Guest notebook: Reflections on the NCAA experience in Birmingham

Sites that create beer gardens, live music performances, and other fan experiences endear the place to visitors and create lasting memories.

Guest notebook: Reflections on the NCAA experience in Birmingham

He could have selected Orlando, Denver, or any other five cities in this year. He chose Birmingham.

Since more than 20 year, my uncle and I have attended the first round and second round of the NCAA basketball tourney in different cities. We watch basketball, and then tour the city a little. We then have a lively discussion about the cities. Here's some feedback I received a month after the release of 2023.

How did Birmingham fare? We rate it B-minus.

On the plus side, people were very friendly. It was easy to enter and leave the facility (not something you can expect with mega-events). This is a very accessible and affordable city. The hotel we stayed at in Uptown was close to the arena. Uptown has some great bars and restaurants, perfect for March Madness fans. We found plenty to keep us entertained while we were not watching the game.

The city has missed out on some big opportunities.

First fail: There is no festival atmosphere in the arena. The best venues create beer gardens, concerts and other fan experiences year after year that endear them to visitors. They share these experiences with others over the years.

Birmingham is not like that, despite all the assets available around the arena. Pocket parks are scattered throughout the convention center, perfect for games or music stages. Imagine Uptown closing off a section of Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd. and extending the cafe tables from Mugshots and Southern Kitchen & Bar to Eugene's Hot Chicken, among others. Music, pop up concessions, colorful March Madness signage, outdoor games stations, and more, could have made this a four-day attraction not only for Birmingham residents, but for everyone.

Magic City missed a huge opportunity by not leveraging the overall moment. Miami and San Diego are not the best places to host sports events. In our experience, cities such as Orlando, Memphis, and San Antonio have seized this opportunity to create a city-wide ambiance of excitement.

The hotels where the teams were housed had minimal signage. A traveling businessperson would have been able to check in and out of the hotel without knowing that March Madness was taking place. The concierge service was mainly a single-page list of restaurants and other places.

We did, however, find some worthwhile activities.

Birmingham is not the only place that offers Top Golf. It allows you to compete on fantasy links and watch live games on screens while playing golf.

Vulcan Park and Museum is a unique Birmingham attraction. The iron man is a huge, unusual figure with a museum and backstory that reveal much about Birmingham - its ambitions as well as its once-rapid growth rate and racial tensions.

Barber Motorsports Park and Museum came as a huge surprise. Who would have thought that one of the world's most impressive displays of historic vehicles could be found in suburban Alabama, besides motorsports enthusiasts and locals? This is an incredible museum. It's so well-executed and accessible to non-fans.

We did not get to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute or the Sloss Furnace. We had some barbecue, but we wished that we had done a BBQ tour. Next time.

Sports tourism is an industry worth billions of dollars in the travel and hospitality sector. It's important for any city that is playing in the game to not only secure the big event, but also invest more. The best sports tourism experiences encourage repeat visits and higher spending. These events tend to attract a greater number of business leaders, who are willing to invest in the locality in ways that go beyond a buzzer sports moment.

If the conditions were right, we'd all return to Birmingham. We'd all like to see more magic in Birmingham. There's magic to be found!