Times Union Center – Albany Empire
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The Empire Strikes Back
The Arena Football League is not dead yet. Not if Albany has anything to say about it.
The 2018 season has begun with numerous questions as to the sustainability of the AFL. Playing with only four teams, the league has made a seemingly triumphant return to one of their franchises of yesteryear. The 2018 season saw the return to Albany, New York. Fresh off of being jilted by the American Hockey League, the capital of New York State was eager to fill dates in the county owned Times Union Center, which was without a major tenant. Times Union publisher George Randolph Hearst III and partners Dan Nolan, Ed Swyer and the other partners in the Philadelphia Soul would build an expansion franchise that would harken back to the AFL’s previous incarnations that was not afraid to go into some smaller markets. The expansion Albany Empire has given the league some new life in their short history and brings a glimmer of hope to the future.
From 1990 to 2000, the Times Union Center was home to the Albany Firebirds. With the league attempting to move to bigger markets, the Firebirds would find themselves in Indianapolis, even after strong seasons in Albany, culminating in the 1999 Arena Bowl championship. County owned and built in 1990, the Times Union Center enjoyed time as the Knickerbocker Arena and Pepsi Arena. The naming rights to the arena were purchased by Times Union, the regional newspaper in 2007. With the return of the AFL, the league now has a venue where the team is the top dog as Albany has lost a few AHL hockey franchises. It’s a spot the league has not been in for years and the Empire has breathed new life into the sport.
Food & Beverage 4
Concessions are fairly regular at Times Union Center with a few options that take food to the next level. Popcorn ($5/$7), nachos, Papa John’s Pizza ($8), hot dogs and chicken tenders are all available. Add to that garlic fries, cotton candy and fried dough to make things interesting. However, it is clear what the menu highlights really are. The cookie dough stand offers a sweet treat in a wide variety of flavors but all patrons have to do is follow the biggest line, to the Dinosaur BBQ concession to know where the best stuff is. Brisket and pulled pork are available as well as a rotating side.
Pepsi products ($4.50) are the featured sodas at Times Union Center. Dunkin Donuts coffee, bottled water and Gatorade are also available. The beer selection at Times Union is also pretty decent ($12/$11/$10). Coors Light, Miller Lite, Bud Lite and Blue Moon are the domestic brews readily available. Stella Artois, Goose Island, Founders IPA and local brews like Merman NY IPS and Shmaltz are of the premium variety.
Times Union Center is definitely a product of its time. In many places, specifically most of the exterior, the arena looks like it is from the late eighties. The main entrance to the building on South Pearl Street does feature some glass and some street level shops. The main entrance has received a significant renovation and has a little bit more modern feel. The massive video screen and sound system help with this also.
Inside, the concourses do have that nineties feel to it. The arena features one concourse that feeds both the upper and lower seating levels. Not a lot of natural light gets into the concourses, and the painted block walls make the interior feel a bit dated. Although there are a number of concessions, ongoing construction at the time of review, once completed, may help alleviate the antiquated feel of the concourses.
The seating bowl is inviting with comfortable padded seats. The end zone areas on the floor are fairly open and house the club section and the party zone. The two levels of seating are split by the luxury boxes. Above the 25 yard line is a decent 4 sided video board. The field runs from east to west and the center logo is best seen from the north. One of the features that shows Albany’s dedication to Arena Football are the banners that hang from the north side. The 1999 ArenaBowl XIII banner hangs alongside the retired number 17 of “Touchdown” Eddie Brown.
The game day production of the Albany Empire focuses on keeping the energy high and the fans happy. The game begins with players entering the field for their introductions through the inflatable fortress surrounded by pyro. The PA announcer leads the fans and promotes cheers combined with the requisite upbeat, rock music. The dance team, the Albany Empresses, perform throughout the game. As with all Arena Football games, balls thrown into the stands are souvenirs. Fans also have the opportunity to go on the field at the end of the game for pictures with the cheerleaders and players as well as getting autographs. Overall, the Albany Empire provide a great fan experience.
The Times Union Center is located in downtown Albany. Not having the population of major league cities, the expectations for Albany’s center are not high. That being said, the downtown is nice enough and there are options for fans to find pre and post game fare. One of the promotional items that the Empire put on is a pretty significant block party before the game. That may change the minds of fans looking for something before the game. There are a few fine dining options downtown, but fans can also find other options that are a little lighter on the pocket book. The Hollow Bar and Kitchen and the Pearl Street Pub are options fans may wish to consider. For fans wishing to drive for something special, the Dinosaur BBQ in nearby Troy will never disappoint.
It can be argued that the Empire are attempting to take their place as the top sporting attraction in the area. There are a few other options, however crossover with the AFL season may be challenging. When considering the area, fans should really consider Albany, Loudonville and Troy as they are all fairly small and close together. The Tri-City ValleyCats of the New York-Penn League reflect that and play at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium. The Times Union Center is also the home of the Siena Saints, NCAA basketball team. The Albany Great Danes also play NCAA basketball at the SEFCU Arena. Finally, Troy is home to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where the RPI Engineers play Division I hockey at Houston Field House. For non-sporting activities, a trip to the New York State Capitol and the New York State Museum will promote some local flavor for Upstate New York.
For fans wishing to stay in the area, the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Albany Downtown and the Best Western Albany Airport Inn are solid options with varying degrees of proximity to the arena.
Due to a lack of longevity, it is a little difficult to assess the fans of the Albany Empire. The game that was reviewed was only the second in franchise history. The first game back for the Empire was a solid sell-out of over 13,600. The second game did see a dip in attendance, but there were still over 10,000. These are solid numbers for the current Arena Football League. The fans that are in attendance are loud and proud. They wave the orange towels given upon entry with enthusiasm and flare. They are making a case that they are currently the best fans in the league. It will be interesting to see if the Empire can keep the fans coming out. Staying power in Albany will definitely improve this grade.
The Times Union Center is located west of I-787 and the Hudson River in downtown. Specifically it is located between South Pearl, Beaver and Market. Getting to the arena is not too difficult. For fans wishing to park downtown, there are a number of parking garages available and one is even attached to the building. Parking is affordable.
For fans wishing to take public transit to the game, there are buses that run up and down Pearl Street. For fares, maps and schedules, fans should check out the Capital District Transportation Authority website for details.
The main entrance offers ticketing windows and escalators up to the main concourse. However, it is that concourse where there are issues. Clearly built before concourse width was a major consideration, the Times Union Center suffers from a combination of congested concourses and very confusing routes to the washrooms. Fans are encouraged to find their seats early as moving around the arena is not fun. Washrooms are located in the four corners of the concourses, but down a flight of stairs to the arena level.
Return on Investment 5
With the AFL attempting a resurgence, the Albany Empire are providing a top notch experience at a very affordable price. Tickets can be found between $75 and $15, with many seats in the $15 to $35 range. Parking can be found for $10 and concession prices are decent. The product on the field is fast and exciting and the AFL and the Albany Empire are doing all they can to make it a fan friendly environment. Locals and travelling fans are advised to take advantage of this great value.
An extra mark for the AFL returning to its roots and giving a look to a smaller market.
An extra mark for the Albany Empire being the lead tenant in their building,
An extra mark for the history of Arena Football in Albany.
Although at the time of writing, the Arena Football League is experiencing a bit of a lull, the Albany Empire are really attempting to spark interest and remind fans of what once made this league great. The Empire at the Times Union Center is a great experience for a good price and a family excursion is a real possibility. It will be interesting to see if this continues and the Empire truly strikes back.
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Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Albany Downtown
74 State St
Albany, NY 12207
Best Western Albany Airport Inn
200 Wolf Rd
Albany, NY 12205
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