ALBANY — And then there were four.
Back in its heyday, the Arena Football League had a lucrative TV deal, big-city mainstream owners like Jerry Jones and Jerry Colangelo, who cross-promoted their NFL, NBA and AFL properties, and over a dozen teams across the country who collectively drew well over an average of 10,000 per game.
By 2009, the league went into bankruptcy and cancelled the season, followed by a sobering decline in teams, reaching single digits in 2016 (8) and 2017, when there were only five, in Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Baltimore and Washington.
With Cleveland on hiatus while a new arena is being built, the 2018 season begins on Saturday with just four teams, including the resurrected Albany franchise that used to be known as the Firebirds and now is trying to be part of a larger resurrection, of the league as a whole.
The Albany Empire’s head coach, 37-year-old Rob Keefe, has been witness to much of the ebb and flow of the AFL since 2006, when he began playing for the Spokane Shock as a defensive back.
He is the only person to have won championships as both a player and a coach in both the AFL and its development offshoot, arenafootball2 (af2)
At the end of practice at the Times Union Center on Wednesday, he bounced around with seemingly endless energy, exhorting his team during a simulated hurry-up drill. When practice ran long, leaving some arena workers waiting outside one end zone before they could pull up the field rug in preparation for another event, Keefe sent his players over to fist-bump the workers and thank them for their patience.
It seemed symbolic of a team and a league that is scrambling to do everything it can to stay alive. That includes putting on a good face to the public, connecting with the community and being as fan-friendly as possible while also building a team that can win. Even without having played a game, the Empire, who didn’t start training camp until three weeks ago, will have a sold-out 13,500-seat home game on Saturday, which only reinforces Keefe’s belief that the Empire and the AFL are getting it right this time.
“I feel great about everything, to be honest,” he said on Wednesday. “It’s an unbelievable situation to be in, when you talk about a sellout crowd for your first game and how quickly we put this together. And it’s not pieced together. It’s thought out.
“Sometimes you have to take two steps back before you can take three steps forward. For me, it’s [low number of teams] the right move. We have the right structure in place right now. People think you have to grow, grow, grow, grow, but if the foundation is bad, well, the mansion’s going to collapse.”
The AFL operates as a single entity, with the league owning rights to the teams, players and coaches, as opposed to each team being its own independent business that pays a franchise fee to the league.
It has been whittled down to teams in Albany, Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore, and within that structure, the Empire share non-football related management with the Philadelphia Soul. Albany’s ownership group includes George Hearst III, publisher and CEO of the Albany Times Union, Ed Swyer and Hugh Johnson Advisors president and CEO Daniel Nolan. Philadelphia’s ownership group is listed on the Empire website and includes majority owner Ron Jaworski, who is chairman of the AFL executive committee, and Dick Vermeil.
In March, the AFL and the players’ union signed a four-year collective bargaining agreement that increases compensation and benefits for the players.
“We had to go back to the base, and back to regional rivalries. Rein things in,” Keefe said. “Get the right owners in and the wrong owners out. A big part of it, too, when you look at Ted Leonsis of the Monumental Sports Group [in Washington], and George Hearst and Dan Nolan in our ownership group, and Ron Jaworski . . . these are the right people. And the right people are only going to attract the right people.
“For us, I think we’re in the perfect spot. I think you’ll have two to four more teams in next year. I think it’ll be very regional-based, so you create those rivalries. Then when you get more structure, then you start to branch out, then you start to grow and take it west and back down south. I see it as a 10-year plan. The way things are going and the players that are in here, it’s on the path to success.”
Keefe knows Jaworski from his days as a defensive back on the 2008 Philadelphia Soul team that won the championship.
In 2010, the 29-year-old Keefe became the youngest head coach to win an ArenaBowl, with the Spokane Shock.
His meteoric rise in the AFL wasn’t always a smooth one, though.
In January of 2015, Keefe was arrested for misdemeanor domestic violence after his girlfriend, Amie Hardin, called 911 and accused him of choking her during an argument. He was suspended as head coach with pay by the Orlando Predators, then reinstated a day later when Hardin recanted and said under oath that she had falsely accused Keefe.
Keefe, who is currently engaged to Hardin, said the experience continues to inform how he lives his life and coaches his team.
“I feel good. I’m in a great place,” he said. “Me and my fiancee are in a great place. I couldn’t be more proud of where I am as a human being than this day right now.
“It happened four years ago, and I was falsely accused. It didn’t happen. But at the end of the day, it’s something that we have to work through, and you don’t let an argument lead to something so severe. It’s one thing if it’s a habitual thing, but I’m proud to be standing in front of you now as the head coach of the Albany Empire.”
Because of the late scramble to get the Empire organized, both from a front office and team standpoint, things have been hectic on South Pearl Street.
The energetic Keefe appears to be well equipped for this scramble.
He said he believes in the concept of “servant leadership,” in which the person in charge “is not about pushing the cart, it’s about pulling the cart,” and is here to serve the players, not vice versa.
“Now what the players are doing is recruiting people that they want to play with,” he said. “They’re the best recruiters, who are saying, ‘Hey, this is a great place to be. They’ve taken care of me, it’s going to be sell-out crowds, we’re going to be the number one sports team in the city here.’
“If there’s only four teams, that means there’s four great quarterbacks. There’s four great defensive ends. There’s four great kickers. I think people think, ‘Oh, the league’s struggling.’ I think you’re going to have one heck of a product, and that product is only going to make more owners and communities want this in their city.”
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette: