, they have more than 800 followers, all of which has come in only a little more than a year for a team that is still fictional.

When they held their first official fundraiser the night of the MLS All-Star game, “about 80” people showed up and “40-50” businesses donated gifts to raffle away, according to Killian.

“The reception has been phenomenal. It was great to see local businesses get behind us because ultimately that’s who we want to help out at the end,” Killian said. “If we bring a team here, we have to make sure the economy is sustainable and make sure that the infrastructure around our stadium or wherever we play, people will love it, people will want to go there. So we’ve started developing some really good relationships.”

The progress made has left plenty of room for optimism about an actual team coming to life, especially in comparison to the group that helped spark their idea.

Two years after the efforts in Indianapolis began in 2011, a professional soccer team, Indy Eleven, was officially founded last year as a member of the North American Soccer League (NASL).

This year, the Eleven will be one of two teams, along with the Ottawa Fury, to begin play in the now 10-team league that sits just below the MLS as a second-division league. And in 2015, three more teams are set to join.

“They started in 2011 and it kept going forward and now it’s 2014 and they finally have their season,” Copes said. “We like to think in our own mind that everyone respects that we’re well ahead of where they were after a whole year.”

Putting the last nail in

The Hammers are not a pipe dream.

The goal right now is still to build up a sizeable following, but talks with a few investors from all over the country have already begun.

Nothing has come to fruition yet, and nothing probably will for at least a little while longer as numbers haven’t been discussed yet, but the interest is real.

Steven Short, executive director of league growth and partnerships for the USL Pro, a third-division league behind the MLS and NASL, reached out to Copes and Killian after their MLS All-Star game fundraiser and has since played in advising role for the Hammers’ cause.

To help add to their resume, the Hammers sponsored an exhibition match on March 21 between the UAB men’s soccer team and the Atlanta Silverbacks of the NASL at West Campus Field to show both potential leagues and investors soccer’s viability in Birmingham.

In front of 2,057 fans at a stadium with a seating capacity of 2,500, UAB fell 3-0 to Atlanta in a match that was probably closer than the score reflected. But all things considered, the circumstances were nearly parallel to eleven months earlier in that the final score was the least of the Hammers’ worries. The point was that they had successfully marketed their movement in their biggest event to date, with a crowd that exceeded expectations on all fronts.

“You know, I’m not a businessman, I’m a soccer coach,” UAB coach Mike Getman said. “But you see a few thousand people in the stands for an exhibition match between one pro team and a college team, and you got to wonder, ‘What if this was a championship match with two pro teams, how many people might there be?’ So, it certainly proves that people are willing to come out and pay good money to watch soccer, and certainly I hope there are some people who are taking notice of it.”

It was the first professional soccer match of any kind in Alabama since the United States women’s national team beat Australia, 5-4, at Legion Field in 2008 in front of a crowd of 5,000. (The U.S. men’s team last played in Alabama in 2005 — a 2-0 victory over Guatemala in a World Cup qualifier also held at Legion Field.)

In 1996, Birmingham was one of five host cities for soccer matches during the Summer Olympics held in Atlanta that year. Aside from the gold medal match, the largest attendance of the tournament was the sellout crowd of 83,183 fans at the USMNT’s opening match against Argentina at Legion Field.

“Obviously, it’s baby steps, but this place has proven before that there’s a soccer community,” Silverbacks coach Eric Wynalda said after the match. “Way back, not just in the Olympics, but some of the national team games that have been here, the women’s team has been here. I know that there is a certain affinity for this place. From the players’ perspective, I like coming here for all the same reasons I just mentioned. There’s these little soccer hotspots in America that exist, and Birmingham is definitely one of them.”

Eric Wynalda

Copes and Killian hope that the Hammers can latch on with any professional league, but agree that starting in a lower division would be the ideal scenario. They cite Orlando City SC’s steady rise from the USL Pro to MLS beginning next season as the benchmark to follow.

Wynalda, who was the all-time leading goal scorer for the U.S. men’s national team upon his retirement in 2000, believes there is nothing wrong with starting from the bottom.

“I think what we forget sometimes when you take a country like England or Spain or Germany, they’re just smaller, that’s it,” he said. “Our country is so big that it’s hard to understand how many little pockets there are. We have this belief that, ‘Oh, if you can’t be at the top tier than you can’t exist.’ But there’s places like Portland that grew slowly and turned into something massive. Atlanta is trying to do that.

“But Birmingham has a better chance at figuring it out than most. So, it will be interesting to see how the next couple of pages look because there’s a lot to talk about here.”

If continued on its current trajectory, Wynalda said the Hammers could be just a few short years away from coming to life.

“The sport just continues to grow, and I think stay organized, stay enthusiastic and good things might happen,” he said.

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