I’d be fibbing if I told you that I knew, well in advance, that the Battlehawks would be an instant success in St. Louis. A smashing success. A big hit. A sensation.
I wasn’t sure about the XFL. I wasn’t sure about the setup, and the Battlehawks’ plan to generate interest, attract fans, and get the ticket sales moving.
But so far the Battlehawks and XFL have approached this the right way. Battlehawks president Kurt Hunzeker put together a lean, smart, forward-thinking front office operation that has effectively used social media to grow the brand. But it’s important to be out there, giving fans a chance to know you before you ask for their ticket dollars.
The human touch still matters, and the Battlehawks have worked hard to go out and connect with fans, showing up at more than 250 events or social gatherings in the STL area since last summer.
Hunzeker and staff realized that they had to earn trust, respect and loyalty They couldn’t just show up, put tickets online for purchase, and open the doors to the downtown dome.
This town has been treated so poorly by conniving and corrupt hustlers from the NFL and the Rams’ ownership and front office, St. Louis fans were skeptical and downright suspicious.
That was my mindset. I didn’t want to have another football league, and a pro football team, let our city down, crush the spirit of our passionate sports fans, and then just walk away.
We never failed an NFL franchise in St. Louis.
The NFL failed us.
The wounds were deep. The scars were jagged.
Hunzeker’s football missionaries — later joined by coaches and players — merrily headed out in all areas of the St. Louis metro territory to make friends. It didn’t take long. People got fired up about the Battlehawks, embraced the Battlehawks, and are going ga-ga over the Battlehawks. And this new bond grew organically.
And it helps to have a quirky and delightful nickname, excellent team colors and a fantastically fun call to action … Ka-Kaw!
The relationship took hold. Long before the first game was played, the Battlehawks led the XFL in merch sales, and no other market was close. The brisk early pace for tickets put the Battlehawks out in front of the rest of the league for fan-level financial backing. And then the sponsorships rolled in.
The Battlehawks’ rollout — and the fans’ response — has been impressive to watch. It’s just a beautiful thing, especially after the fans endured so much frustration and anger over their shameful treatment by the NFL and the hideous team that took up space here after 2004. A chronically inept team that tanked for reasons that only became clear later. A team that posted the second lowest number of wins in the NFL from 2005 through 2015.
That pollution is being cleaned up by the Battlehawks.
In that context, no one should be surprised by the scene outside the Dome and inside the Dome on Sunday afternoon. The streets around the facility were packed. The lower-bowl seating areas were packed. St. Louis and the Battlehawks locked wings and made a proud entrance.
Pro football’s return to St. Louis was everything we wished for — and then some.
Tailgate parties … marching bands… grown men wearing bird heads, bird-feather body suits, bird wings… cold beer … fans having a good time, taking whacks at a Stan Kroenke pinata … one fan wearing a jersey adorned with a “He Hate Kroenke” for a name. (A play on the famous “He Hate Me” tag used as the identifiable name a jersey by an XFL player in the league’s first go at this, back in 2001.)
A sellout crowd of just under 30,000 … a roaring crowd that hardly sat down … a full-blast crowd that helped their Battlehawks by rattling the New York Guardians with thunderous noise.
The Battlehawks did their part on the field, rollicking to an entertaining 29-9 victory the shaky Guardians.
Of course, the audience was were there to vent the emotional hostility that had increased beyond maximum capacity during the Rams’ final years here. Those anti-Kroenke chants were a primal scream, and a purging.
The hatred was healthy.
It needed to be aired.
But this football house — once the site of “The Greatest Show” until it deteriorated into a House of Horrors — was also filled with abundant affection.
And truth is, many fans were there for both reasons: to rip away at Kroenke and the NFL, and to welcome the Battlehawks with a football-heroes welcome.
Personally, I’m more into the pro-Battlehawks sentiment.
St. Louis doesn’t have to prove a damn thing — not to Kroenke, not to the NFL, and certainly not to the media morons who lazily dismissed this place as a “baseball town” that wouldn’t support football.
St. Louis wouldn’t support rotten football that turned rancid through the decades. And St. Louis was justifiably sick of incompetent and uncaring ownership-management. That’s what the charlatans won’t point out.
Two NFL franchises spent a combined 49 seasons here and produced only 16 winning seasons in all. They made the playoffs a combined eight times in 49 years. And yet: this town, incredibly, was prepared to build a second football stadium in less than 25 years in submission to the NFL’s greed.
If a large percentage of fans want to continue hating on Kroenke, I get it … the intense feelings are still brewing from years of being stuck in an abusive relationship. And I don’t fault anyone for their resentment.
But I won’t permit Kroenke to live in my head, because that only causes more bitterness, and I’d rather have a small victory by keeping that headspace free of toxicity.
Besides: Kroenke doesn’t care, anyway. And while the NFL is tangled in the increasingly menacing St. Louis lawsuits (hee-hee) the league finally got its Los Angeles stadium built, with Uncle Jed Clampett (Kroenke) paying for it all — including the massive overruns that will drive the final construction price to $5 billion. The initial project cost estimate was $2.66 billion.
What I’m saying is, I’d rather love the Battlehawks than hate on Kroenke. Yes, it’s possible to do both. But as this new franchise moves forward, I’d rather celebrate this fresh-and-fun XFL band’s arrival and focus entirely on a positive new relationship instead of wasting the juju on a departed scoundrel.
That’s just me; you can do as you wish.
All I know is this …
What we witnessed Sunday was the latest in an extensive sequence of examples: if you are a team, a player, or a franchise owner, St. Louis sports fans will love you as long as you love them back.
The Battlehawks get it.
Others did not.
Thanks for reading …