The MVP Free Agent: Jeff Babbitt Moving On From The Empire

March 28, 2024
By Evan Lepler

Following the breakdown of extensive negotiations, Jeff Babbitt, the reigning UFA MVP, will not be playing for the New York Empire in 2024. He expects to sign with another team, but his exact plans, as of Wednesday morning, remain uncertain. 

“I’ve spoken with three teams very seriously, and a couple of others loosely,” said Babbitt, who added that he hopes to have a decision by April 1, and that he wants to be on the field for opening day. 

This stunning news comes in the wake of a half-decade stretch of unprecedented team success, including a still-active 30-game winning streak, three championships in the past four seasons, and a relationship between the superstar and his team that went far beyond ultimate throughout his eight years with the organization. But the two sides were unable to reach an agreement over the past couple months, and discussions gradually grew more tenuous and frustrating for both Babbitt and the Empire in recent weeks, ultimately leading to the conclusion where last season’s most prolific goal-scorer will be suiting up for another franchise in 2024. 

Neither Babbitt nor New York General Manager Matt Stevens, who have been teammates since the former joined the team in 2016, wanted to publicly disclose the details that led to the disagreement and falling out, but both shared their general feelings about the situation, articulating a sense of disappointment and sadness that they could not find common ground. 

“We negotiated with him for a month and a half and were not able to get close to terms that were reasonable for either side,” said Stevens, who officially retired from playing after the 2023 season. “We love Jeff and we had planned for Jeff to be with the team for many, many years. We always assumed he would transition from a player to a coach. We did not foresee a scenario where [separating] was even an option. He’s been such an important part of the Empire for all the years he’s been with us. If he’s not with the Empire, we wish Jeff the best. But from a business standpoint, we couldn’t find terms that made sense.”

While Stevens felt the Empire were completely reasonable in how they pursued Babbitt’s services for 2024, the reigning MVP clearly did not agree. Without wanting to get into specifics, he outlined how he felt misled and disenchanted by the negotiations. 

“This is a team,” explained Babbitt, “that I feel like I [had] a very large part in building over the last eight seasons, and I’ve been a captain for seven. I did a thousand different tasks for this team from all different ends of the spectrum, both as a player, a captain, effectively another coach, and on the outside with sponsors, partners, camps, and clinics, and it’s tough to leave everything that I helped build behind. Plus, many of my best friends and people that I care about. I’ve spoken to many of my [now former Empire] teammates about it. They’re very sad to see me go. I know that some of them tried to negotiate on my behalf to try to make it work out.” 

Since debuting with the Empire after his college career concluded in the spring of 2016, Babbitt has been remarkably durable, playing in 96 out of a possible 99 games, including the playoffs. Statistically, he’s produced 256 goals and 150 blocks, both ranking eighth most in UFA history. He’s also been brilliantly efficient when it comes to preserving possession, completing 96.18 percent of his passes for his career, a figure that’s risen to over 97 percent in the three seasons since the pandemic. Last year, playing primarily on the O-line for the first time in his pro career, he dazzled by scoring at least six goals in six different games, pacing the association with 60 goals for the season. 

While lingering concussion symptoms forced Babbitt to miss New York’s East Division title game against DC this past August—snapping his consecutive games played streak at 68—both sides insisted that these health issues were not a factor whatsoever in the negotiations. One month away from the start of the 2024, Babbitt says he is feeling good and expects to keep playing for another team. 

Asked what emotions he would feel at the prospect of potentially suiting up against the Empire, Babbitt was uncertain.

“I’m not sure at this point,” he said. “I haven’t had a lot of time to process anything, to be honest. At this point, just disappointed and sad at that prospect, and not looking forward to it. It could change to fired up and motivated, and it could change to, ‘it’s just another game.’”

While Babbitt ponders his next chapter, the Empire remain stacked with talent and will still be viewed as the preseason favorite to win another championship as they bring back-to-back titles and a 30-game winning streak into 2024. But losing last year’s MVP in the lead-up to the season is a truly fascinating and jarring jolt of adversity for the rest of the New York core to overcome. 

Arguably, it’s New York’s first loss since the 2021 title game. 

“I’m pretty shocked at how this has played out,” said Stevens. “At the end of the day, my family and I want what’s best for Jeff. That’s not saying Jeff’s not worth what he’s asking for, but we couldn’t reach terms with him there [...] I have been teammates, friends, I’ve been everything with these guys all these years. We always want what’s best for the players, and we always have, and we’ll continue to be like that.”

It might not be the end of the Empire’s championship era, but the Babbitt era in New York is indeed over, a baffling break-up that no one saw coming. Furthermore, the splash from his departure could ripple across the rest of the East Division and throughout the entire league, depending on where he ends up.