John Sparks has been in charge of events at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, worked on the construction and development team for Brooklyn, New York’s Barclays Center, served as general manager of San Antonio’s AT&T Center and was director of operations for Atlanta’s Philips Arena (now known as State Farm Arena).
Then, in July 2018, he took over as general manager of the burgeoning Hoover Met Complex, an $85 million multi-purpose indoor/outdoor sports complex in central Alabama that is well on its way to becoming a national destination for youth sports and beyond.
He saw the job as a way to not only mentor young people in the sports management industry but also as a prime opportunity to help Hoover establish itself as a major player in the market.
“My marching orders when I got here were to put Hoover on the sports tourism map, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Sparks says. “We are definitely moving from the local/regional market onto the national level.”
Indeed, in less than two years, this city of about 100,000 residents went from having few indoor or outdoor sports facilities for local youth sports teams to its emerging status as a national destination that still offers plenty of opportunities for community residents, all thanks to forward-thinking city leaders and enthusiastic referendum voters.
How did Hoover get to this point? Here’s a quick history of the Hoover Met Complex’s evolution:
It all began with Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, a 30-year-old venue that previously was home of Minor League Baseball’s Birmingham Barons from 1988 to 2012 (the team with which NBA legend Michael Jordan made his foray into baseball). The facility is now one of several venues on the 250-acre Hoover Met Complex site.
The original grass-field stadium has long hosted the annual week-long Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament, drawing an estimated 150,000 spectators. But little else happened at the facility. When SEC officials added a second grass baseball field to their request for proposal in seeking future potential tournament site bids, city leaders in Hoover decided to build more than just a single field and developed an enticing referendum package that would allow Hoover Metropolitan Stadium to anchor a giant multi-purpose sports complex.
The measure passed, and work began almost immediately.
The project was already under construction in 2016 when the City of Hoover decided to outsource management and operations to Clearwater, Florida-based Sports Facilities Management. Local officials recognized the need for a specialized, professional operator to manage the facility and work closely with the city’s existing parks and recreation staff.
The indoor 150,000-square-foot Finley Center, the first major component of the Hoover Met Complex, opened in Spring 2017 with 11 basketball courts and 17 volleyball courts. Active spaces are dedicated to sports, banquets, trade shows, social events and more. The facility also houses various meeting spaces and a sports performance training center, as well as an indoor walking track and Hoover Climbing and Adventure, both of which are available to local residents, as well as to visitors attending sports tournaments and other events at the complex.
An event lawn backs up to The Finley Center, which provides opportunities for concerts, awards ceremonies, marching bands and other activities related to large-scale tournaments and sports events.
Last August, four lighted synthetic turf and one natural grass baseball/softball fields, all with 400-foot outfields and the capability to convert to youth-size fields, opened adjacent to The Finley Center. The addition to the complex holds 10,800 spectators (and up to 14,000 spectators with temporary seating) and is intended to elevate the experience surrounding previously hosted high-profile events such as the SEC Baseball Tournament and Hoover High School football games.
Each of the four synthetic fields boasts a scoreboard and covered bleachers that hold up to 250 fans, as well as 50-foot infield candles and 30-foot outfield candles. And that second grass field that the SEC requested? It’s ready to go, too, with a seating capacity of 1,000.
Finally, in February 2019, five lighted multi-purpose synthetic turf fields — marked for NCAA-level soccer, lacrosse, rugby and football — opened for action, as did 16 hard tennis courts with lights and covered bleachers. The tennis courts can double as pickleball courts.
If an organization needs more fields, each of the four turf baseball fields can be temporarily striped and utilized as a single U12 soccer field or two U10 soccer fields.
But that’s not all. A privately funded splashpad facility and the Explore Playground, an inclusive play area for users of all abilities, are expected to open this spring. Full-service concession stands, facility-wide Wi-Fi, an RV park and approximately 5,000 parking spaces round out the amenities.
“Hoover was ripe for this, and the timing was good,” Sparks says.
Exceeding All Expectations
During the Hoover Met Complex’s first complete fiscal year of operation (Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 31, 2018), local officials expected the complex to bring an estimated economic impact of $11.6 million to Hoover; the actual economic impact was almost $17 million, according to Sparks. And just four months into the 2018-19 fiscal calendar, the Hoover Met Complex had surpassed economic impact expectations for the entire fiscal year, he adds.
The quick return on investment is the result of several high-profile organizations bringing their events to the Hoover Met Complex. They include the Worldwide Spirit Association, the Amateur Athletic Union, the Southern Alliance Volleyball League, Southern Performance Volleyball, HoopSeen and Future 150.
Major events held at the complex include the adidas East Coast Pro Showcase for baseball and the adidas Gauntlet for basketball, as well as the SEC Baseball Tournament.
On the weekend of March 8, the Hoover Met Complex completed a sports destination hat trick, hosting tournaments at all three of its main venues consecutively for the first time: The Birmingham United Soccer Association’s Red Diamond Classic, baseball’s Perfect Game High School Showdown and the Blue Chips Basketball Tournament’s Battle of the Magic City Showcase.
Non-sports events held at the Hoover Met Complex include business gatherings featuring such high-profile clients as Alabama Power and the Birmingham Association of Realtors and Blue Cross Blue Shield, as well as multiple gun shows and trade exhibitions.
Hoover already enjoys a reputation as an “upbeat Southern city,” Sparks says, with a high number of college graduates calling Hoover home, a strong and proud athletic culture, and young families looking to build on the city’s football, baseball and softball traditions.
“We had some visionaries on the city council who had always thought the city was a hub for baseball and football, and we’re not short of athletes in this area who want to play at all levels,” Sparks says. “We also have lots of female athletes and wanted to make sure we provided the same opportunities for them.”
Room to Grow
In addition to the 170 RV parking spaces (equipped with water, sewage and power hookups) on the Hoover Met Complex property, the Hoover area also already boasts more than 5,000 hotel rooms within a 15-minute radius of the complex. And as many as four additional hotels, including possibly one on the Hoover Met Complex’s property, could open within the next 18 months, Sparks says.
Scenic lakes, rivers and parks are located less than an hour’s drive away, while Atlanta and Six Flags Over Georgia can be reached in less than two hours. The nearest airport, Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International, is about a 25-minute drive from the entrance to the complex.
Meanwhile, demand for the facility’s venues keeps increasing. Officials with Blue Chips Basketball and baseball’s Perfect Game High School Showdown already have committed to hosting events next March at the Hoover Met Complex.
“I could put another four baseball fields and a couple more multi-purpose fields out there right now and keep them busy,” Sparks says. “We offer Southern hospitality with plenty of bang for your buck. It’s a pretty wholesome place to be.” SDM