This article is not about the Iron. What it is about is a look back at the repeated attempts to have a pro football team in Birmingham. Not least because, very briefly, one of those teams was in the CFL.
For UK fans the one of most interest may be the Birmingham Fire team of the WLAF that later became NFL Europe.
The AAF has had a penchant for setting up teams in previously occupied markets. We have already seen quite a list of teams that used to exist where they have now established franchises in San Antonio and Orlando.
Birmingham is another site chosen by the AAF with a rich heritage of pro football teams that have come and gone.
The College Issue
Because of that you do wonder can non NFL football ever thrive in such an environment? Previous failures were not fan based so much as league failures.
Take the ‘major’ players. The WFL in 1974 up to the XFL in 2001, had fans at the gate. However the leagues either collapsed (WFL), made tactical errors (the USFL opting to move to Autumn) or were part of an experiment that didn’t work (the Canadian Football League’s expansion to the U.S.).
I have found a short list of defunct pro football franchised from Birmingham. It is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list so much as a look back at previous franchises in this spot.
There may be more, contact me and tell me if I’ve missed any!
Birmingham Americans: World Football League
The World Football league had a very brief existence. It was only around in 1974, and 1975. To say it wasn’t a success would be an understatement. Often referred to as “the wiffle”it never really took hold.
The Americans, founded in late December 1973, played in the young league’s inaugural season in 1974.
Easily the most successful of the World Football League franchises, the Americans led the league in attendance and won all 13 of their home games.
They won their first ten games in a row, often coming from behind and winning by narrow margins. The Americans finished the 1974 regular season at 15–5 and won the 1974 World Bowl by one point over the Florida Blazers.
Due to financial instability the team folded after only one season. Most of the team’s assets were seized to pay back taxes.
Birmingham Vulcans: World Football League
The Americans WFL franchise was replaced for the 1975 season by the newly formed Birmingham Vulcans.
The Vulcans were the best team in the league in 1975 with a 9–3 record when the league folded in mid-season. Once again the fans turned out as like the Americans before them they had the league’s highest attendances.
Following the collapase of the league the Vulcans were declared league champions by virtue of having the best record.
Following two WFL seasons there was a drive to get into the NFL. Mostly this was getting fans to sign a “statement of support” (petition) for the idea, but the push to the senior league never really got off the ground.
Alabama Vulcans: American Football Association
The American Football Association (AFA) ran from 1979-1983. It positioned itself as a ‘minor league’ and never looked to challenge the supremacy of the NFL.
The central idea of the league was to set up in the places where the WFL was the most popular, while avoiding the overspending that led to that league’s demise.
The team took their name from the previous WFL Vulcans. Further, the logo amalgamated aspects of both the Vulcans’ and Americans’ former logos.
In their one season in the league the Vulcans went 13-6 and lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Alabama Magic: American Football Association
The previous three pro teams came and went in Birmingham over a seven year period. Yet they tried again in 1982.
The Magic were actually doomed by another Birmingham startup!
On May 11th, 1982, two weeks before the team’s debut game the USFL was announced with Birmingham as one of the league’s 12 founding franchises.
After a 6-1 start the Magic dropped their final three contests to finish their single season 6-4. The team folded towards the end of 1982.
Birmingham Stallions: USFL
The Stallions may well have been the best of all the rival start up teams to the NFL in Birmingham. Between 1974 and 2001, eight different football teams existed at the city’s Legion Field. Only the Stallions played more than two seasons.
After a .500 debut season in 1983 (9-9), the Stallions emerged as one of the top teams in the USFL in 1984 (14-4) and 1985 (13-5).
Although the Stallions were 27-9 in the 1984 and 1985 seasons, they never managed to overcome the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars in the postseason.
The Stallions expected to return in 1986 when the USFL planned to switch to an Autumn schedule to compete directly with the NFL. Following a failed lawsuit against the NFL the league folded in August 1986.
Birmingham Fire: WLAF
The World League of American Football (WLAF), later NFL Europe was backed by the NFL. It was a developmental league for the NFL and lasted from 1991 to 2007 in various formats.
It is perhaps unsurprising the NFL supported league looked to put a team in Birmingham. Because of prior success with attendance it made sense.
Boy did it start well too! The Fire’s home debut on March 23, 1991 against the Montreal Machine drew a crowd of 52,942. Jerry Lee Lewis played “Great Balls of Fire” at halftime and the game was broadcast to a national cable audience on the USA Network.
That was the high water mark. Attendances dropped off quickly. Only 8,114 turned out for the Fire’s fourth home game the following month.
The Fire were led by former Denver Broncos Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. They made it to the playoffs in both seasons of existence, losing in the opening round both times.
The Fire went a combined 12-9-1 over two seasons in 1991 and 1992.
After the 1992 season the WLAF was suspended. Ultimately the North American teams were scrapped as NFL Europe was developed.
Birmingham Barracudas: CFL
A CFL franchise was awarded to Birmingham in 1995 as an expansion team. Owner Art Williams said he wanted a nickname for the team that would “scare the spit out of people”.
For a landlocked team Barracudas remains an odd choice scary or otherwise!
The ‘Cudas had the highly experienced Jack Pardee as head coach. Pardee had coached in the WFL, USFL and NFL up to that point.
A proponent of the Run and Shoot O, Pardee got two-time All-CFL quarterback Matt Dunigan signed as a free agent to lead the ‘Cudas high-scoring offense.
The Barracudas debuted at 75,000-seat Legion Field on July 15, 1995, They beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 51-28 in front of 31,185 fans.
Crowds remained strong for the ensuing home games. 25,321 turned out for a 24-14 win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders and 30,729 for a 36-8 loss to the Baltimore Stallions.
Despite being high scoring and competitive within the CFL, there was something the Barracudas could not compete with. The coming of the college season.
Once the Auburn and University of Alabama college schedules got under way the Barracuda’s attendances plummeted.
Management had anticipated the problem. Birmingham played home games at Legion Field on Saturday evenings in July and August, but were allowed to play on Sundays once college and high school football got under way after Labour Day.
Good planning, but it do not help. On Sunday October 1, 1995 an announced crowd of just 6,317 showed up for a home win against the Shreveport Pirates. The following week saw 6,589 turn out for a match with San Antonio.
The Barracudas made the Grey Cup playoffs with a 10-8 record. But Matt Dunigan broke the index finger on this throwing hand in the season’s penultimate game. They lost in the playoffs 52-9 to the San Antonio Texans in their last ever game.
Dunigan would remain their most famous team member, eventually being elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
Birmingham Steeldogs/Alabama Steeldogs: Arena Football
The Steeldogs played in AF2, a developmental league for Arena Football. The league ran from 2000 to 2009.
The Steeldogs played seven seasons in the league from 2000 to 2008. For most of that time they were the Birmingham Steeldogs, only becoming Alabama for their final season.
Over 8 seasons they went 63-65, appearing in the playoffs 4 times and going 2-4 there. They never won a division but did appear in an NC championship game in 2004 only to lose 79-33.
Finances ran out for the team and they did not appear after 2008.
Alabama Slammers: Women’s American Football League
The Slammers played in the WAFL. They lasted just one season going 2-7 in 2001 whilst the league itself only lasted for 2 years in total.
Birmingham Steel Magnolias: Women’s Football Association
The Steel Magnolias were a Pro team that played in the short lived Women’s Football Association.
The team played in the Central Conference of the WFA in 2002-3. They finished 5-5 before losing in the conference championship to the Indianapolis Vipers.
That was the one season of existence for both team and league.
Birmingham Thunderbolts: XFL
With the XFL relaunching and marketing XFL2020 it is interesting to look back at a team from the lone previous XFL season.
It is thought that ‘NBC and the WWF both lost $35 million on their $100 million investment in the league’s inaugural season.’ So launching again is certainly a bold move.
The Thunderbolts played in the East Division of the XFL alongside teams from Chicago, Orlando and New York/New Jersey.
They finished the only year of XFL play – 2001 – in last place with the worst record in the league, at 2-8.
Gerry DiNardo coached the Bolts and although XFL players were encouraged to use nicknames instead of their last names on the backs of their jerseys he apparently banned this in Birmingham.
The Thunderbolts averaged 17,000 fans a game. The second lowest in the league.
Alabama Outlawz: X League
The X League was an indoor pro football league. It ran from 2014 to 2015 and had a whole host of scoring changes to traditional pro football.
The Outlawz finished the 2014 season with a record of 5–3–1. They won the first game ever played in the X-League.
In 2015, the Outlawz finished with a 2–6 record and ninth out of ten teams in the league.
Several teams folded or left the league towards the end of the season. The X-League planned a merger with another league but the plans fell through in late 2015 and the X-League folded
Birmingham Outlawz: Arena Pro Football
The Birmingham Outlawz were born out of their predecessors the Alabama Outlawz.
In late 2016, the Outlawz team announced it was one of the three inaugural members of a new National Arena Football League to begin play in spring 2017.
By 2018 the Arena League the Outlawz had played in was merged into the American Arena League. However the Outlawz were no longer a going concern.
After three away games, all losses, the Outlawz cancelled their first home game for safety reasons. They would later cancel all of their remaining games for the season, which were all scheduled home games.
Banner image from worthpoint.com