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Birmingham Squadron owner: ‘We’re here to stay’

Don’t call the NBA G League a minor league. Don’t call the Birmingham Squadron – one of three expansion franchises starting play in 2021-2022, bringing the number of franchises to an all-time high of 30 – a minor league team. That’s the message from the top of the organization.

“This isn’t minor to us,” said Gayle Benson, owner of the Squadron and its NBA affiliate, the New Orleans Pelicans, as well as the NFL‘s New Orleans Saints. “This is major.”

Gayle Benson, owner of the Birmingham Squadron and its NBA affiliate, the New Orleans Pelicans, said the G League basketball team is at home in the Magic City. (Birmingham Squadron)

Pelicans team president Dennis Lauscha expanded on that point.

“I feel very strongly that Birmingham is a major league team, a major league city,” he said. “We are treating this team as a major league team. We’re investing in this community. The game that you’re going to see is major league. The staff is going to be major league. The production is going to be major league. Everything we do is going to be major league.”

Benson, Lauscha and other Pelicans executives made their latest visit to Birmingham on Wednesday to check on the Squadron’s progress in advance of its inaugural season. The team is scheduled to play its first home games in the newly renovated Legacy Arena in December, Lauscha said, as part of the G League’s 50-game regular season. The schedule will be released in the coming weeks.

Benson and Lauscha met with the media, discussing their goals for the franchise, their management approach and their vision of a partnership between New Orleans and Birmingham that extends beyond basketball.

Well aware that Birmingham has seen a number of professional franchises in a variety of sports come and go – including a one-season stay in 1991-92 by the Birmingham Bandits of a G League ancestor, the Continental Basketball Association – the Pelicans executives made it clear that, in Benson’s words, “we’re here to stay.”

“We’re going to invest in this community just like we invest in New Orleans,” Benson said. “We’ve done a lot of investing there in the community, in people, in organizations. We want to do the same thing here. We’re just laying the groundwork to get started.

Birmingham Squadron owner Gayle Benson was in Birmingham this week to meet with community and business leaders. (Birmingham Squadron)

“This isn’t an in-and-out deal. Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, is very much behind us doing this, as he’s done with many of the NBA teams. We are focused and determined we are going to be in this community. We’re putting our money where our mouth is in terms of investing.”

Benson Capital Partners, a venture capital fund backed by Mrs. Benson, already has invested in two Birmingham companies, the financial technology firm Prepaid2Cash Holdings and the mobile app Wyndy. Benson and Lauscha said the organization is conducting research into other potential areas of investment in Birmingham, which may extend to schools, churches and healthcare initiatives.

“Mrs. Benson knows this,” Lauscha said. “This is the strategy. You can’t do this unless you invest in the community, and it has to be sincere. It’s not just writing a check. You have to get to know your churches and your schools and your universities.”

Lauscha provided an insight into the depth of research that goes into their decision-making process. A Squadron is a flock of Pelicans, as the franchise explained when the Birmingham team name was revealed. But why is the New Orleans NBA team known as the Pelicans?

“A big reason we’re the Pelicans is to shed light on environmental issues related to coastal erosion in the state of Louisiana, which is extraordinarily important to the residents of Louisiana,” Lauscha said. “Obviously, that may not be what’s in the forefront of everyone’s minds in Birmingham, but we’ll find what the needs are in Birmingham and try to address them as well.”

What the Squadron won’t do, Lauscha said, is hold a gun to the heads of sports fans in the area and the local business community to meet goals in terms of ticket sales and sponsorship dollars – or else.

“You’ve had a lot of clubs that have come through the city that have failed for one reason or another, and a lot of times the onus has probably been put on the residents or the business community as one reason it may have failed, because we didn’t hit some ticket level or some sponsorship level,” Lauscha said. “We’ve been doing this a long time. We realize that stuff doesn’t work. Us putting a number on how many tickets we have to sell or we’re moving out of town. That doesn’t work. Us putting an onus on the business community that we have to hit certain goals or we’re going to move to another town. That doesn’t work.

Gayle Benson, owner of the New Orleans Pelicans and the Birmingham Squadron, spoke to community and business leaders in Birmingham this week. (Birmingham Squadron)

“We’re here for the long term. We’re here to be hand in hand with the business community, to understand what their issues are. The last thing we want to do is hold a gun to someone’s head and say, ‘We’ll stay if you do this.’ That’s not the brand that we are. That doesn’t work.”

The formula for the Squadron’s success includes putting an entertaining product on the floor and making the game-day experience as enjoyable as possible. Lauscha said they’ve challenged the Squadron’s executive team, led by general manager of business operations David Lane, to make the fan experience “even better than what we’re doing in New Orleans. It’s going to be a great presentation. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be very family-friendly. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

Another ingredient in getting local fans interested: Winning. The Squadron is charged with helping to develop players for the Pelicans while also putting a competitive product on the floor. The Pelicans NBA Summer League team showed promise for New Orleans and Birmingham, going undefeated with key contributions from former University of Alabama players Kira Lewis Jr. and Herbert Jones. Alabama coach Nate Oats said that another of his former players, John Petty Jr., will be trying out for a spot with the Squadron.

“Our goal is to win,” Lauscha said. “Our goal always is to win. Our goal is to be No. 1 in everything we do, whether it’s being No. 1 in game-day experience or being No. 1 on the court. We want to win.”

Benson and Lauscha emphasized that they’re committed to winning in Birmingham with the Squadron, on and off the basketball court, for a long time.

“What we’re trying to do is bring New Orleans and Birmingham together,” Benson said. “That’s really our main goal, to help y’all become us and us become y’all. We want to succeed here like we have in New Orleans.”

(Courtesy of Alabama News Center)