SportsPulse: Move over Tom Brady, the Cleveland Browns are set to be next great team in NFL says USA TODAY’s Trysta Krick. Yes, those Browns. Here’s why.
When Tom Ward became marketing vice president of the NBA expansion Charlotte Hornets in 1988, he was joining a cause as much as he was accepting a job.
“I will never forget the Sacramento Bee headline: ‘The only franchise Charlotte will ever get is the one with the Golden Arches,’ ” Ward said. “Obviously, we had a chip on our shoulders. We were one of the smallest markets.”
The common refrain he heard was that pro basketball wouldn’t sell in Atlantic Coast Conference country. “People said the NBA will never succeed, and we went out and sold out for 10 straight years,” Ward said.
Thirty-one years later, he is president of the expansion Birmingham Iron of the fledgling Alliance of American Football. His title is different, but he’s still working six or seven days a week, selling the pro game in an area where the college game is king.
“But this is football country, and that’s what drew me here,” Ward said.
Ward has a reputation as a marketing whisperer for start-up franchises. Besides the Hornets, he was an executive for the NHL expansion Nashville Predators (1998) and the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats’ first season (2004), then joined the Washington Nationals in their second season (2006) to help prepare them to move into a new stadium.
“I’ve taken a little bit of everything I’ve done from different places and mixed in here,” Ward said. “I’ve customized it for the Birmingham market, which is much different than any market I’ve been in.”
The Birmingham challenge is different because he must create awareness for both the league and his team. But he believes selling football in Birmingham is easier than selling hockey in Nashville.
“People in Nashville had heard of the NHL, but it wasn’t a brand that people were listing in their top three or four sports,” he said. “Here in Birmingham, it’s a little different animal. It’s a new league, but unlike being in Nashville — where we took in a non-traditional sport and had to teach people the rules of hockey — we don’t have to do that here.”
Part of Ward’s job in Birmingham is convincing the public that the AAF is staying.
“So many teams have come and gone, whether it was the USFL, XFL, CFL. You name it, they’ve been here,” Ward said. “The good news is Birmingham has always supported the teams. It’s been the leagues that failed, not the team.”
Thank you! You’re almost signed up for
Keep an eye out for an email to confirm your newsletter registration.
POWER RANKINGS: Commanders, Legends making midseason moves
TALKS ONGOING: Will NFL teams loan QBs and other players to AAF?
Ward said he’s had the most fun “weaving our brand in the fabric of the community.”
Because iron workers are an important part of the city’s history, Ward immediately met with members of Iron Workers Local 92. Some are now members of the Iron Heads, the team’s biggest supporters. They built a 750-pound anvil, and an ironworker clangs it before games to get fans engaged.
Part of the AAF strategy is placing players on teams close to where they played college football. Birmingham’s top running back, Trent Richardson, played at Alabama.
“Even though the Alliance is new, the players are familiar,” Ward said.
Going into their Week 6 game in San Diego, the Iron are 3-2 and lead the league in scoring defense. Their attendance, though, has been disappointing. They drew roughly 13,000 last Saturday for a big home game against the unbeaten Orlando Apollos.
“It’s rained here for two months,” Ward said, noting that all four home games have been undermined by precipitation.
He predicts a March 31 game will draw its biggest crowd of the season because a break in the weather is expected. He also thinks the four-month lead-in to market the team just wasn’t enough to spread the word.
But Ward has a story that makes him believe fans will start attending games.
Three weeks after moving to Birmingham, he was at a sports bar to watch the Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers.
“A guy says to me, you are not from around here, are you?’ ” Ward recalled. “And I told him I had just moved here. He asked, ‘Have you found a church yet?’ ”
Ward thought it was an odd question to ask in a sports bar. But he told the man he had been working long hours and hadn’t found a church.
“Do you have a church you attend?” Ward asked the man.
“Yep,” he said. “I go to the Crimson cathedral about an hour from here.”
Ward suddenly got the Alabama joke. “OK, you got me,” he said.
That’s why Ward believes the Iron will succeed.
“Football is a religion down here,” he said.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Kevin Allen on Twitter @ByKevinAllen.
If you love talking football, we have the perfect spot for you. Join our new Facebook Group, The Ruling Off the Field, to engage in friendly debate and conversation with fellow football fans and our NFL insiders.