This column was adapted from original reporting by Times Union Sports Editor Leif Skodnic.
Arena football is returning to downtown Albany next year, but recent Arena Football League (AFL) setbacks raise serious questions about the longevity of a team at the Times Union Center.
Last week, it was announced that the AFL would have only four teams competing in 2018 after the Tampa Bay Storm said they were ceasing operations indefinitely.
The Storm, owned by the same ownership group as the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, cited rising financial pressures and declining revenues associated with operating an AFL team.
One financial pressure affecting owners centers around player payroll because the AFL Players’ Association (a union) lacks a collective bargaining agreement. As a result, players lack set salaries, and there are no clear guidelines as to what owners may have to shell out to put players on the field.
The Tampa Bay franchise announced its departure just weeks after the Cleveland Gladiators said they would take a two-year hiatus while Quicken Loans Arena undergoes a $140 million dollar renovation project.
Though, as Leif Skodnick writes, it is possible that Cleveland’s owners – the same ownership group as the NBA’s Cavaliers – may have seen the writing on the wall and came up with a convenient, yet spin positive excuse to avoid paying to play in a failing league.
Last season, the league played a 14 game schedule with five teams. This year, with assurances of eight home games at the Times Union Center, the apparent plan is for a 16 game season.
It won’t be the first year that the league has played with only four teams, though you have to go back to its inaugural season – 1987 – to find such an example.
Going back to your roots is typically looked at as a good thing, but not so much for businesses and let’s face it, a league is a business. If the NFL went back to its roots, player substitutions would not be allowed, and players from both teams could grab their opponents’ face masks at will.
A season with just four teams may sound like the beginning of the end for the AFL, but without the Albany expansion team, the league would likely already be in the ground. So with the new kid on the block quickly becoming one of the few kids left, you have to wonder how much of a roll the outsider effect may play.
The Arena Football League’s current business model is to try and pair franchisees with established ownership groups from major leagues like the NHL or NBA. But the model is clearly failing. What desire does ownership groups have to hold onto an unprofitable team in a failing league with a niche audience, when they already have profitable franchises in popular leagues?
Though the new Albany ownership group shares multiple owners with the Philadelphia Soul, it is also comprised of local owners: Ed Swyer, Dan Nolan, and George Hearst.
Hearst, as publisher of the Times Union, brings more to the table than just money to finance the team. The Times Union is the area’s most-read newspaper, and TimesUnion.com is one of the top five visited websites in the Albany market – next to Amazon and Facebook. Expect the new team, whatever it’s named, to have an unlimited advertising budget and though there certainly will be some pushback in the TU newsroom, lots of front page coverage. If anyone can make people buy tickets to watch whatever the AFL brings to Albany its Hearst and his newspaper.
For now, though, selling tickets is not a concern. According to the team’s website, 1,000 season tickets have been sold for the upcoming season.
“The support from the Capital Region has been unbelievable,” said Vice President of Albany AFL Business Operations George Manias. “We are more than excited to deliver a consistent, quality entertainment product to our dedicated fans.”
With teams dropping out left and right, however, it’s hard to imagine just how constant of a presence the Arena Football League will be downtown.