The region’s new XFL team will play its home opener Sunday in downtown St. Louis at the Dome at America’s Center.
The St. Louis BattleHawks have already split two games on the road, but fans are enthusiastic and ready to see their team take the home field after months of planning.
In 2018, St. Louis was announced as one of the XFL cities, and shortly after, Kurt Hunzeker was named team president. His mission: to sell professional football in a market that two National Football League teams have left.
The Rams bolted back to Los Angeles in 2015, and the Cardinals left for Phoenix in 1988.
“Obviously, we're cognizant of St. Louis' pro football past. And that was exactly why immediately we didn't even want to dwell on it,” Hunzeker said.
“You don't want to pick the scab. You don't want to itch the scar tissue."
Plenty of those wounds have been inflicted by Rams owner Stan Kroenke. He remains a villain for many of the region’s football fans five years after his team moved on. In the relocation application to the NFL, Kroenke knocked St. Louis, describing it as struggling and lacking the economic drivers to support professional football.
Hunzeker said he regards St. Louis as a big opportunity.
“What we are hoping to promote and showcase in the community as an active role in this is that it is an unbelievable football town. And the past is the past,” he added.
The team has been downplaying that history while appealing to football fans through TV and online ads, as well as sponsorship deals with well-known companies in the region including SSM Health and Anheuser-Busch.
There are early signs that the strategy is paying off. Local TV ratings for the BattleHawks' first two games have been strong, and this weekend’s home opener is approaching a sellout. The BattleHawks plan to use only the lower bowl of the Dome, making capacity 28,000.
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The area’s diehard football fans seem to have embraced the team. New BattleHawks fans have been gathering over the past few months for happy hours held at bars throughout the region, where the team’s battle cry “Ka Kaw” is often heard.
Hundreds braved the elements on a wet winter night to gather at Anheuser-Busch Biergarten at the historic brewery to learn about the team and talk football, including 76-year-old Lois Linton, who is also known as Mother Hawk.
“Well, I love football. I'm a football fanatic. Have been all my life,” Linton said. “My aunt told me years ago it's just in our blood."
The Metro East resident attended Cardinals and Rams games years ago and believes the BattleHawks can fill a football void in the region.
“I like to be there in the Dome. You can't replace it by watching it on TV,” she said.
Another fan in the crowd, Mike Cokenour has been quick to jump on the bandwagon and buy season tickets for a couple of reasons.
“Combination of missing football and also as a little bit of a nudge to the NFL that St. Louis is a great football town,” the O’Fallon, Illinois, resident said.
This is not the first go-around for the XFL. The original version lasted one season in the early 2000s. The brainchild of professional wrestling promoter Vince McMahon focused more on a rebel-type atmosphere at the games and on TV instead of the on-field product.
This time around, the league insists the game is the priority.
“I think they’ve done a good job of focusing on football as opposed to more of the WWE-type style that they did previously,” Cokenour said, adding, “There’s some skepticism and I understand it, but I think they are in it for the long haul.”
The local connection the team is counting on extends to the field. Three players on the BattleHawks roster grew up in the region. Dewayne Hendrix is from O’Fallon, Illinois, and Brian Wallace and Brian Folkerts are both from Florissant.
“I think St. Louis has been missing part of its soul since the Rams left,” Folkerts said after a recent practice in Earth City, where the BattleHawks use the old Rams practice facility.
“If we can come up and kind of fill that void, it would be nice.”
Along with growing up in the region, Folkerts was on the Rams roster when the team left for Los Angeles. He’s been hearing from buddies and relatives for months in the buildup to this Sunday’s home opener.
“My friends from high school are messaging me saying, 'When are you going to get us tickets?'” Folkerts said.
His high school friends are joining plenty of other football diehards throughout the region, hoping the BattleHawks and XFL will be here for the long run.
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