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Arena team splits from league

ALBANY -- Pro football in Albany is in jeopardy once again.

Four months removed from the folding of the af2 and the South Georgia Wildcats -- and less than a week after Albany Panthers owner Andre White and GM Will Carter told The Herald that all major hurdles had been cleared and the city's newest professional football franchise, the Albany Panthers, would begin play in the Southern Indoor Football League in March -- it appears the SIFL and the Panthers are not only no longer a symbiotic pair, but are headed for a bitter showdown in front of city commissioners on which entity will be granted Southwest Georgia's next franchise.

"We are definitely not going with that league," White told The Herald when reached Thursday, citing a disagreement with the SIFL over league dues that are owed. "Basically, I didn't get awarded the team (by the city of Albany) until the middle of December and just this week -- like, two days ago -- I get a call from the SIFL saying, 'You owe use dues for October and November,' and I just told them, 'Look, here I am trying to get this team off the ground and you're telling me I owe for months when I didn't even have the team yet?'

"So at this point -- because my whole goal is bring a team to Albany that didn't have problems like the South Georgia Wildcats -- I am already having problems early on with this league, and we've just decided to go in another direction."

And late Thursday, assistant city manager Wes Smith confirmed just that, saying the city is sending White a cancellation notice on his contract with the understanding he will resubmit his proposal for a team under the guise of a new league. Smith also added that in fairness to the SIFL -- which city leaders approved back in December, choosing it over other arena football organizations vying for a team in Albany -- it will permit the SIFL to also stand before the city at the same time as White and present its proposal on why it should be awarded a team.

"We've been carefully assessing our options, especially as it pertains to our existing contractual relationship with Mr. White," Smith said. "It is our intention to issue a notice of cancellation to Mr. White for the existing agreement, since it is essentially tied in with the SIFL, with whom he is no longer affiliated.

"But we intend to give Mr. White and officials with the SIFL, the opportunity to present any new indoor football opportunity before the commission. The commission would then choose the best opportunity for the people Albany."

White told The Herald that the new league he intends place the Albany Panthers with will be the American Indoor Football Association, one of the organizations the city passed on the first time.

Tom Hager, president of the SIFL, told The Herald late Thursday when contacted at his offices in Lake Charles, La., that he intends to make sure that doesn't happen, adding the entire situation could've been avoided had White simply followed through on his promises.

"First of all, we love Albany. It fits the footprint for our (second-year league) perfectly because we're all about regional. Eventually, we want to have an entire Peach Division -- and we don't want Albany to lose out because of Andre White," said Hager, who added that the league's planned second season currently has six teams locked in: Greenville, S.C., Augusta. Columbus, Lafayatte, La., Lake Charles, La., and Houston Texas.

"But unfortunately, Andre didn't put his money up like all of our other six owners did. He missed his deadlines. He didn't get his paperwork in on time. And he hasn't returned our calls for three weeks. It's because of Andre White that we have six teams ready to play and can't put out a schedule."

But Hager didn't stop there in his discord for how White handled his end of the deal.

"I personally want to come to Albany and (stand before the city with) Andre and look him in the face, and ask him why he chose he not to pay his bills," Hager said. "Outside of a letter-of-intent from him in October, we haven't seen a dime from him. Meanwhile, we have six owners who all paid the one-time, $15,000 fee to join the league and their monthly dues of $6,400, which we allow teams to pay at once or split it up at $800 a month over eight months. Andre paid none of that.

"Meanwhile, he calls me Monday -- the first time anyone's heard from him in three weeks, not to mention he was the only owner not at our winter meetings we just had -- and (disputes) what he owes and then tells me he was thinking of taking the team elsewhere. And I just told him that, quite frankly, the other owners were not happy with (him) and didn't want to partner with him in this league."

White, meanwhile, said he didn't want to single out anyone from the SIFL with whom he had his dispute with, even Hager, because "I'm not looking to harm the league. They gave me an opportunity and we couldn't come to terms. It's as simple as that."

He did, however, say that at the end of the day, he felt uncomfortable making the Albany Panthers a part of a league with such a short-lived existence.

"I have a contract to bring football to Albany and it's my job to find the best possible fit, and I just didn't want to give my money to a league that's only been around two years and that I was already having issues with," White said. "I would've felt more comfortable with a league that has been around 20 years, a league that is solid, instead of one trying to get started.

"As a businessman, why would I go and do that?"

Of course, a businessman wants to make money, and White understands that taking the Panthers to the AIFA -- which was formed in 2005 and has member teams as far away as New Jersey in the East division and California and New Mexico in the West Division -- would be more costly when it comes to travel, compared to regional contests against SIFL opponents.

Although, in a bizarre twist Thursday on an afternoon filled with them, White said he may be leaving that decision to someone else altogether, while keeping an eye on the situation from a distance.

"I put a lot into this and unfortunately, it hasn't worked out so far, so one of my business partners in this, Rod Chappelle, is going to be kind of overseeing things from here," said White, who added that Chappelle also works in music entertainment as a promoter in Atlanta. "I've already talked to the city and the SIFL and told them this. Basically, nothing has changed for us in that we're still the Albany Panthers. Will Carter is still my GM and we still plan on bringing professional football to Albany."

Attempts to reach Chappelle and Carter on Thursday were unsuccessful.

Hager says he wishes White had come to his decision to leave the SIFL sooner, rather than later, calling the proposition of getting a team off the ground -- and begin play by the end of March as planned -- "no small task."

Although, Hager said he already has a staff in place and "on the ground in Albany right now."

"As soon as West Smith tells us we can come before them and make our proposal, we're ready," Hager said. "We have an owner, coaches, marketing director, dance team -- we have everything ready to go."

Hager identified the team's prospective owner as Patrick Campbell, but offered no other information about his background.

Robert Winfrey, the director of operations for the SIFL, said Thursday he was in the process of making two schedules for the upcoming season: One that included Albany, and one that didn't.

"I haven't been informed either way at the moment what that status of the Albany franchise is," Winfrey said. "But I know we have a long-term plan that includes Albany. Would it be a detriment to our league if we didn't have Albany in our league this season? Well, let's just put it this way: We really like Albany and we really want it to work. But if it doesn't, there's always next season."

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Albany Herald government writer J.D. Sumner contributed to this report.