Fans at an Albany Empire home game at the Times Union Center in 2019 (Jim Franco/Spotlight News)
ALBANY — It’s official. Arena football is coming back to the Capital District.
“It’s a great day for Albany. It’s like the sun coming out of the clouds. We have a new team coming to Albany playing a sport our fans have been so in love with for so many years,” said Bob Belder,” general manager of the Times Union Center.
The official announcement on Thursday, Aug. 13, comes as no surprise as there has been interest in bringing the fast-paced, high-scoring, extremely physical version of football back to Albany after the Arena Football League declared bankruptcy at the end of last season.
Last year, the Albany Empire averaged 10,000 fans per regular season home game and more than 12,000 when it won the Arena Bowl Championship.
“When you lose something like that, you can take a position of ‘we lost it, that’s too bad.’ Or you can take the position of ‘let’s get it back,’ so that is what we did,” Belder said during a press conference on Thursday. “We went out and found someone to bring this sport back here and bring the best possible team back to Albany.”
The owners of Albany’s team are Ron Tridico and Nate Starling, who also own the National Arena League Orlando Predators. The Albany team is the 10th team in the NAL, which could expand to up to 12 by the time the season is set to kick off in April, 2021.
“Albany has a super fan base. The market is super, and I am originally from upstate New York and there was an opportunity for us to come in and put a footprint in Albany and make a good solid footprint in Albany,” Starling said.
A coaching staff and roster are being worked on now, with the announcement of a head coach due within the next few weeks. The team has yet to have a nickname or a mascot but Chris Siegfried, the NAL commissioner, said it could be the “Empire” or the “Firebirds” of the storied Albany arena football team of the 90s.
How the pandemic will impact the season, set to run through August, 2021, is anyone’s guess.
“We have safety precautions in the works and we are prepared to take every precaution necessary to keep the players, the coaches and the fans safe,” Siegfried said.
The Firebirds were huge fan favorites with attendance topping 10,000 per game per season. Ironically, when the Firebirds won the Arena Bowl in 1999, it beat the Predators.
A year later the team moved to Indianapolis and the Conquest filled the arena football void in Albany, albeit without the fans’ enthusiasm or support enjoyed by the original Firebirds or the Empire. In 2009, the Conquest changed its name back to the Firebirds but it didn’t help bring fans back to the stands and a year later it folded.
“We want the same quality of players, and the same game as the Empire,” Siegfried said. “The goal is stability and we want this game to be here forever, and Albany is a huge piece of that as we develop the northern section of our league.”
The nine other teams making up the NAL include the Jersey Flight, the Carolina Cobras, the Baltimore Lightning, the Columbus Lions, the West Virginia Rough Riders, the Louisville Xtreme, the Orlando Predators, the Jacksonville Sharks and the Tampa Bay Tornadoes.
“Not only is this a win for our residents and the NAL, which is getting a 10th team, but it will also be critical to the local bars, restaurants, hotels and the entire economy, that will likely still be struggling to bounce back next year. Hopefully we can get our players on the field by March of 2021,” said County Executive Dan McCoy during the formal announcement at the Times Union Center.
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