ALBANY — Local business operations for the six teams of the Arena Football League, including those of 2019 champion Albany Empire, have ceased because of the league's financial difficulties.
The Albany Times Union was the first to report Tuesday’s development for the league founded in 1987. The league released a statement late Tuesday evening credited to AFL commissioner Randall Boe.
"Earlier today, the Arena Football League was forced to make the difficult, but necessary decision to close our team services and business operations units in our local markets," the statement, in part, reads. "These closures have resulted in the elimination of various staff positions, and is a direct consequence of the current financial constraints facing the AFL, which include extensive legacy liabilities and a recent multi-million-dollar litigation filed against the league by an insurance carrier that provided coverage for the AFL between 2009 and 2012. Those liabilities, which are all related to prior league operations, severely constrain the league’s ability to expand and operate."
Empire staff, coaches and players were told of the surprising news Tuesday, according to the Times Union’s report. Attempts by The Daily Gazette to reach AFL officials; Times Union Center general manager Bob Belber, who oversees the Empire’s home field and offices; and George Hearst III — a member of the Empire's ownership team, as well as the Albany Times Union’s publisher — were unsuccessful.
Former Philadelphia Eagles star quarterback Ron Jaworski, the majority owner of the Philadelphia Soul and chairman of the league's executive committee, commented on the AFL’s status in a text message sent to The Press of Atlantic City.
“The AFL is not folding,” Jaworski wrote. “We are ceasing local operations and all teams will be operated through the AFL office as we look to find new investors.”
In his statement issued through the AFL, Boe said a decision on the league's status will be made within the next few weeks: "Looking forward, the AFL will continue to push ahead with efforts to identify solutions to address the aforementioned financial constraints. We have not yet made the final determination that it will be necessary to suspend all league operations, but we expect that decision to be made within the next few weeks. Should we not be able to move forward, we will issue information about all applicable refunds at that time. We are exploring every possible avenue to continue bringing AFL football to our fans, including further evolutions to the current business model, and are engaging with prospective investors and supporters who are interested in seeing the league continue to grow."
The Empire was one of six teams competing in the 2019 season in the AFL, up from four the previous season, the inaugural campaign for the Empire. In 2018, the Empire was joined by the Soul, Baltimore Brigade and Washington Valor. Franchises in Columbus and Atlantic City were added this past season.
The league, dominated by former college standouts and NFL hopefuls who play indoors on a 50-yard field during the late spring and summer, previously saw its 2009 season canceled because of financial difficulties before regrouping.
Capital Region fans have been longtime supporters of arena football, as Albany hosted franchises in both the AFL and AF2 with the Firebirds (1990-2000) and the Conquest (2002-2008) prior to the Empire’s formation. The Firebirds were 1999 AFL champions.
In its two seasons, the Empire’s average home attendance at Times Union Center was 9,714 and 10,053, respectively.
The Empire enjoyed immediate success in the AFL, posting an 8-4 record in 2018 and a 10-2 mark this year. The Empire defeated the Soul in the 32nd AFL ArenaBowl 45-27 on Aug. 11.
Veteran AFL coach Rob Keefe guided the Empire to the title this year by putting together a dominant team on both sides of the ball. The Empire featured the league’s best quarterback (Tommy Grady), two of the league’s top wideouts (Malachi Jones and Quentin Sims) and several of the AFL’s star defensive players, including all-time sacks leader Joe Sykes, Terence Moore and Homer Tevin.