Albany Empire opener draws sell-out Albany crowd

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ALBANY — For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Capital Region of New York is buzzing with anticipation for Arena Football League action.

The league known for its pass-happy offenses and high-scoring contests has shrunk to just four teams, but its newest franchise — the Albany Empire — kicked off its inaugural season against defending AFL champion the Philadelphia Soul on Saturday at the Times Union Center.

Outside, South Lark Street was shut down with fans braving the low 40-degree weather, packing the street for the kickoff block party. Food venders filled the air with scents of BBQ and fried goodness. Fans wearing Boston Red Sox, New England Patriots, New York Jets and Giants gear mixed in with supporters wearing their orange Empire apparel.

Pittsburgh Steelers fans were also well represented, as AFL Hall of Famer and former Albany Firebirds offensive specialist "Touchdown" Eddie Brown and his son, Steelers all-world receiver Antonio Brown were honored pregame.

Inside, the turnout was just as encouraging. The game sold out well before game day, and the crowd outside remained sizable as kickoff approached.

Former New Orleans Saints Pro Bowl receiver and part owner of the Empire, Marques Colston addressed the block party crowd before kickoff, thanking it for its enthusiastic show of support. Colston said he's hoping the impressive turnout will continue.

"This is really what it's all about," Colston said. "We came into Albany and really had a vision for the team to really be part of the community. Bring a big entertainment option back, be able to use this team as a catalyst for economic growth. Just to see all that come to fruition on opening night, that's why we're doing it."

Adding something new to a city can certainly inject a boost of life into the community. With the small size of the league, the true gauge the Empire's sustainability will be the ability to draw crowds when the teams face off for the second and third times during the regular season.

Ultimately, the team's success will play a large role in the size of the crowd.

"They don't really have too much up here," Anthony Martin, 32, of Rotterdam, N.Y. said. "To get a team up here in a town like Albany, naturally everybody's going to be in hysterics like you see now.

"If the team can play well, you can only expect the crowd to get bigger and bigger."

Akeem Glaspie can be reached at aglaspie@berkshireeagle.com, at @TheAkeemGlaspie on Twitter and 413-496-6252.


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