Photo by Jon Anderson
Gene Hallman 6-3-16
Gene Hallman, president and CEO of the Alabama Sports Council, talks about Hoover's successful bid to keep the SEC Baseball Tournament at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium beyond 2016 during a press conference at the stadium on Friday, June 3, 2016.
The battle to keep the SEC Baseball Tournament in Hoover was one of the most competitive bid processes Gene Hallman can remember, and he has been the sports tourism guru for Alabama for decades.
Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans and Jacksonville all were trying to snatch the tournament away from Hoover for 2017, but Southeastern Conference officials today said it will remain in Hoover for now.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey announced at the conference’s spring meetings in Destin that Hoover Metropolitan Stadium has won a new contract for the tournament, though the length of the contract has not yet been determined.
Hallman, president and CEO of the Alabama Sports Council, the official organization that made the bid to keep the tournament in Hoover, later this afternoon said the bid request from the SEC was for a three-year contract with two potential one-year extensions. But final contract negotiations still must occur.
“We certainly will be pushing for five years,” Hallman said, noting it’s easier to justify capital expenditures for a longer-term contract.
‘I think we hit a grand slam’
Regardless, tourism officials and officials for the city of Hoover all said they are excited to be able to keep the prized tournament in Hoover.
“I think we hit a grand slam,” said John Oros, president of the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This has been an incredible effort. Great tourism destinations are built by collaboration,” and there was a team of dedicated people working to keep this tournament here, he said.
“Tourism is an incredibly difficult and intensely competitive business, and we were up against some great competition. Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans are all established tourism destinations,” Oros said. “We won out on this one, rightfully so. We are the rightful home for this great tournament.”
All four of the cities vying to lure the tournament away are bigger than the Birmingham-Hoover area and have professional sports franchises in the ballparks they were promoting, and they came after it really hard, Hallman said.
“They made us up our game. They made us look at ways we could make this tournament better, and in the end, that benefits us all,” he said.
Nashville waged a social media campaign to move the tournament to the new First Tennessee Park, and the New Orleans Zephyrs AAA baseball team held an SEC fan night to show how people there would support the tournament at Zephyr Field, Hallman said.
Memphis greatest competition
But probably the greatest competition came from Memphis, which was pitching AutoZone Park as home for the SEC tournament, Hallman said. That park was named the best minor league ballpark in 2009 and No. 2 minor league park in 2015 by Baseball America.
Memphis was the strongest competition the last time the SEC sought bids for its baseball tournament in 2011 and put up a strong push this year as well, Hallman said.
Some of the venues had natural fan zones near their parks, such as Beale Street in Memphis, and there are some people in the conference who like their championship events to be in urban environments, like the SEC basketball championship at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Hallman said.
But when it came time to decide, the vote was unanimous among the 14 SEC athletic directors to keep the tournament in Hoover, he said.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said Hoover’s plan to invest at least $70 million in a sports complex adjoining the Hoover Met “very much set that situation apart.”
The 155,000-square-foot indoor event center that Hoover is building right next to the Hoover Met will be available for use as a “fan fair-type atmosphere” with food, entertainment and other accommodations for the baseball teams, Sankey said.
Photo by Jon Anderson/sketch by Goodwyn Mills & Cawood
Hoover Sportsplex 13
The city of Hoover plans to build a 155,000-square-foot indoor event center next to Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The facility is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2017 SEC Baseball Tournament in May of next year.
Hallman said the indoor center would include a sports bar with craft beers, a food court, merchandise area, fan activity area and players’ lounge. “All of these are going to create a great atmosphere in that building,” he said.
Other new additions will include a Ferris wheel in between the event center and the stadium and a zip line next to the Ferris wheel, Hallman said. All of these should be in place for the 2017 tournament, he said.
“We, indeed, collectively are going to continue to make this event special for the fans,” he said.
Also, Hoover officials say the adjacent sports complex, to be completed in 2018, will include five baseball fields the same size as the Hoover Met that SEC teams can use for practice. One of those fields will have natural turf like the Met and will be positioned the same as the stadium field with respect to the sun, Hallman said.
Hoover also is adding about 1,500 new parking spaces around the Met, which should alleviate the need for satellite parking and shuttles, and expanding the number of RV spaces in the adjacent RV park from 145 to 176, Hallman said.
Hoover was going to build the indoor event center and sports complex with or without the SEC tournament, but it sort of served as insurance to help keep it, Hallman said.
And it certainly didn’t hurt that this year’s tournament, which finished on Sunday, drew a record 150,064 spectators — up from the previous record of 134,496 in 2013, according to SEC statistics.
Hoover Mayor Gary Ivey noted that tournament attendance started out at 87,000 in 1998 and said he’s thrilled to see the tournament grow and flourish.
“It’s a huge event for the city,” Ivey said. “We’re really excited to get it back. We’ll continue to try to host it and make it better for the citizens.”
Photo by Jon Anderson
Gary Ivey 6-3-16
Hoover Mayor Gary Ivey talks about the city's successful bid to keep the SEC Baseball Tournament at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium beyond 2016, during a press conference at the stadium on Friday, June 3, 2016.
Hallman said SEC officials have been impressed with Hoover’s upkeep of the stadium.
“This year, the facility was in the finest shape it’s been in since it opened — new paint, carpet. Everything about it just felt new and clean,” he said.
Plus, the little things that people have done over the years to make the tournament a great experience for the players and fans have been noticed, Hallman said.
The players love getting motorcycle escorts back and forth from their hotels, he said. Football players are accustomed to it, but “baseball players typically don’t get that,” he said.
This year, the motorcycle officers added a new touch. They attached team pennants onto their motorcycles, showing which school they were escorting, he said.
In past years, SEC coaches have been given a vehicle to use while in town. Because they frequently loan that vehicle to another coach or school official, this year, each coach had access to two vehicles, Hoover Executive Director Allen Pate said. The city also this year arranged to have shuttles available to take players to places away from their hotels if needed, Pate said.
Hoover also has managed to make the tournament successful, regardless if in-state teams Alabama and Auburn were present and winning, Hallman said.
“Over 19 years, this community has built a product that’s independent of who’s playing on the field,” Hallman said.
Also playing in Hoover’s favor is that it is centrally located in the conference’s footprint, he said. There are six SEC schools located within a three-hour drive from Hoover, he said.
Plus, there are plenty of amenities to serve guests, he said. There are more than 2,000 hotel rooms and 160 restaurants within five miles of the stadium, he said.
The Southeastern Conference will receive certain financial incentives as part of the bid from the Alabama Sports Council, but those are being kept confidential by direction from the SEC, Hallman said. However, the financial incentives are guaranteed by the Alabama Sports Council and not the city of Hoover, he said.
The Hoover community is proud to host the SEC Baseball Tournament because of the quality of the conference, he said. Seven of the top 10 teams for this year’s NCAA tournament came from the SEC, and the last eight national championship games in Omaha, Nebraska, have included an SEC team, with an SEC team winning four of those championships, he said.
“It’s absolutely the best college baseball in the country,” Hallman said. “The road to Omaha will continue to begin here in Hoover.”
Kyle Parmley contributed to this article.