Published on June 10, 2019, at 10:30 a.m.
by Hudson Nuckolls.
The phrase “professional soccer in Birmingham” would normally be part of a discussion about football (the European version) being played in Birmingham, England. The city boasts two proud English Football League Championship clubs — Ashton Villa and Birmingham City F.C. Up until recently, “professional soccer in Birmingham” would rarely be part of a discussion of an American team calling Birmingham, Alabama, its home.
On Aug. 8, 2017, a new group of USL (United Soccer League) owners announced that a new team was coming to Birmingham, Alabama. The club was slated to play its first USL game less than two years later in the spring of 2019.
The ownership group partnered with Big Communications, a Birmingham-based “creative communications company” that’s been entrenched in the Magic City for over 20 years, according to its LinkedIn profile. The team’s front office tasked Big with creating and building a brand for its new team that had no players or coaches yet.
An appetite for soccer
The city is hungry for soccer. Birmingham has consistently delivered high television ratings for international and MLS cup matches. According to the Birmingham Business Journal, the city was the top U.S. market for the World Cup qualifying match between the U.S. and Mexico in 2014 and posted the largest crowd ever for a stand-alone women’s match in the Southeast.
On the first day of the 2018 World Cup, Birmingham ranked 4th nationally in TV ratings for the Russia vs. Saudi Arabia match, according to Bham Now. This is impressive because the U.S. Men’s National Team didn’t qualify, and many thought Americans would lack interest. “There was already kind of a cult following that was happening on an underground level,” said Ford Wiles, the chief creative officer at Big, who worked closely on branding the team. Bringing a professional team to the crazed fans was the best way to tap into the “magic” of the city.
A team is coming
The very first step in the process of establishing the brand of a sports team is raising awareness and building excitement. Instead of a traditional media alert to invite media members to the press conference, Big distributed black boxes that read “You’re invited” in black text, which opened to a soccer ball and information about the announcement press conference that read, “We’re kicking off something big in Birmingham … be here for this game changing announcement.”
According to Big’s website, the PR team “delivered a calculated ad value of $34,391 and 36,054,722 total potential impressions behind the strength of 50+ media hits. On social media, utilizing both paid and organic tactics, [the team] captured over 460,000 impressions on announcement day.” New social accounts boasted 2,700 followers by the end of the week, and fans made more than 200 season ticket reservations.
Naming the club
After the announcement was made, the team’s name had to be established. For Wiles and his creative team at Big, it started with understanding.
It was Big’s job to first understand the growing excitement for the sport. Then, they had to recognize not only the space the team will occupy in the league, but the space it will occupy in the hearts of fans in Birmingham. He added that “the pressure is on” when naming a professional team. It’s not something anyone wants to mess up.
After researching how teams are named across all sports, the Big account team then focused more specifically on how soccer teams are named. Whiteboards in the office were filled with possible names. The easiest part was eliminating the ones that were already being used. The list went from hundreds, to 10, to four. Graphic identities were formed for the final few names to “bring them to life,” according to Wiles. The name that withstood a line of questioning like “Does this give us an endless supply of things to build on?” and “Does this name stand out in the league it’s up against?” is the one that ultimately prevailed.
Legion: strong enough to stand on its own as a vast army; an immediate connection to Legion Field, a staple of the city. The club’s official name, Birmingham Legion Football Club (FC), unites soccer die-hards with new fans who have pride in their city, just like a blacksmith would forge together components to make iron in the early history of Birmingham. “The biggest insight was that soccer was coming to the city, but we wanted to bring the city to soccer,” Wiles said.
The logo creation was the final piece in establishing the brand. The logo, or “shield,” as true soccer fans would say, features a gold hammer and anvil set on a black background. There is an obvious connection to the iron industry, but the hammer also connects fans to the former lower-division USL team, the Birmingham Hammers, a few players from which help make up the new team.
“Molten gold” and “attack black” are the official colors, according to the Legion website. “Visually, the brand had to have grit, a fighting spirit and true character — a pure representation of our city,” said Associate Creative Director Matt Lane Harris. In August 2018, the crest was voted “Best in the League” on a USL poll.
Moving forward, the internal communications team at Legion F.C. focused on tapping into the building excitement for the team. “We came to realize, whatever we put out, as long as it was high-quality, people were craving it,” said summer 2018 media coordinator intern Andrew Morris. They had goals of increasing social media followers each week during the summer.
The communications team started small, with just a few full-time staff members and interns. Morris said the newness was a double-edged sword. He noted the exciting part about starting from scratch was that nothing was off-limits, so the team felt free to try new things. He added that the hard part was that they had to truly start with nothing and build relationships with places like printing companies, for example. These less-glamorous tasks are not traditionally considered as part of the process, but they were accomplished because each staff member was versatile in his or her jobs.
Legion is now well into its first season. It sold out its first home game, and then scored its first goal in club history at Louisville City FC on March 31. The excitement and adoration of the city for its new team are building a passionate army of fans — a legion.