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Birmingham Thunderbolts

Exclusive: Interview with Tim Berryman, GM for the Birmingham Thunderbolts

By Bamaslammer –

Birmingham – (24 January 2001) – This week I had an opportunity to sit down with Tim Berryman, the General Manager of the Birmingham Thunderbolts, to ask him some questions about the league and the Bolts in general. Tim is clearly in high demand right now but he was patient and very candid in his answers. He has the look of someone who has seen a few battles and doesn’t know the word quit. He has a certain determination in his eye that seems almost infectious. In his answers I never heard any hesitation or doubt as to the path this organization is taking.

Slammer: What was your impression of the Birmingham Sports Market prior to coming to Birmingham and how has it changed since arriving?

Berryman: My impression of the Birmingham sports market was based on my involvement with an east coast league team from Louisiana. We were averaging around 11,500 a game in attendance. Coming to the games here there was a noticeable disparity in our attendance verses the attendance in Birmingham. I didn’t know what to attribute that to. I think the product maturity of hockey had taken place with the history of the World Hockey association here and then to backtrack down to essentially double A minor league hockey, I wasn’t sure if that was part of the reason. I knew that Birmingham and the state of Alabama were known as the football capital of the south. The question is should it be renamed the college football capital of the south. I think Birmingham is a good sports town, they support single events enthusiastically. The question is will they support, on an ongoing basis, a professional football team. I consider us major league, I don’t consider us minor league at all. I think our product will become self evident that were closer to major league than minor league. My opinion now is that it is going to be a tough market but I think once we prove ourselves I think people here are very loyal. Once we’ve demonstrated a quality product and that we are committed to this community, to staying here, I understand they are gun shy after 5 pro teams have come and gone.

Slammer: What do you think this league has to do short of paying players millions of dollars to be considered big time sport in the media’s eyes

Berryman: The argument can be made that getting a major network TV contract puts you in the major league status. I think the media will never declare us to be the NFL. Nor do we deserve that status. We have said from day one that we were going to have the best game day presentation in the world and next to the NFL we would have the very best football players. We’ve made our compensation to be higher than any other league other than the NFL. We’re kind of in a gray area, they recognize that the majority of the players in our league deserve to be in the NFL and most of them are victims of the NFL collective bargaining agreement where when they get into their 4th year of play they have to make a certain minimum. These players are being forced out of the league by their own collective bargaining agreement. We are the next best option for that player. From the standpoint of credibility of the product on the field we have nothing to be embarrassed about. Its probably the first time a league has come along in this type of a roll where we’re not really a developmental league we’re not a triple A league we’re kind of a stand alone, non competing league with the NFL with an unusually high quality of player. We will not restrict a player if he wants to go somewhere else at the end of the season. We won’t get any media attention until they see the games on TV and see the quality of play, Until that time maybe we don’t deserve any attention. Were just going to have to show them.

Slammer: Have the number of local media articles that have painted this league in a negative light affected you?

Berryman: To me the writers in the media can say whatever they want and I respect that. They are allowed to discuss their own opinions, their also allowed to report the news when we create news, and we’ve been creating a lot of news. If they come to our games they are going to see a great product for a reasonable price, they are going to have a great time. All the things they say leading up to that time are going to be moot points.

Slammer: While at camp in Orlando did you talk to any NFL scouts that were scouting players?

Berryman: I saw some scouts from the Atlanta Falcons, and several scouts from the Canadian Football League. They knew the players obviously they’ve seen them play in Canada and other places. Most of the players in our league are known commodities. I think once the rhetoric tones down a bit, there will be tremendous synergy between the XFL and the NFL.

Slammer: Offensive coordinator Dave Arslinian isn’t exactly a household name. How did he land the job?

Berryman: Dave came from Utah state, there was obviously a falling out there. He’s known for his vertical passing attack. I don’t know the depth of the relationship he had with Dinardo. Dinardo had a short time to put a staff together and Dave was available. Other more recognizable names were submitted to the organization and jerry made that call. He really likes Dave’s offense, he was impressed how he was a teacher of the game. Just a real classy guy.

Slammer: Does it concern you that only three of the coaches have any pro coaching experience?

Berryman: You know this is such an unknown, I’m not sure if pro experience is an advantage. I recognize that other teams have coaches from NFL Europe and the CFL, but Jerry’s got the eye of the tiger and this is his debut in professional football and a chance to demonstrate that he belongs in professional football. I think it actually works in our favor.

Slammer: How pivotal is player personnel director Bob Gates been to your organization?

Berryman: Bob is extremely pivotal He originally started with the league. Being there at the outset as player resumes were coming in and the database was made of the available players, bob gained first hand knowledge of those players. Getting him to Birmingham was a real coo. Over time things tend to even out because the database is constantly changing and updated and the expansion drafts added so many players.

Slammer: What are your impressions of Rick and Bubba the two radio show hosts?

Berryman: I listen to them, I enjoy their humor. We as a league decided we wanted to be different. To my knowledge there aren’t many teams out there who have gone with the traditional play by play men. We all decided to think outside the box a little bit and see what the football fan really wants. We would argue that they want to hear more than just who carried the ball how many yards a game. We think they would want to hear where they ate last night what they like about New York, what they dislike. I think that those guys are going to have a lot of fun and that’s what we wanted them to get over to the listening audience.

Slammer: Where is the championship game going to be held?

Berryman: That is possibly going to be at the home site of the team with the best regular season record barring issues such as stadium availability and perhaps TV conflicts. There is a possibility for instance that it could be here in Birmingham.

Slammer: Looking over your resume you have had an incredible career. You were the first round draft pick of the CFL, played on a Grey Cup team. After football you were a stockbroker, a vice president at Xerox. Then you went into sports management. How would you rate the challenge here in Birmingham compared to other challenges you’ve faced?

Berryman: I really compare this to two other situations. Bringing professional ice hockey to Louisiana, the media really beat us up, they said this thing is never going to fly, and initially we only sold 1800 season tickets. It wasn’t a great number it wasn’t a bad number. There was a prevailing attitude that this won’t work but I relish in those challenges. If this job was one where you just come in and lay down, I don’t think I’d be here. When it’s a challenge that when it happens, and really works then you can walk away and feel real good about it. We went on to average almost 10 thousand our first year. All of a sudden the nay sayers went away and everybody got on the bandwagon. The same thing happened in Arena football. To me I like it the way it is where Birmingham’s a challenge market in a since that there’s resistance to the product. I’ve heard people in Alabama say, I’m an Alabama fan or I’m an Auburn or UAB fan. I think we have a number of starters on our defense from Auburn. We have Jay Barker and other players from Alabama. My question to the fans of those great programs is, don’t these players deserve your support once they leave the campus and continue on in their pro football careers. I think that they do.

Slammer: Several local news stories have made a very big deal about the fact Jay Barker a very outspoken Christian is playing for the XFL. It has been published that you are also a religious person. How do you feel when you read something like that?

Berryman: When Jay came on board with us he wrestled with that issue and so did I. To be a Christian you can take a couple of different views on life. One view is to isolate myself and hide from anything that has the appearance of evil. There’s another view, which I think was the view of Christ that you can’t do that. You need to get in the middle of what’s going on in your culture and try and change it from the inside out rather than taking shots at it from the outside in. I look at the Hollywood movie industry, there was an organized effort in the 50’s and 60’s where many churches would say, don’t go to movies. I think what that created was a Hollywood where the Christian voice was not heard. I think what we have seen from Christians not being involved in the industry is a downward cycle to where we are now. There are people who I love dearly who are going to disagree with me but I prayed about it and came to the conclusion that this was the right place to be. I don’t think there is a better opportunity for a Jay Barker with a live national audience and a hot mike to show America what he believes. There’s certainly going to be an opportunity for some trash talking but there’s going to be an opportunity for class acts like Jay Barker and Casey Weldon certainly to show another side.

Aside from my questions Tim Berryman expanded on why this league is different financially from past leagues in Birmingham. His thoughts were quite interesting:

Berryman: The beauty is we’re not a franchise owned by one guy, who’s thinking, if I don’t sell X number of season tickets and X number of dollars in corporate sponsorship, we’re just not going to be able to stay here. The structure of our league is that if Birmingham is going to take a year to develop, we’ve got tons of patience. San Francisco is selling lots of season tickets New York’s doing phenomenally well. It all goes into one pot and all the expenses come out of one pot. That’s where I think it is a benefit to us. We are the smallest market in the league, you can make the numbers say whatever you want to. In terms of market penetration were actually exceeding San Francisco, New York, and LA in season tickets. It troubles me that were not ahead of Memphis, I think Birmingham’s a better market than Memphis but I’ll give credit to Steve Ehrhart, They’ve been doing a great job. His connections and relationships have certainly helped him.

With that I took my leave. Tim Berryman had another appointment to make. After all we’re only 13 days from the moment of truth between Birmingham and Memphis.

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