Antonio Brown’s short, chaotic ownership of Albany Empire

Antonio Brown's short, chaotic ownership of Albany Empire
Antonio Brown's short, chaotic ownership of Albany Empire

DARIUS PRINCE AND his two dozen Albany Empire teammates wanted their money.

They’d been owed payment by direct deposit after their previous National Arena League game – a 55-53 home loss to the San Antonio Gunslingers – the first since Antonio Brown, the mercurial former NFL star receiver, became the team’s majority owner. The week came and went with no payment.

For guys on one of the lowest rungs of professional football, where salaries start at $250 per game before taxes, no pay means no money for food, gas or rent. Some of the higher-earning players – Prince, the league MVP at the time, who had the top salary at about $3,000 per game – would help support teammates so broke that they were hungry.

Now, on a late-April evening, an empty bus waited to take them 10 hours south for a Sunday afternoon game against the Carolina Cobras, and the Empire faced a decision: Get on the bus or hold out for their pay.

They sat in their rooms, in a 2½-star hotel between the Greyhound bus terminal and the interstate, refreshing their banking apps and texting in a group chat. Should they go to Greensboro and then refuse to play? What if the league blackballed them? Would it be the end of their NFL dreams?

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Prince helped compile a list of how much each player was owed and sent it to newly appointed team president Alberony Denis, who tried, and failed, to pay them via a Zelle cash transfer.

Several hours later, Prince received a screenshot that seemed to show a pending payment would arrive by the following Monday, and Empire players filed onto the bus. Prince scored three touchdowns in a 56-49 loss before another 10-hour ride back to Albany.

Four months later, Empire players are still owed compensation from Brown’s tenure, according to a local attorney who is preparing potential lawsuits. Brown, who raised fans’ hopes by buying into the team in March, is nowhere to be seen, and the Empire are no more. The National Arena League board voted unanimously to kick the team out in June for failure to pay three months of membership fees, according to Alex Gunaris, Brown’s accountant, and two league sources.

Brown’s brief, doomed tenure as the Empire’s owner was defined by unpaid bills, unfulfilled promises and erratic behavior, according to players, coaches, team employees and fans interviewed by ESPN.

“You talked to my guy Alex already, right?” Brown said when reached by phone by ESPN, referring to his accountant. “I don’t really got nothing to say. Just talk to my authorized representative.”

Prince and his Empire teammates are left to ponder their futures and the deflated expectations of Brown’s tenure.

“He came in promising the world,” Prince said, “and didn’t show for s-.”

Antonio Brown, left, and his father, Eddie Brown, who starred for the Albany Firebirds in the 1990s, attended an Empire game together in 2018. Courtesy John Carl D’Annibale/Times Union

ON FEB. 21, the Arena Football League posted a highlight reel on Twitter that featured the greatest player in its history, “Touchdown” Eddie Brown, who starred for the now-defunct Albany Firebirds in the 1990s.

“My daddy was a legend,” Antonio Brown tweeted. “Imagine what [that] makes me.”

Ben Nelson, who ran the Empire’s social media and whose parents were fans of the Firebirds, saw an opportunity.

“Hey @AB84 wanna make history?” Nelson tweeted at Brown, with a trophy emoji.

Before long, majority owner Mike Kwarta’s phone rang.

“It’s f-ing Antonio Brown,” Kwarta said to two team officials who were in the room.

Empire executives knew about Brown’s checkered past. For all of his Pro Bowl success, Brown’s career, with the Steelers, Raiders, Patriots and Buccaneers, was marked by controversy, both before and after he ran off his final NFL field midgame in January 2022.

Among other incidents, Brown has settled a lawsuit by a former trainer that accused him of sexual assault, denying the allegations. He has also denied a second woman’s allegations of sexual misconduct. He settled a lawsuit that alleged he threw furniture off a 14th-floor apartment balcony onto an occupied pool deck, nearly hitting a toddler.

On the football side, he also repeatedly missed team meetings and was handed a three-game suspension for misrepresenting his COVID vaccination status.

The litany of issues led to speculation about his mental health, but after his release by the Buccaneers in 2022, Brown denied having any problems to CBS News: “I never had a mental health diagnosis. I never had an issue or problem. I don’t take pills. I just got a high IQ.” (However, in an August social media post, Brown made reference to chronic traumatic encephalopathy. “My CTE acting up F- all y’all whoever played on my name,” he wrote.)

Despite all that, and largely because they badly needed a cash infusion, Kwarta and other Empire owners entertained the thought of bringing Brown into the fold.

“COVID crushed us, attendance-wise,” Kwarta said. “We needed something to jump-start it, and the idea was that he would sign autographs, take pictures, kiss the babies and let us run football. … And his dad is a great dude. That’s why we thought it would be a good idea to give it a shot.”

Less than a week later, on March 1, Brown was in Albany to sign the paperwork to buy 47.5% of the Empire for $350,000, according to Kwarta. At a news conference at MVP Arena the next day, there were broad smiles, nostalgic talk about the time Brown spent in Albany as a child and big promises to make the Empire financially sound after several failed iterations.

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“It means everything to be back here in the community where I grew up as a kid,” Brown told a local TV reporter. “For me, for the most part, it’s about keeping Albany football sustainable and being here forever and offering the community, the kids, the players a great opportunity to be successful.”

WHILE BROWN WAS making his name as one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, Darius Prince bounced around as a receiver in the arena leagues. His big break came in 2018, ahead of Brown’s final season with the Steelers, when Prince played one preseason game with the Eagles before he was cut. He came to the Empire in 2021 and felt immediately embraced by Albany fans.

“They just welcomed me with open arms,” Prince said. “Definitely a huge family environment. Anybody that puts on those colors and plays for the community, they know you’re away from home, so they try their hardest to make you feel like you’re at home. That’s one of the things I loved about that community.”

The National Arena League, seemingly like every upstart arena league before it, is undoubtedly small-time, its finances precarious. Franchises are run by the owners of local cigar shops and lighting companies (Kwarta runs a water restoration company in nearby Schenectady). Teams like the Empire operate on a shoestring budget, partnering with local restaurants and other businesses for food and services in exchange for publicity at the games.

But in a place like Albany, the Empire is more than just another local business. The city has a proud tradition of arena football that goes back three decades. The Empire drew about 10,000 fans per game in both 2018 and 2019, and when they won the 2019 Arena Football League championship at home, 12,000 fans came. They then moved to the National Arena League, after the AFL went bankrupt, and won back-to-back championships before Brown arrived.

“I had customers [who were] really, really into it. I would meet them at block parties,” said Rafi Topalian, a local jewelry store owner. “It’s a release for us. This is our home team. You are rooting for it.”

Jim Malone has been a season-ticket holder since 1990, the Firebirds’ first season, and has only missed one game ever. He cherishes the tight-knit community at games, where fans know each other and feel connected to the team.

“You go to an NFL game, and you’re further away from the action but also the people around you are from a much, much wider area,” he said. “Whereas you go to an arena football game and you’re with people from where you live.”

“It’s such a family atmosphere,” he added.

Brown announced he would play for the Empire himself, but he never took the field. Lori Van Buren/Times Union

THREE DAYS AFTER buying into the Empire, Brown handed out a few footballs emblazoned with a team sponsor at a Los Angeles hip-hop concert where he performed. While he was onstage, someone threw him a pass, which he snared one-handed. A video of the moment went viral, and the team’s executives were delighted by the publicity.

“My sponsor’s name is on the football, so I get to send him a video of Antonio Brown one-hand-catching a football on stage with his logo on it,” said Jeff Levack, the Empire’s former team president. “It was perfect. It was great.”

During the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament at MVP Arena about two weeks later, Brown made the rounds, taking selfies, signing autographs and creating buzz.

Nelson, the social media employee who first tweeted at Brown, said the new ownership partner helped fill office whiteboards with ideas for improving the team. He talked to local football players and participated in a meet-and-greet at a local restaurant. He promised the players NFL-level amenities, including personal chefs, smoothie bars and Sprinter vans.

But players and employees told ESPN the tenor soon started to change leading up to the Empire’s April 16 season opener.

During training camp, players asked the team to post a birthday tribute to Mo Ruffins, a former Empire offensive lineman who died last year at age 38. Nelson posted it, but it was quickly deleted. The players wanted to know why.

“People were a little frustrated because these guys were close to [Mo],” wide receiver Dwayne Hollis said.

When they couldn’t get an answer, Prince, Hollis and another player approached Brown at a local cigar lounge. Brown was there with Ryan Larkin, a local sneaker entrepreneur he’d brought in to the front office.

“We were there to just talk, to give our views about how that’s wrong,” Hollis said.

Hollis and Prince said the conversation quickly got heated, and Brown threatened to pull a gun.

“AB looked at Ryan [Larkin] and was like, ‘Hey, man, you still got the AR in the car? Go get it,'” Prince said. “Then I was like, I’m not going to allow this dude to walk out of here after you just threatened us. … After he said that, things did calm down and we had a conversation. But the fact is that he threatened us by telling his assistant to grab his AR.”

Larkin did not respond to ESPN’s requests for comment.

BROWN MADE ONE significant change after joining the Empire: He insisted that the team practice in Albany. Brown wanted the team to be more visible in the community, Kwarta and Levack said. The decision came with a serious financial consequence.

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The previous two years, Kwarta and Levack said, the Empire skirted New York’s high workers’ compensation costs by holding practices more than an hour away in Massachusetts or Connecticut, where they registered the team for business purposes.

Moving practices to Albany came with an $1.5 million workers’ comp price tag. Brown’s ownership partners tried to negotiate a lower premium or maneuver around it, but they couldn’t make it work.

“The team itself was days away from not being able to operate this year just solely because of workers’ compensation,” Gunaris, Brown’s accountant, told ESPN.

“And Antonio flat out said, ‘You know what? I’m going to pay,” Kwarta said, though he disputed that the team wouldn’t have been able to operate.

After Brown paid for the insurance, Levack said, he started telling people he alone owned the Empire. On April 19, three days after a season-opening victory over the Orlando Predators, Brown bought Kwarta’s team shares for $1, making him the majority owner.

Wide receiver Darius Prince was the league’s MVP last season and a leader on the team. Courtesy Jim Franco/Times Union

ON THE BUS back from North Carolina, the players still hadn’t received the first missing paycheck, and were now owed money for a second game, a 56-49 loss to the Cobras. Coach Damon Ware called Brown, who said the team was complaining too much.

“‘Last week it was food. This week, it’s your money. Y’all need to worry about winning,'” Brown told Ware and the players on speakerphone.

“[Brown] was trying to tell us, ‘Don’t worry about getting paid.’ If the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t pay you, what would you do?” Prince said. “This is our livelihood. You can’t tell us not to worry about it.”

Several players pressed Brown about the missing money.

“[Brown] got loud,” Ware said.

“He was telling us he don’t respect us,” said Melvin Hollins, an offensive and defensive lineman from Jackson State. “And we just, in his words, a bunch of broke arena boys.”

Ware said Brown threatened to lock the players out of their rooms at the hotel in Albany and throw away their belongings.

“‘And all them old-ass players,'” Prince said, remembering Brown’s words, “‘I’ll tell the bus driver to pull over and kick y’all off my f-ing bus right now.'”

Ware said he resigned during the phone call, and Brown released at least six players on the spot, including Prince and starting quarterback Sam Castronova. They rode the rest of the way to upstate New York with their careers hanging in the balance.

Some of those released had confronted Brown about their money on the phone call, multiple players said, but others hadn’t. Two players said that one of Brown’s associates was recording conversations between athletes.

Gunaris later told ESPN that the payments were delayed when the team switched banks.

When the bus arrived in Albany, the people who had been released couldn’t get into their rooms, several players said. Their key cards didn’t work.

“Dude just has no respect for nobody,” Prince said.

AS HE CYCLED through coaches and released players, Brown also alienated remaining employees and business owners around town who had supported or sponsored the Empire, according to multiple sources.

Nelson, the employee who had first reached out to Brown, left the team after Brown tagged him in a since-deleted tweet and called him names – including a slur – meant to demean his mental acuity, according to a screenshot of the tweet reviewed by ESPN. Nelson believed Brown mistook him for a young fan who had been critical of Brown on Twitter.

“Touchdown” Eddie Brown is considered the greatest player in AFL history. Courtesy Times Union/Paul Buckowski

Tom Menas, the coach who had led the Empire to back-to-back championships but had been fired before the season, was rehired on May 3 but resigned 17 days later – the third coaching change in just five games.

With nearly no one with experience left helming a football franchise, John Kane, an Albany native who held shares in both the Empire and the Cobras, said he was asked to walk Brown and his associates through the basic points of game presentation, from the national anthem to providing an ambulance on game day.

Brown announced he would play for the Empire at a home game in May, and nearly 3,000 fans packed MVP Arena wearing black-and-gold No. 84 jerseys. But he never took the field, reportedly because the league hadn’t processed his paperwork in time.

Despite his talk about his father’s history with Albany, Brown and his staff seemed uninterested in the Empire’s legacy, according to Hal Talbot, a longtime Empire fan and sales manager at team sponsor Fogg’s Automotive.

Talbot had agreed with the team to commemorate Ruffins, the late offensive lineman, at a game, and had made thousands of stickers with Ruffins’s number to hand out.

“[The front office] kind of laughed at me and [said], ‘Well, we don’t know who this is,'” Talbot said.

Talbot had also given Denis, the team president, a car to use in exchange for social media exposure. The vehicle disappeared for more than two days, Talbot said, until he finally tracked it down, unlocked with the keys inside, in a parking lot near the bus station. Denis did not respond to ESPN’s requests for comment.

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In May, Frank Cappello, a local restaurant owner, called the police after Larkin, who identified himself as Brown’s manager, bought $1,000 worth of food for the team, according to a police report. “The food has been delivered but [Larkin] has failed to pay,” the report read.

Brown apologized and paid Cappello after the story hit social media and the local news, and no charges were filed. Several team members said local sponsors stopped providing food vouchers or pregame meals.

Many players did eventually receive checks for the games they played, though some say they weren’t paid the full amounts they were owed. Gunaris told ESPN that some players had their pay deducted because of missing equipment like helmets and shoulder pads.

In early June, payments for a 68-24 loss to the Predators, a team the Empire trounced in the season opener, were reversed so that some players never got their money, according to Maurice Leggett, the team’s fourth and final coach.

Fourteen players and coaches say they’re still owed compensation in some form, five of whom were not paid for a single game, according to Kelly Magnuson, an Albany-based lawyer. Some are seeking additional damages.

Around the same time, Brown was kicked out of the Holiday Inn Express for smoking marijuana and playing loud music, according to the Albany Times-Union. (Hotel representatives declined to speak with ESPN.) As a result, the team, which finished the season with a 1-6 record, had to move to another hotel, where the rooms were dirty and had bedbugs, Leggett said. Kane tried to help, but with Brown in charge, no one wanted to get involved with the Empire.

“Every connection I had for housing said, ‘Does AB still own the team?'” Kane said. “I said, ‘Yeah, he does.’ They said, ‘I’m not going to do it.'”

Initially, Brown was full of ideas for improving the team and promised the players NFL-level amenities. Courtesy Ben Nelson

BY MID-JUNE, ABOUT 100 days after Brown arrived in Albany, league leadership discussed what to do about his outstanding bills. Brown owed $21,000 for three months of membership fees and $1,000 for a fine levied for conduct detrimental to the league, according to Levack and Kane.

In a news release, the league said Brown had initially paid his April fees but had subsequently “challenged” the payment and retracted it. His team demanded proof from the league that the other teams were paying their dues, Leggett said.

The league gave Brown until noon on June 15 to pay up. After the deadline passed, the board voted unanimously to oust the Empire from the league, with seven games still left to play.

League commissioner Chris Siegfried declined ESPN’s request for comment.

Leggett was in a staff meeting after practice when players started banging on his door. “Was it true?” they asked. He didn’t know the team had been dissolved until the players showed him a news story.

Some players quickly found new teams, but those who couldn’t were left stranded in Albany, without paychecks for the rest of the season.

“Two guys reached out,” Kane said. “They were sleeping on people’s fancy couches. I picked them up and gave them a moving job for the day. Just to give them enough money to give them a plane ride home.”

Magnuson, who represents the 14 players and coaches seeking compensation, said her firm is still vetting additional claims from former Empire employees. It’s unclear when they might file suit.

“[What the players are claiming they’re owed] is not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things for someone who owns a football team,” she said. “But it’s a lot of money for these guys who are working class.”

Brown left Albany as suddenly as he appeared. When asked about the potential lawsuits, Brown told ESPN, “I don’t got anything to say about nobody. People [are] always dragging my name saying they’re coming after me.”

Brown still owns the Empire’s office furniture and the turf field, according to Bob Belber, general manager of MVP Arena, but hasn’t removed any of it. He is now focusing on his music career, Gunaris said, with plans to go on tour, release a new album and launch a record label. In August, TMZ reported that a judge issued an order for Brown’s arrest after he failed to pay child support, though he later posted a picture of a receipt on Instagram that suggested he had paid.

In Albany, the National Arena League, which dwindled to just three teams after the past season, appears to be dead. Kwarta and Belber, however, are in discussions to bring arena football back to the city with new owners in another league. If it does return, Malone the superfan will be ready.

“I’ll be right back in my seats,” he said.

ESPN researcher John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.

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