The Arena Football League is a fickle mistress. The idea looked good on paper – find a way to cram a full-sized football game into basketball and hockey facilities. Shrink the field to 50 yards from endzone to endzone. Put big nets on either endzone to compact the game into the small area. And watch the scores rise and watch the fans arrive.
And you know what? It worked for thirty years.
But it won’t work in 2020 – or maybe ever.
Yesterday, after winning the ArenaBowl and celebrating like crazy, the Albany Empire Arena Football League team announced that the league – and all the teams within it – would not return for the 2020 season.
I say wow in that I kinda saw this coming.
And although I don’t want to sit here and say “I told you so …”
The Arena Football League is a fickle mistress. There were moments when the league was thriving from coast to coast – games broadcast on NBC, major financiers buying franchises, athletes using the AFL as a springboard to NFL jobs (where do you think Kurt Warner came from, a hollow tree?).
But operating an Arena Football League team is hella expensive. And if you don’t get that influx of fans in the building quickly … and often … and again … and again … your time in that city is limited. And even if your team is successful, you have to hope that every other team in the league has the same success.
It’s one thing that I’ve learned about the minor leagues. A league is only as strong as its weakest franchise. You could use the proverb that a rising tide lifts all boats – but in the minor leagues, a leaky floorboard can sink the entire fleet.
Trust me, I was a fan back in the original Albany Firebirds days. Yeah, you can say, “Oh big deal, you can rattle off that Eddie Brown was on the Firebirds, everybody knows that.” Oh yeah? Scuse me. Mike Pawlawski. Fred Gayles. Darrell Hammond. Gary Gussman. Tom Porras. Sylvester Bembery. Mike Valvo. Don’t even try to front me, bro.
But that was a time when there were several teams in the league. Teams that you can build a rivalry with. Teams like the Tampa Bay Storm and the Orlando Predators (ptui) and the Detroit Drive (the only time Art Schlichter ever did something productive in his professional career, he had to do it against the Firebirds. Ugh).
The league expanded, for sure. It grew and grew. There was even a second-tier minor league entry, AF2. And when the patent for the Arena Footbal League field and rules ran out, there were indoor football leagues all over the country.
But the league’s growth also felled its death. Franchise entry fees were huge. And it felt like many of the teams were surviving on newly-minted franchises. Squads were underfunded, and sometimes they took a year off – or took two years off – or just completely took off.
Such was the case with the original Firebirds. We won an ArenaBowl championship against Orlando. Take that, Barry Wagner. 😀 But two years later, the Firebirds were in Indianapolis and Albany was SOL. It wasn’t that the Birds weren’t profitable in Albany – far from it. Saturday night at the arena was THE place to go, and we were happy for it. The owners just thought they could make more money in Indiana.
A couple years later, the team was put up for sale. It was auctioned off on eBay. No bidders.
Meanwhile, we were given an AF2 franchise, the Albany Conquest. That’s like enjoying Van Halen, and suddenly you find out they’re coming to Albany with new lead singer Gary Cherrone. God help them, they tried, they really tried – heck, they even re-branded the team as the Firebirds for the franchise’s final season, but it wasn’t enough.
And then came the return of major league Arena Football to Albany, in the form of the Empire.
Still don’t like that name. But hey, live and live.
But the Empire’s return to Albany coincided with the league operating on a four-team organization. Four teams is NOT a league. Four teams is a tournament. Heck, the Lingerie Football League – yes, that still operates today – has eight teams and is expanding to an 11-team league next year.
Granted, the AFL grew to six teams for the Empire’s 2019 championship run, but that’s still woefully small for a professional sports league.
Now, with the AFL realigning itself – and possibly working as a model where the players train in one city and then barnstorm to various venues and play Arena Football games in that city – the AFL did this before, back in 1989 – it still seems like a hollow gesture.
Maybe the Empire was great. They’ve got a championship, so that confirms it.
But they weren’t the Firebirds.
And with that … they weren’t the same exciting franchise of decades ago. And their own excitement wasn’t enough to save the league.
So yeah, I hope that the Empire’s players all find new endeavors. Maybe in this new XFL. Maybe in the NFL. Maybe in avenues that don’t involve professional football.
The Empire will still have that championship. But at the moment, they’re now in the same folder as the Albany Attack. And the New York Kick. And the Albany Choppers. And the Albany River Rats. And the Capital District Islanders. And the Albany-Colonie Yankees. And the Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs. And the Empire State Stallions. And the Albany Devils. And the New York Eagles. And the Albany Capitals.
They were there, they played, they entertained, and then they disappeared.