Protective Stadium, the new home of University of Alabama-Birmingham football, is set to open in the fall. (Courtesy BJCCA)

Company will handle food service at new stadium, extends other deals

The sports and entertainment landscape in Birmingham, Alabama, is going through a dramatic shift with the construction of new Protective Stadium and an extensive rebuild of Legacy Arena, the city’s 45-year-old indoor facility.

As part of those developments, the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex Authority, governing body for the stadium, arena and the city’s convention center, signed a 12-year deal with Centerplate to run the food at the stadium. It’s the future home of University of Alabama-Birmingham football. 

The agreement, announced Monday, coincides with a 10-year extension the authority signed with Centerplate for the arena and convention center. Centerplate took over those operations in February 2018 after replacing Spectra. 

The initial term was set to expire in 2023. Now, all those venues fall in line under the same terms, said Tad Snider, the authority’s executive director. As part of the deal, Centerplate will invest $2.5 million to cover equipment costs and other food-related expenses, Snider said.

Legacy Arena, shown in a rendering, is undergoing a $100 million renovation. (Courtesy BJCCA)

“The investment is welcome, but it certainly wasn’t the overriding factor in the decision and the extension,” he said. “We went through a competitive bid process and saw that Centerplate stood out from the rest. They made the most sense for us.”

Protective Stadium, a $180 million project, and the $100 million renovation of Legacy Arena are scheduled to open by late October or early November, about 30 days apart. The hope is that both buildings can be at full capacity by that time, Snider said. 

The pandemic has not delayed construction efforts. The authority is doing the best it can to understand the need to upgrade both buildings to keep things as touchless as possible and to enact higher sanitation protocols in line with industry standards, he said.

“There are going to be expectations this fall that didn’t exist when we started these projects,” Snider said. “We’ve brought the GBAC program for existing venues. We will be taking all those best practices and implementing those at the arena and stadium.”

Populous is the architect for both venues. 

The stadium itself will seat 45,000 with 35 suites and 1,200 club seats. The suites were all presold at a cost of $50,000 connected to 10-year leases, and are part of the funding for construction, Snider said. 

The authority is working with UAB officials to determine club seat pricing, he said.

Centerplate will shape its overall food operation over the next several months. It will most likely feature an all-inclusive model for club seats, suite catering packages and signature items in general concessions, said Darren Hubbard, a company vice president .

In a region known for its barbecue, Centerplate will smoke its own meats at the stadium. Plaza space at the front entrance can be programmed for pregame festivities with food trucks representing a taste of Birmingham with local vendors, Hubbard said. 

For the concessionaire, the pandemic has resulted in making some adjustments in Birmingham, but aspects such as mobile ordering and other COVID-19-era procedures as it relates to food presentation and distribution remains a fluid situation, Hubbard said. 

“Clubs will have more attendants serving food with a mix of grab and go,” he said. “We switched to that model at Ole Miss this past football season and were really successful. There were a lot of things we learned there that we can roll over into Birmingham.”

Suites will be the first premium spaces to return to normal after coronavirus vaccines are widely distributed. “Most of the suites are held by families, especially in the college environment, with a little more comfort there and sharing of food,” he said.

As part of expanding its scope of duties in Birmingham, Centerplate will grow its full-time staff to 15 on site along with 400 to 450 game day employees working at all of the venues between the stadium, arena and two exhibit halls. 

Overall, it brings a ray of sunshine for the food provider compared with cutting jobs during the shutdown. 

A few months ago, Centerplate, which is part of Sodexo, started a $1 million global employee relief program to provide some economic support to its workers at sports venues on furlough, spokesman Paul Pettas said. 

“With the arena closed and going through renovations, we pretty much lost all of our operation there,” Hubbard said. “We’ll have to rebuild our entire workforce. Our hope is to bring back all the staff that we had to furlough, and with the new football stadium, we’re adding positions as well.”

In Birmingham, Protective Stadium sits one block east of the existing complex and the area surrounding the venues is undergoing a transformation to provide an active tailgating atmosphere for UAB football game days. 

The Alabama Department of Transportation redid the Interstate 20 overpass running through town and elevated the highway by 30 feet, clearing space to build a 35-acre park with walking paths and a skate park. When it’s completed, officials will be able to shut the road between the stadium and arena to provide walkable space, Hubbard said.

Considering UAB shut down its football program for two seasons in 2015 and 2016 before resurrecting it in 2017, it’s remarkable that the school is poised to play in a brand new facility this fall. 

Project officials are confident that 45,000 seats remains the right number for a team that has won the Conference USA championships two of the past three years, including the 2020 season. 

Previously, UAB played home games at aging Legion Field. For the 2019 season, it drew crowds of 18,000 to 28,000. This past season, during the pandemic, capacity was restricted to 36,000 at Legion Field and the Blazers drew crowds of 11,000 to 12,000 for four home games.

“The capacity for the new stadium has remained constant and the thing everybody is excited about is the success Coach (Bill) Clark has had in growing it,” Snider said. “Winning is a big part of that … which helps ticket sales.”

Apart from UAB football, Protective Stadium will take over the Birmingham Bowl game, played at Legion Field since 2006.

In addition, the new facility will enter the rotation for the Alabama high school state football championships. In the past, that event drew 35,000 to Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium, where Centerplate ran the food for 10 years, Hubbard said. 

Snider said Protective Stadium could potentially host historically black college football games as well.

Legacy Arena, which opened in 1976, was in desperate need of a makeover, officials said. The concourses will be expanded with a 20% increase in concession points of sale. Fifteen suites are part of the retrofit.

Arena capacity will reach about 19,000, an increase of about 1,500 seats, after the upgrades are completed.

“Every concession stand has been gutted to the bones and rebuilt or completely demolished and relocated,” Hubbard said. “It’s just like opening up a brand new building.”

Legacy Arena hosts a smattering of college basketball events, including the Mike Slive Invitational, named for the late Southeastern Conference commissioner. Alabama and Auburn have played one-off games there. 

The facility was selected as a site for the first and second rounds of the 2023 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Two years later, it will serve as the South Regional for the NCAA women’s tournament.