In 2002, the Albany Conquest began play in the Pepsi Arena in Albany NY. In their first two seasons, they went 13-3, winning their division both times in front of crowds numbering around 4,000-5,000 a night. The games were exciting, and the event was an experience beyond just the game. They would go on to have losing records the next 6 seasons. Attendance had dwindled to barely above 1,000, and the game night experience had noticeably been changing for the worst as well. In 2009, in a fit of desperation, the team rebranded themselves as the Firebirds, a team that had previously been popular in Albany. And as a publicity stunt, they offered Michael Vick a contract, at the height of his unpopularity. Albany had determined it would not field a team in 2010, and with the bankruptcy of the Arena Football League, neither would anybody else. By that, not many people in Albany even cared. So, what went wrong? How did this team and league with so much promise, end up falling by the wayside? That’s the topic of todays blog.
In the summer of 2002, I was a recent college graduate, and living on my own for the first time in Queensbury NY. From my work on a Colgate University website and message board, I was aware that our star quarterback from my first few years at Colgate, Ryan Vena, was playing in the Arena Football 2 league in Albany. So, I made the short trip down the northway, and became an instant fan of arena football.
My dad once called the arena game “fast food football” I tend to agree with this assessment. The game resembles the outdoor game, and players have transitioned from one form to the other, but they aren’t the same thing. Arena ball is played inside a hockey rink basically, with the dasherboards being padded to serve as the out of bounds markers. You have three linemen, most playing both offense and defense. There are strict rules on what linemen can do, and this pretty much makes them much less important than the outdoor game. Running is also not very practical, so you end up with almost all passing plays, with very little pressure being put on the quarterback. This leads to fast paced, high scoring games. When you first walk into an arena setup for football, the first thing you notice is the large nets behind each end zone. There are a set of goalposts, a lot closer together than outside, but a field goal is a possibility from anywhere on the field. The nets are also live, whether from a pass, or a kickoff, or a field goal attempt. This leads to some interesting situations a few times a game.
The game itself takes place within a greater show. There was a block party before the game in front of the arena. Pregame activities consisted of the dance team, highlight videos, the other team would be introduced to some sort of derogatory song, and the home team would get the full rock and roll and fireworks experience. When done well, this was truly an impressive thing to watch, and would really get you pumped up for the game to come. During time outs and between quarters they might bring back the dance team, and they had a variety of activities and games that were a lot of fun. They would often bring in some outside entertainment, and this was top notch as well, especially in the early years.
The game itself was a lot faster than its outdoor cousin, partially due to timing rules, partially because thats just the way you play the game. Scoring 60 or 70 points was not uncommon. I remember a game or two where a team scored on all their drives. A small handful of stoppages is all it takes to win a game, since the rules favor the offense so much. Many games came down to the final few drives, which was always fun, whether your team won or lost. Following the game, you could go down on the field and talk to the players and get pictures and autographs if that’s your thing.
AF2 was designed for the smaller markets. It still cost about $20 for a ticket, and you had all the other expenses of going to a game in Albany if you chose to park in the arena lot, or buy food at the game. But compared to going to an NFL game, it was a lot cheaper. Whereas people call the NFL the “No fun league” games would begin with a video message from the league president, calling the AFL the “All fun league” players were not just allowed, but encouraged to celebrate a big play. There was a lot of interaction, and fun events throughout the game. As the game was a show, the opposing team was the bad guys, and they played their roles well. You could heckle and tease them, and they would give it back. Then after the game, you’d get a high five, and all was well. Bottom line is, it was a GAME and it was FUN. There was always something going on, and you couldn’t wait to go back the next time they were in town. I’m sure it helped that the team was winning, but even during the first few losing seasons, the games were still fun, and fan support was still high.
To this day, I’m not sure exactly how, or why things changed, but things had started going downhill. Let’s start with the game itself. The rules of the game, and the spirit of the league lent themselves to fast paced, exciting, and close games. I’m not sure I would have put “watching the team win” as one of my top three reasons for watching a game. But at some point the league became more competitive, and it wasn’t a good thing. Players were losing a lot of their sense of humor, their sense of showmanship. Winning was taking a higher priority, and they were bringing in players who were more likely to help the team win, rather than deliver on fan experience. Ultimately, this is partly to blame for the demise of the league. The overall winning percentage of the league maintained steady at 50%, you still had one winning, and one losing team each night. Some teams pushed harder to be more competitive than others, and parity in the league was destroyed. For example, in 2004 the Wilkes/Barre Scranton Pioneers had 14 games decided by less than 20 points, and only 4 decided by more than 20. In 2009, only 8 games were decided by less than 20, with 12 being decided by more than that. So you lost the exciting close games. The purpose of the league was to have a fun summer, saturday night activity. Winning at all costs, and making a deep playoff run just wasn’t as essential as some people think. But if you didn’t embrace the more competitive nature of the game, you were going to be on the wrong side of those blowouts, and thats not so fun. Using WB/S as an example again, just because they had a dominant team for the last few seasons, and I can find stats for them online, they had an average regular season attendance of 5405 over 8 home games in 2009. They had 3 home playoff games, with an average attendance of just 3774, two games being less than 3,000. And that was the year they finished 2nd in the entire league, in 2002, when they had a losing record, and missed the playoffs, average attendance was 6,372, almost a thousand more than when they were dominant. How I could notice this, but league officials and all the smart owners and GM’s couldn’t, I don’t know. And I also have doubts that the teams that got ahead, did so within the rules and spirit of the league. First, most of your recruiting was supposed to be done locally. And second, every player in the league made exactly the same amount of money, 200 bucks a game. $250 if they won. But how can you monitor that? After watching what happened with the Danbury Trashers, I have a lot of skepticism whenever a team in a league like this rises to such a high level year after year. When the league went bust, it was the good teams as well as the bad teams that suffered.
So focus on winning was one of the mistakes made, both in Albany and around the league. This also affected the game night experience. As I said before, interacting with the players was one of my favorite parts of going to the games. I’d get season tickets behind the other teams bench, and we’d have a fun back and forth all night long. This ended the last few seasons, as you got players who were a lot more focused on the game, and took things a lot more seriously. I don’t know if teams were spending more money on winning, since officially, they couldn’t, but money seemed to be getting taken away from other parts of the game night experience. The Conquest had two guys who were the teams official “superfans” they were cut to one, and then zero. Instead of brining in outside talent to do pregame and halftime events, they tried to do it themselves a lot more often. Pregame fireworks were also being abandoned. I don’t know the teams finances, and I don’t entirely trust what the team said when it came to attendance and marketing. So I don’t know if they were shifting money away from entertainment and towards football, or if they were just spending less money. I do know that attendance dropped by about 2,000 people. Was the money those 2,000 people would have spent been enough to pay for the better game night experience? Or were they losing money either way?
They also made the mistake of chasing fans that they didn’t have, at the expense of those who were already in the building. Games were loud, the fans were rowdy. You had the dance teams, the music, and all the in game entertainment that made arena football a perfect guys night out. As a recent college graduate, I was having a blast. And Albany had a lot of loud, passionate fans. Games becoming less interactive and fan based was one mistake. Trying to get more families in the building was another. It wasn’t really a family show. Not that it was totally inappropriate for families to be there, but it wasn’t really geared towards them. Families weren’t the dominant group in the crowd, and they weren’t the most devoted fans. Young males were. So rather than catering to the young males, so they would have a good time at the games, come back, and bring their friends with them, they had started trying to bring in more families, alienating who had been their most devoted fans. You were also dealing with the Times Union Center, managed by SMG, where profit is first, and fan experience might not crack the top 5. Towards the end there, me and my friend actually got kicked out of a game just for sitting in front of a few rowdy fans, and laughing at some of the things they were saying. 5 years earlier, there were hundreds of people yelling things. But there were pretty much just 4 people sitting in our section at that point, so we were all given the boot. Security was giving a lot of the rowdier fans a hard time, and people who I had seen at games for years, were now staying away. Were they replaced by the families that management was chasing? They were not. They had their finger on the pulse of the fans at one point, but they had lost it. And rather than trying to go back to what worked, they did not. Instead they went for the desparate publicity stunts I had mentioned earlier, and when that didn’t work, they decided not to exist at all. I don’t get how they ignored what had worked before. Here’s a phone call I got from one of their ticket salesman prior to the final season, illustrating how little they knew about what brought fans to the game.
Albany guy: Hello Mr. Braham, I have your season ticket renewal form here, and just wanted to let you know that the Firebirds are back, and are excited to be back in Albany, will you be joining us this year?
Me: The Firebirds are back? You guys are back in Arena Football 1?
Albany: No, it’s still going to be arena football 2, but they are going to be the firebirds again.
Me: Did you bring back some of the old players or coaches?
Albany: No, but we brought back the old uniforms and mascot.
For those of you from Glens Falls, this would be like bringing in a ECHL hockey team, calling them the Adirondack Red Wings, giving them the old uniforms, and then expecting all the old fans to just show up and support them the way they used to, despite the fact that it’s not the same at all. During one of the final games of that season, they had an announced attendance of 3,702. At that point the games stunk, and were so sparsely attended I actually took a picture of each section, and counted the real attendance later. It was 1,087. They must have been counting everyone who had driven past the arena. Then they made the mistake of saying “You’d better support this team or else” Support what? A subpar team, a game experience that has gotten worse, less fan interaction, and a program that didn’t know what it was supposed to be? By the time they pulled the plug, few people cared.
So, that always amazes me, how we get worse at things. The team knew what it was doing in 2004, rather than improving upon a winning formula, they actually got worse. The steady march of progress was interrupted. I see this a lot in minor league sports. Even professional sports. Once you’ve found what the fans like, do more of it, and do it better. If your most passionate fans aren’t liking a change, change it back. It’s really not that hard. And if you are trying to trade in the fans you do have, for a different group of fans that you don’t, you’d better know what you are doing. The drop in parity in the league also hurt, teams got greedy, and sacrificed too much to try and win. There were a variety of factors that contributed, and I really hope that the people who run sports in America at least learned something from what happened in Albany, and all across the AF2 landscape. And that those learned lessons lead to an improvement in the quantity and quality of minor league sports entertainment.