ALBANY — In the eyes of Times Union Center general manager Bob Belber, the 1999 ArenaBowl, won by the Albany Firebirds 59-48 over the Orlando Predators in front of more than 14,000 screaming fans downtown was arguably the greatest sporting event in Albany history.
That’s one of the reasons Belber believes the new Albany franchise in the Arena Football League has a chance to be must-see viewing for Capital Region sports enthusiasts once again.
At a crowded press conference held at the Times Union’s Hearst Media Center Tuesday, AFL officials and numerous team owners announced that the Albany franchise will return to the AFL next spring. The yet-to-be-named team will be owned locally by Times Union publisher/CEO George Hearst III, Dan Nolan and Ed Sawyer, but that group will be joined by a 13-person ownership group of the two-time defending champion Philadelphia Soul. That group includes former standout Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and current NFL commentator Ron Jaworski, his former head coach, Dick Vermeil, who also coached the St. Louis Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs, and Marques Colston, the all-time leading receiver of the New Orleans Saints.
John Adams, a 13-year veteran administrator in the AFL who is the former president of the Philadelphia Soul, will be the leader of both the Philadelphia and Albany operations.
“There will be no conflict of interest between the Albany and Philadelphia franchises,” AFL commissioner Scott Butera said. “Each team will be a separate entity that will have its own coaches, players, general manager and support staff. It will be a lot like the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship]. All of the owners in the UFC basically have ownership in all the fighters. In the AFL, all of our owners try to do what is best for the league. We have almost the same situation with the Washington D.C. and Baltimore franchises. They have the same ownership group, but they are big rivals.”
Butera said the AFL, which enters its 31st season in 2018, currently has six franchises, including Albany, Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Washington, DC. “But we are still looking for more teams. The situation is in flux right now,” Butera said.
Belber is confident that Albany can support an AFL team once again.
“I was fortunate to be able to see the Arena Football League experience first-hand when it was here from 1990-2000,” Belber said. “With the ownership group we have bringing this fast-paced league back, and with the current renovations occurring at the Times Union Center, I have no doubt that it is going to be everything it was and more. We’re getting something special back in Albany,” he said.
Belber added that the old Albany Firebirds franchise once drew 11,000 fans per game, including 5,000 or 6,000 season-ticket holders. “The only reason the AFL moved out of Albany originally was because of the cost at the time,” Belber said. Albany also had an af2 franchise, the Albany Conquest, from 2002-2009. That team went by the Firebirds for its last season.
Co-owner Nolan said two of the biggest impacts the new Albany AFL franchise will have will be a product that is both high quality and affordable. “There also will be a large economic impact for the area, including employment,” he said. “I could not be more excited to be part of the group bringing arena football back to Albany. We are bringing back a sport that has proven to be endeared by this city, and bringing it back with a great group of dynamic business leaders, football experts and all-around great people.”
Butera added that the league will embrace new technology, including helmet and hat cameras, additional data for stats fans, like how fast the players are running or throwing the ball, and even a broadened fantasy sports aspect with league players.
“Albany will have a winner on and off the field,” Jaworski said, adding that five former Philadelphia Soul players went on to play in the NFL. “We will hire a top-notch football coach, and this city will have a consistent winner. We will bring players to the roster that will be gentlemen off the field and fierce competitors on the field. The entertainment experience will be second to none, and you won’t want to leave your seat. It will be a great product. I guarantee it,” he said. “Good times will be back in Albany.”
Vermeil talked about the league’s affordability and the ability of the fans to be so close to the action. “The first time I took my wife to a game, she intercepted a pass,” he said with a grin. “And this is not a knock on the NFL, because I love the game, but you can afford to be there [at an AFL game]. Kids can identity with this game. It’s a fast-moving game.”
The team is currently searching for a head coach, who will select his staff and roster.
Adams said that season tickets can be purchased for as low as $13 per seat. Season tickets can be secured with a $50 deposit per seat ($75 for VIP seats) by calling 518-533-2200 or going to AlbanyAFL.com. A team representative will contact those that have submitted a deposit in the next couple of weeks to select their specific seats, which will be done in the order in which deposits are received.