The Trials and Tribulations of a Minor League Sports City

by Jon

For the first time in my life, I spent an extended period of away from my humble abode in WNY. I heard my calling, so to speak, in the state capital. Four and a half hours of Thruway driving later, I found myself away from Buffalo (home of the Bills and Sabres), and in Albany (home of the Patroons, Conquest, Valley Cats, and who could forget the beloved River Rats).

I was incredibly skeptical about the move from a major-league city to a minor-league city. I had been spoiled with big-league sports my entire life, I wasn’t quite sure how I would respond to the sight of two AHL teams duking it out. I told myself that I was going to attend as many games that I could, if for no other reason than to get a feel for the different leagues and levels of competition.

The first team I paid a visit to was the Albany River Rats, AHL dual-affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes and Colorado Avalanche. The style of play was similar to the NHL, but the quality wasn’t there. Passes weren’t as crisp, special teams weren’t as smooth, the hitting wasn’t as hard. I ended up going to a handful of AHL games, as was just entertaining enough to warrent the ten dollar ticket.

Aside from the play, I was impressed with the River Rat fanbase. Attendence was a bit lacking (The first game I went to was the home opener with an appearance by the Stanley Cup, with 7,000 or so showing up. The second game was lucky to have 1,000), but there was a good amount of diehards, including Nick Carlson, clad in complete River Rat apparel, including (but not limited to) a jersey, a hat with a rat tail, a cheesehead, and the official River Rat cowbell. I was not, however, impressed with “Rowdy,” the worst mascot in all of sports. He looks like a stuffed animal that has been passed on as a family heirloom for generations. Needless to say, he needs spruced up again. Also, like many hockey teams today, they had an in-game host, nicknamed “The Big Cheese.” This guy was awful. He makes Nicholas Picholas look legendary. I’m not kidding. He was that bad.

Other teams I checked out were the Albany Conquest of the AF2, aka minor-league arena football, and the Albany Patroons of the CBA and USBL, aka third or fourth rate professional basketball. I was hardly impressed with either of these teams.

The Conquest could very well advertise their product as “Football for people with ADD.” Play goes like this for two and a half hours: A 3 to 4 second play, followed by 5 to 6 seconds between plays, where the Times-Union Center brass decide it’s necessarry to play a small clip of a rap song every time. Repeat this process about four hundred times. It’s truly enough to drive you insane. Also, it is a great reminder that you are also watching minor-league officials. The first game I went to, I witnessed a Conquest player whip the ball into the stands, stand on the end boards, jump into the stands, and dance for what seemed like an hour in celebration. An opposing player then returned a kick for a TD, threw the ball against the end board, and was flagged for excessive celebration. Home bias, much?

The Patroons play in the Continental Basketball Association from November until March, and the United States Basketball League from March into the summer. It’s truly odd, as they field two completely different teams for the different leagues. I went to the home opener of the CBA season. Upon attending one game, I quickly found that the CBA is much worse than the NBA, the NBADL, the ABA, and your local YMCA league. The style of play was painful to watch, and it seemed as if the players were intent on trying to finish every possession off with a
dunk. It rarely worked. I was not planning on making a return, and these stories cemented that: one, two.

The saving grace for the Capital Region is college sports. The SUNY Albany/Siena rivalry is a sight to be seen. Imagine UB/Niagara playing to a packed house in HSBC Arena. Intense? That’s how it is in Albany, with this year’s meeting between the two teams being an epic, 2OT battle. There is also several D1 hockey institutions, and Albany hosted the ECAC College Hockey Tourney (albeit in a blizzard).

All in all, a minor-league sports city is what you make of it. It certainly won’t dent your pocket book, but you sacrifice in the quality of play. There is plenty to keep you busy, but it won’t blow you out of your seat. In the end, I’ll take the better athletes for more money. It’s worth it.

It’s good to be home……