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St. Louis football fans are hyped for Battlehawks 2.0

Members of the St. Louis Battlehawks celebrate a win
Lindsey Wasson
The St. Louis Battlehawks celebrate a win against the Seattle Sea Dragons on Feb. 23 at Lumen Field in Seattle.

The “Kaw Kaw" battle cry was a familiar sound during the XFL’s first go-round in St. Louis.

It’s back this weekend in the first big test for another professional team trying to prove the city is a viable football market.

The Battlehawks return to the Dome at America’s Center after a three-year, pandemic-caused absence. A lot has happened since 2020.

The league went bankrupt, and teams folded. An investor group led by former pro football player, wrestler and current actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson bought the XFL’s remains, and executives decided to relaunch a team in St. Louis.

The business model is different now. Instead of training in Earth City as they did three years ago, the Battlehawks, like the other XFL squads, are working out in Texas to save money. The players will only be in St. Louis when they are flown in for home games.

Parachuting in for games and not having a local training camp means missed chances to connect with fans, but some in the region are still convinced pro football will finally stick.

St. Louis Battlehawks Quarterback A.J. McCarron signs an autograph for a young fan on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023,  at The Armory in Midtown.
Wayne Pratt
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Battlehawks quarterback A.J. McCarron signs an autograph for a young fan on Jan. 21 at the Armory in Midtown.

“I don’t think there’s going to be anything else that’s going to interrupt it,” said longtime St. Louis football fan Lois Linton.

It will take more than another pandemic to keep the fan, affectionately known as Mother Hawk, away from home games. “If we have another situation like they did with this COVID stuff, I don’t think people are going to pay attention to it,” she said.

St. Louis resident Nick Forstmann on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023, a St. Louis Battlehawks fanfest at The Armory in Midtown.
Wayne Pratt
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis resident Nick Forstmann on Jan. 21 at a St. Louis Battlehawks Fan Fest event at the Armory in Midtown.

Other fans also see the Battlehawks as more than a bunch of people running around on a big patch of grass.

“It’s pride for my city,” said St. Louis resident Nick Forstmann, who was among the hundreds gathered a few weeks ago at the Armory in St. Louis to celebrate the team’s rebirth.

He is supporting the new version of the Battlehawks after cheering for the original squad.

“I was there for the first home game. I was even joining in on the chants about a bad word against Stan Kroenke,” Forstmann recalled.

Kroenke remains public enemy No. 1 for football fans throughout the region. He moved the Rams back to Los Angeles in 2016. The city has lost three professional football teams since 1988, when the Cardinals headed to Arizona.

Legal battles over the Rams’ rejection resulted in personal seat license holdersgetting some money back and a $790 million settlement that is divided among several St. Louis-area interests.The money rings hollow for many in St. Louis who follow the sport.

Brandon Williams calls the region a football breeding ground.

He should know. Williams played in high school at Hazelwood East and spent time with the Rams. He gave up an executive job with Anheuser-Busch to join the Battlehawks as vice president of business and event operations.

“No other city has a story like us around the love affair with football. No other city has lost two teams. No, lost three teams,” he said.

Williams has spent months gathering corporate support and connecting with fans. Both will be important to whether the Battlehawks prove to be a long-term success.

Anthony Becht is drenched while celebrating
Eric Espada
St. Louis Battlehawks head coach Anthony Becht is drenched while celebrating his team's win against the San Antonio Brahmas on Feb. 19 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

There is at least one factor Williams and the rest of the team can’t control: the checkered history of spring football in the U.S. Success has eluded multiple attempts at establishing such a league over the decades.

There are high hopes for this version of the XFL being fronted by one of the biggest box office attractions on the planet. But relying too much on the star power of Dwayne Johnson could be a problem.

“The Rock can’t be all places at all times,” said Patrick Rishe, director of Washington University’s sports business program.

“His energy and his resources with some of his partners, that’s great to get things started. But what are you going to do to make the product sellable?” he added.

 Jaryd Jones-Smith (75) celebrates a win while holding a boombox in the locker room
Howard Lao
St. Louis Battlehawks offensive lineman Jaryd Jones-Smith celebrates a win against the Seattle Sea Dragon on Feb. 23 at Lumen Field in Seattle.

Competition could be another challenge.

The USFL is also a reborn league. Its second season starts next month. Like the XFL, the league has corporate sponsorships and a significant television deal.

Rishe wonders if there is enough interest for that much spring football.

“Maybe in the next couple of years we see which markets in these two leagues are the most successful,” he said. “And then if there is a merger, you see the best-performing markets from the two leagues fusing into one.”

St. Louis is poised to survive any potential merger. The team is expecting a crowd of around 30,000 this weekend, after leading the XFL in average attendance three years ago.

The Battlehawks are holding their own on the field. They are 2-1 in their first three games, with late rallies to win in San Antonio and Seattle.

Their first home game is 3 p.m. Sunday against the Arlington Renegades.

Wayne is the morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.