March Madness is back in Birmingham with a much more modern look, but is the BJCC really ready?
Birmingham will host the first and second round of the NCAA Tournament for Division I men’s basketball on Thursday and Saturday this week at the renovated Legacy Arena.
After not hosting the NCAA Tournament since 2008, the BJCC had to make major improvements to its arena, which now has a shiny glass atrium in the front, an upgraded interior, a new coat of exterior paint and a new name, the Legacy Arena. The $123 million renovation and expansion started in April 2020 and the arena reopened last year.
Birmingham got the bid in October 2020 to be back in the Big Dance this week.
“We were awarded this round way back then,” said Tad Snider, executive director of the BJCC. “It’s here now. It is real.”
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Tickets went on sale and they were hot from the start, even before Sunday’s announcement that Alabama and Auburn would play at Legacy Arena.
“These tickets have been on sale for a while, about six months,” Snider said. “They were pretty much gone before the announcements.”
Alabama, the top seed in the South region, will play its first round game on Thursday at 1:45 p.m. against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
Auburn will play Iowa at Legacy Arena at 5:50 p.m. Thursday.
Other games set for Legacy Arena include West Virginia against Maryland at 11:15 a.m., and Northern Kentucky versus Houston at 8:20 p.m.
“We got a great bracket,” Snider said. “Two number one seeds in Alabama and Houston, both Alabama and Auburn playing at home in Alabama. You couldn’t ask for more.”
Alabama has played at the renovated Legacy Arena this season on Dec. 17, when Gonzaga beat the Tide 100-90 in the C.M. Newton Classic. That provided a practice run for the NCAA Tournament, Snider said.
After the arena hosted a New Edition concert on Saturday, that concert stage had to be removed and on Monday a hardwood basketball court was being laid down, piece-by-piece.
“Things now are going into place,” Snider said, speaking on Monday. “So, TV crews start to move in. Floors are going in. Everyone is getting ready because we will have practice Wednesday. So right now there is a lot of thrashing going on getting the pieces in place.”
While some re-sell tickets may be available, the arena is sold out, about 16,000 seats for the four games that will be played on Thursday.
“Interest was so strong even before the selections, it shows you how strong Birmingham is as a basketball market, how excited we get about NCAA no matter who’s playing,” Snider said.
The BJCC Arena, which opened in 1976 and is now called Legacy Arena, hosted the NCAA Tournament 10 times from 1982-2008. The drought from 2009-2022 was mainly because the arena needed to be updated.
“With other cities investing and newer arenas opening up and the NCAA having the choice of where they go, it required an investment to bring the building up to the expectations everyone has for an event like this,” Snider said. “The good news is we were awarded this first and second round even before we had shovels in the ground. There was a lot of faith in Birmingham as a basketball market, and then the plans and renderings we showed them for the building for the renovation.”
The Legacy Arena now has a shine, polish and amenities that the old arena never had.
“It was just the age of the building and the amenities of the building, having suites, having club spaces, those things that everyone expects now, just overall aesthetic and finish of the building,” Snider said.
The city committed $90 million over 30 years to build Protective Stadium and renovate Legacy Arena.
“We made the capital investment with the county and our other partners to have these facilities so that we can continue to be competitive,” said Birmingham City Council member Hunter Williams. “Previously the BJCC Arena, towards the end of its pre-renovated phase, really wasn’t getting the traction it needs in terms of being able to be marketed. I think people saw it as outdated.”
The results speak for themselves.
“I think we have one of the pre-eminent facilities in the Southeast,” said Cornell Wesley, director of Birmingham’s office of innovation and economic opportunity. “Our community has shown themselves to be very welcoming. We have not only the infrastructure, but we have an amazing food community which also serves as a huge asset. It’s not just a game day experience.”
In 1982, the BJCC Arena hosted what was then called the NCAA Mideast regional semifinals.
In 1985, 1989, and 1997, the BJCC hosted the Southeast regional semifinals and finals.
In 1984, 1987, 2000, 2003 and 2008, it hosted NCAA first and second round games.
After 2008, the shine faded on the BJCC’s NCAA appeal as the building aged.
“The investments in the building allowed us to work with the Southeastern Conference and all of our partners here in Birmingham to submit a bid,” Snider said.
“We feel like the reception from everyone who has viewed the building heading up to this weekend has been fantastic, all the site visits ahead of tournament,” Snider said. “Everyone’s thrilled about being able to be back in Birmingham.”