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2012 SEASON PREVIEW: New arena league should finally ensure stability for Panthers

Panthers GM Will Carter and his Albany franchise were the final team to join the newly-formed PIFL after the SIFL folded last season, but Carter and the rest of the teams in the league are happy with their new family. (Herald file photo)

Panthers GM Will Carter and his Albany franchise were the final team to join the newly-formed PIFL after the SIFL folded last season, but Carter and the rest of the teams in the league are happy with their new family. (Herald file photo)

ALBANY — Remember the Mobile Bay Tarpons?

How about the Lafayette Wildcatters?

Neither ring a bell?

If you blinked, you might have missed them. If you weren’t around for the start of last year’s Southern Indoor Football League season, you definitely missed them.

Mobile, Lafayette and the Fayetteville Force were all members of the SIFL last year before folding during the season — or in Lafayette’s case, the day before the 2011 season kicked off.

Because of that instability, the SIFL disbanded in September after just three seasons in existence and the 16 teams broke up into four leagues. The Texas-based teams created the Lone Star Football League, the Southeast-based teams created the Professional Indoor Football League and the remaining four teams joined either the American Indoor Football Association or the Ultimate Indoor Football League.

The Albany Panthers, winners of the 2011 SIFL Championship, are one of five former SIFL teams that are now members of the PIFL and are joined by the Alabama Hammers, the Columbus Lions, the Louisiana Swashbucklers, the Richmond Raiders and the newly-formed Knoxville Nighthawks.

The PIFL is one of the smallest indoor football leagues in the nation, but that’s exactly what its founders had in mind, Panthers GM Will Carter said.

“What we wanted to do is not grow so fast and have strong teams that we know have credible owners who will last through the season,” Carter said. “That was the reasoning behind starting this new league, to have a stronger league and a stronger business model made up of owners that have the financial backing to support these teams.”

The owner of each team also has a financial stake in the league, giving each team incentive to stick around.

“Every league I have been in in the past, it’s always been one guy who runs the league, and he sets his own agenda and usually owns a team,” Lions coach Jason Gibson said. “Now they are all in it to help each other out. I’ve never been a part of a league that has run so smoothly.”

It was a collective agreement between the owners to switch leagues, and Alabama was the first to officially join the PIFL, followed by Richmond, Louisiana, Columbus and then finally Albany.

"Several owners desired to take more control of their destiny and provide more input in league development," Panthers owner Rod Chappell said. "The PIFL is the outcome of those desires."

Other than the stability of the owners and the size of the league, not much will change on the field for the Panthers, which is just fine for Panthers quarterback Cecil Lester.

“It’s still football,” Lester said. “It’s still arena football, so it really doesn’t matter (what league we are in).”

The PIFL will have the same rules that were enforced in the SIFL, and for the most part, the Panthers will be facing the same opponents.

And it wouldn’t be arena football in Albany without a rivalry between the Panthers and Columbus. Carter said that once the Lions, who the Panthers have played seven times in the last two years and are scheduled to play three times in the regular season this year, made the move to the PIFL, Albany wasn’t far behind.

“It was one of those deals where we had to piggy back on other teams that were close to us, like Alabama and Columbus, to help with travel,” Carter said. “Plus, our fans enjoy going up to Columbus and watching us play up there, and their fans come down here. It really is like Auburn vs. Alabama. It’s a heated rivalry. The players respect each other, but on the field it’s very intense.”

Coach Lucious Davis couldn’t agree more.

“I think it’s big for the league, it’s big for both organizations (that they were able to stay in the same league),” Davis said. “We know we have three games that we have to win. They know there are three games they have to win. It’s more so bragging rights among the players.”

Gibson said it wouldn’t have made any sense for Albany and Columbus to go in different directions.

“Whatever league one of us went in, the other was going, too,” Gibson said. “It wouldn’t have made sense if we were in one alphabet league and they were in another alphabet league. I don’t care what you call the league. I just don’t want to get on a bus and drive 22 hours to play a team in Wyoming.”

There is talk of adding two expansion teams to the PIFL next season, but Gibson said he would be just fine with keeping the league small and dependable.

“I don’t think expansion is a big deal,” Gibson said. “We could have eight teams in the league for 75 years, and I think it would be great. People want to watch us play teams a lot and develop rivalries with teams like Albany.”

The top four teams with the best records will advance to the playoffs, with the higher-seeded team hosting each game. The league kicked off its inaugural season March 10 when Richmond beat Columbus, 64-58. The rest of the teams will begin their seasons tonight when Columbus plays Knoxville, Albany plays Richmond and Louisiana plays Alabama.