Attention citizens of Birmingham: We have a professional soccer team.
This Saturday, the Birmingham Hammers begin their inaugural 13-game campaign in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), where they’ll compete with neighboring teams like the New Orleans Jesters, Nashville FC, Georgia Revolution, and Knoxville Force.
In other words, it’s a big deal. And for president/co-founder Morgan Copes and the rest of his team, it’s the culmination of years of hard work. Seeing as Copes and company built the Hammers from scratch (merchandise existed before the actual team did), it’s also the payoff for a venture that faced many doubters along the way.
We sat down with Copes on the eve of his team’s first match to discuss the Hammers’ journey and why Birmingham is ready for a professional soccer team.
What inspired you to bring professional soccer to Birmingham?
Soccer has been a game that has been a big part of my life since I was a little kid. It has introduced me to friends all over the world that I still keep in touch with. When I moved here, the only sports team Birmingham had was the Barons.
If I remember correctly, there was Hammers merchandise before there was a Hammers team. What was the marketing strategy there?
When we did the limited edition run of scarves (100 prominently gold and red), we were still in the phase of testing out the market to see if this was an idea that could succeed. We held multiple events around the city that were all planned so that we could get the word out about what we were trying to do. We didn’t want to jump blindly into a market for a sports team without something to say we could actually pull it off. This was one of the first steps we took to start the revenue generating process.
How did Birmingham respond to/rally around a local soccer brand that didn’t have a team yet?
There were a lot of doubters, but those doubters also fueled the fire to push us to succeed. Tom Condone and the State Association believed in us from the beginning, as did a handful of local soccer nuts. It wasn’t always positive and a lot of people told us “no,” but we are proud to say that this organization’s foundation was built by the fans who support us. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
It wasn’t always positive and a lot of people told us “no.” There were a lot of doubters, but those doubters also fueled the fire to push us to succeed.
At what point were you able to logically turn the brand into a team?
All the hard work from everyone involved has been instrumental in making this a reality. We’ve picked up some bumps and bruises along the way, but we’ve always picked ourselves up to keep going.
Last year’s team was the first, correct? Was last season more of a trial run to fielding a league-official team?
Last summer’s exhibition season was a great opportunity for us to get a trial run before entering into a league. Before our first official NPSL league match, we’ve got a collection of experiences that will hopefully allow us to improve this summer. Most teams do not get that luxury.
How did the Hammers become a member of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL)?
There was a formal application process where we had to submit plans on how we intended to succeed. Once we were approved, we had to gather the finances.
How did the tryouts go this past offseason? Was it more competitive knowing that the Hammers would be part of the NPSL?
I think it was definitely more competitive. We had more players in 2015, but I think that had to do with the fact that no one knew what level we were going to play at. I think the boys represented themselves well last year on the field and the talent we have this year is a direct reflection on that. This season should be a lot of fun to watch!
With regional teams like Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville, Conyers (Atlanta), and New Orleans, do you believe the Hammers can bring positive attention to the Magic City?
I definitely believe we can. Birmingham is a proud sports town already and we are certainly aiming to give our fans some regional bragging rights in the sports world. For so long, people have seen Birmingham in some negative light, and we hope to show these teams and cities that Birmingham is a city that is making a big comeback.
I can promise you that this is going to be the highest level of soccer played in the state of Alabama. There will be players from all over the world who are going to be coming to play for us or against us.
For soccer fans unfamiliar with the NPSL, what should we expect from this league?
I can promise you that this is going to be the highest level of soccer played in the state of Alabama. There will be players from all over the world who are going to be coming to play for us or against us. The matches are going to be really high-paced and intense. Every match counts for something big.
Final question: Is Birmingham ready for professional soccer?
I certainly believe so. Birmingham is the largest TV market in the United States that does not have a top-tier professional sports team. We are consistently rated in the top 10 for ratings for USMNT matches and we were #1 in the ratings when the USA clinched WC Qualification against Mexico in 2012. Our state association grew by the largest percentage increase in the entire country last year in terms of youth players registered. Soccer is blowing up across this country and Birmingham is hopefully going to be a part of that momentum very soon.