The Albany Empire franchise came and went in a blink of an eye.  In the two short years that they existed, players, staff, sponsors and fans were all-in on arena football's return to Albany. But as players, staff and fans celebrated the title in 2019, many of the women who cheered the loudest for the now defunct franchise, feel cheated. The Albany Empresses dance team say they were lied to about a promise that they would be given hardware of their own to commemorate the banner season.  During home homes, the glitzy squad was always seen front and center, and now they want to be heard.

In 2018, Albany Empire players and staff were committed to bringing exciting, fast-paced, championship caliber entertainment to a city that longed for the return of arena football.  In year number one, the Albany Empire delivered on just about everything it promised.  It was exciting, past-paced, and fans couldn't get enough.  Games featured fun block parties, star players, loud music, a fiery coach, an electric dance squad and the team was damn good. The only thing it didn't deliver on was the championship, but we knew they'd be back to make a title run the following year.

'Unfinished Business' was the motto the team adopted prior to year number two. They printed it on shirts and used it for marketing purposes suggesting that anything short of a championship would be a failed season. And again, they delivered.   The Albany Empire won the Arena Football League championship in August of 2019 beating the Philadelphia Soul 45-27 before a large crowd at the Times Union Center.

The city and fans celebrated this title for a few months before the sobering late October news came that the league would have to cease operations citing financial hardships.  Later, in November, the Arena Football League filed for bankruptcy and rolled up the turf for good.

Last week, despite bankruptcy, championships rings were given out to players and some staff and while it may have been somewhat bittersweet as the team is no longer in existence, the recognition for their hard work seemed to be greatly appreciated. Players and staff took to social media wearing and showing off their shiny new hardware. But a key component of Albany Empire brand seems to have been overlooked; The Albany Empresses dance team.

According to Maria Balli, former member of the Albany Empresses dance team for two years, there's some additional unfinished business "promised" to them that seems to have gone overlooked.  Balli claims initially there was some talk that the dance team might get a championship ring if the team were to win a title.  Their expectations changed when it was learned they'd get a pendant instead, but then changed entirely when the league folded and all contact with ownership and management ended.  Voicing her disappointment over being passed up for a championship ring, or even the pendant,  Balli wrote open letter to the Empire ownership group in hopes of getting at the very least a pendant, something she and the rest of the dance team claim they were promised.   Here's in part what she wrote:

"As the Empire won game after game in our 2019 season, there were whispers of earning something we wanted tremendously: championship rings. My chagrin was unmatched when I realized that championship rings had been distributed… but the Empresses had been overlooked. We were originally promised custom pendants instead of rings, but heard no word on that when the AFL folded. Naturally, we assumed the rings were no longer happening either. I was shocked to discover that the rings did happen, (and that) the Empresses had been forgotten."

The Empresses not only enhanced the atmosphere and enthusiasm during home games, they interacted with the crowd and according to Balli "went to schools, charity events, and community centers" adding that by the end of the 2019 championship season, she personally had attended over 40 public appearances.  Balli would estimate that between all the membered of the Empresses dance team, their total number of individual appearances for the 2019 season would be upwards of 500. 

Empresses Dancer Maria Balli

Balli states that members of the dance team "practiced until 10 PM twice a week for ten consecutive months in our 2019 season, all of us (were) either students or holding full-time jobs."  In addition, they mentored a junior dance them, appeared at block parties, did off-field interviews for the media and stayed for hours after games signing autographs and taking pictures with fans.

They got paid $50 a game. 

When informed that the Albany Empresses were disappointed they seem to have been overlooked, George Manias former General Manger of the Albany Empire (now with triple-A Yankee affiliate Scranton/Wilkes Barre RailRaiders) didn't dance around the issue. "Championship rings are not promised to anyone in the organization even in the event that the league did not fold. I have no idea where they got any inclination that they would receive anything.  Certainly not from me or the owners."

After he was told about Balli's petition and open letter in regards to the pendant, he went on to tell me that "people get upset when they don't make the cut to get a ring.  They are expensive and owners at this level need to make tough decisions on who doesn't get one."

Ats it stands today, it appears as if the request made by Balli and the rest of the Empresses Dance Team might be falling on deaf ears.  There is no next season and  there isn't an ownership group or management team left to fulfill a promise that was made to them during the title run of 2019.

Still cheerful despite the snub,  Balli remains hopeful that something may come their way saying "I'm confident we weren't purposely excluded and (I am) feeling good that the owners will remedy this for us!"

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The only ring you’ll see on my finger for the foreseeable future! ‍♂️ #TheLastChamps

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The Culmination Of It All!!!! Ring Me Please!!!! #getgreat #goempire #arenafootball #albanyempire #albanyny #sports #champs #rings


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