Birmingham’s Sloss Furnaces venue offers history, industrial aesthetic for The World Games 2022

Birmingham’s Sloss Furnaces venue offers history, industrial aesthetic for The World Games 2022
Sloss Furnaces became a National Historic Landmark in 1981. (Michael Tomberlin / Alabama NewsCenter)

Aaron Hauck and Jay Kasten stand in a frying pan of a field in the sizzling June heat, patiently answering questions about bringing Birmingham’s newest beach, climbing wall, obstacle course and dance floor to life. The hulking, rusted stacks and boilers of Sloss Furnaces loom over their shoulders.

It has been more than 50 years since Sloss’ blast furnace belched fire and pig iron, the last of Birmingham’s old furnaces to shut down, which signaled the demise of the industry that forged Birmingham. It will be 20 days until The World Games (TWG) 2022 begin, which Birmingham area leaders hope will herald a future filled with major events that drive economic development and growth.

As the manager for TWG’s Sloss Furnaces venue, Hauck’s focus is on making sure the site is ready for the four sports that Sloss will host: beach handball, sport climbing, parkour and breaking.

As TWG’s chief operating officer, Kasten oversees the operations of The Games, including the buildout to all 24 venues hosting 36 sports and more than 3,600 athletes from around the world.

Birmingham’s historic Sloss Furnace prepped as venue for The World Games from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Those responsibilities are enough to make either sweat, yet even on camera and under an unforgiving sun, they manage not to drip.

Maybe having a venue as cool as Sloss helps.

‘A little bit of flair’

In addition to choosing obvious venues such as the Birmingham CrossPlex, Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex and Protective Stadium, “We also wanted to add a little bit of flair and show off some local Birmingham flavor,” Kasten says, mentioning Sloss, Avondale Park and Powell Steam Plant.

“We take these incredible historical venues that we have here and repurpose them for sporting events,” says Kasten, who worked with the Bruno Event Team and has spent his whole career putting on sporting events.

Hauck says the sports selected for Sloss fit well with what the National Historic Landmark offers.

“The cool thing about Sloss, there are two sports primarily, parkour and breaking, that really like playing on the rustic aesthetic, the urban look, and Sloss has plenty of that,” he says. “We wanted to dress up the venue, but also not cover anything up. We want to create as much of the aesthetic as we can with the venue.”

Asking Kasten which Sloss sport he is most excited about is a little like expecting a parent to reveal which child he loves best. He gives a diplomatic answer.

“I’ve never seen parkour or breaking in person, but just watching, going down some YouTube holes, they look incredibly exciting,” he says. “I’ve seen speed climbing. To see someone climb a wall, 60 feet tall in less than 6 seconds, is an unbelievable amount of strength and skill. I think each one of these sports bring a unique set of skills and will be really exciting for anybody.”

Some assembly required

Hauck, meanwhile, offers an answer befitting a venue manager overseeing a build where some assembly is required, particularly for climbing.

“I’m looking forward to them all,” he says. “But I think sport climbing just because of the planning and the structure that we’ve been looking at digitally for so long, to see it actually come to fruition and watch climbers use it is going to be a pretty cool experience.”

Sport climbing along with breaking will be featured at the Paris Olympics in 2024. Kasten says officials from the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028 will scout The World Games for possible sports to add. “They’ll be here looking at other sports, maybe like flag football, lacrosse and other sports that are more popular in America to possibly be on their program.”

Aaron Hauck, manager for The World Games’ Sloss Furnaces venue, left, and Jay Kasten, chief operating officer for The World Games, at the historic landmark. (Michael Tomberlin / Alabama NewsCenter)

With officials attending from the Olympics as well as the NFL, which is presenting flag football at The Games, Kasten says Birmingham needs to put on its best face.

“We just want to see full crowds out here to show off Birmingham to the world that we can do big sports and we support them,“ Kasten says.

Reaching that goal could be a springboard to other big events, he says.

“We hope that we get international world championships and maybe even domestic USA championships out of that by showing off what we’re capable of,” Kasten says. “USA Climbing does incredible championships. They host a lot of world championships. We want to make sure that they know this could be a future home.“

Most challenging venue

First things first, though. Hauck and Kasten have to ensure Sloss, which both say is the most challenging venue, is ready for The Games.

“I think some would say I drew the short straw,” Hauck says. “But I wouldn’t choose a different venue to manage. I think this is going to be the most fun, exciting … and the most active venue across all of Birmingham for The World Games.”

“There are definitely a lot of challenging venues, but the good news about this one is we’ve got a lot of open space to work with,” he says.

That space allows for four sports and the flexibility of seating a thousand people at each of the beach handball courts as well as a thousand watching sport climbing and parkour, he says.

“Space has been the largest challenge. I think we’re managing it, though. Everything is on track to be very successful,” Hauck says.

Kasten notes there will be challenges at Sloss after The Games start.

The great unknown

Sloss’ biggest challenge both before and during The Games is one Hauck and Kasten can’t do anything about, except plan and react. Weather, as Alabama residents know too well, is the great unknown.

“Any kind of delays from this point on are going to be a little concerning, just rain, lightning, thunderstorms, things like that to slow us down,” Hauck says of possible disruptions to construction.

“We know July is the rainiest month of the year in Alabama, especially Birmingham,“ Kasten says. TWG has worked with the city of Birmingham, Jefferson County EMA and others to ensure plans are in place “to alert people in enough time to get to safety and we plan to do that,” he says.

“Creating a cool environment and a super great experience for our fans is going to be very weather contingent,” Hauck says. “Obviously, we know it’s going to be hot, but I would still take sunshine over rain and thunderstorms. That’s the goal.”

Hauck moved from Minnesota to Alabama a year ago and says summers in both states are hot.

“It’s a lot more humid down here. I’m going to be sweating, having to try to drink a little bit more than I’m sweating out, which is going to be tough,” he says. “But yeah, it’s hot. It’ll only get warmer from here.”

For more information about The World Games, visit here. For information about the Sloss venue and the sports there, click here. To buy tickets to The World Games, click here.

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