Loud spectators revel in Washington’s franchise rumble to the top of the XFL

If there was one thing DC Defenders games were best known for until the XFL collapsed three years ago at the onset of the pandemic, it was the beer queue — the sprawling, fan-created tradition of stacking beer mugs row after row of the stadiums.

And now that the Spring Football League is back for its third edition, so is the resident reptile at Audi Field. With a few modifications.

Fans are now only allowed to form the line in two sections of the stadium and are encouraged to properly dispose of the cups afterwards. But that “code of conduct” hasn’t stopped a rough and tumble atmosphere from spreading for the XFL’s hottest team.

The defenders are unbeaten in six games and top the table in the eight-team league. But perhaps even more telling is that people actually show up to watch: At Audi Field’s 20,000-seat arena, the Defenders draw an average of 13,116 fans per game — the third-highest mark in the XFL. That’s behind only the St. Louis Battlehawks (37,089) and the San Antonio Brahmas (18,760).

“Just looking at the atmosphere there, I mean, it’s incredible,” said Defenders quarterback Jordan Ta’amu after Monday’s 37-26 win over the Houston Roughnecks. “We can’t do it without (her). We love DC. We love the fans. We love people. It’s a great city to be a part of.”

Ta’amu is like many players who ended up in the XFL: he wants to keep his football career alive. The 25-year-old has had brief stints in the NFL with the Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions, Washington Commanders and Carolina Panthers, but has not appeared in a regular season or on a 53-man roster.

Ta’amu is not even an unknown quantity in emerging football leagues. Before joining the Defenders, he spent time with the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits and the XFL 2.0’s St. Louis Battlehawks. (And in a hilariously fun fact, he’s the passer who actually defeated former Commanders starter Taylor Heinicke in the 2020 St. Louis quarterback contest.)

It remains to be seen whether this version will prevail in the long term. The second iteration of the XFL ceased operations due to the pandemic and filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter. But in August 2020, an investment group led by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson bought the league’s rights for $15 million and was determined to bring the XFL back.

Despite strong participation in the district and elsewhere, there are challenges. XFL television ratings are down by more than a million viewers from the league that ran in 2020 – from nearly 1.8 million viewers per game to 656,900 in Week 5.

In an interview with USA Today, Johnson said the situations weren’t “apples to apples.” The 2020 version of the XFL, for example, didn’t have to compete with the NCAA tournament – which was canceled this year because of the pandemic. This year’s edition also features games that will air at later times than the previous iteration. This XFL has a different television package where games are broadcast on ESPN, ABC and FX instead of ESPN, ABC and Fox.

“We’re keeping a close eye on these things,” Johnson said. “And you have to.”

Johnson claimed the league was in no danger of collapsing. His business partner and ex-wife Dany Garcia said that 2024 will “definitely” have an XFL season.

“That’s not one and done,” Johnson said. “It’s not, ‘Let’s expand the portfolio, make some money and get out of the game.’ This is truly a passion project that dates back to when we were kids coming out of the University of Miami.”

The XFL may never be a behemoth like the NFL, but it does offer an alternative for fans who miss the league, which is currently not in season. Or in a city like the district, the XFL can also be a replacement for those who have long had enough of their NFL team. At the Defenders’ first home game of the season, a loud “F – Dan Snyder” chant was heard around the stadium as fans expressed their frustration at the Commanders’ owner.

Defender season ticket holder Christian Rautenstrauch recalled that there is a father and son in his section who are “so frustrated” with the commanders. And there’s another Washington fan who’s fed up and is now declaring himself a “Defenders guy,” Rautenstrauch said.

“It just felt like everyone bought in (for the defenders), you know?” Rautenstrauch said. “It was a league that people didn’t have to buy into. It’s a new league, nobody has a Defenders history. And everyone just showed up and said we’re going to give it our all here.

Of course, besides the apathy towards the commanders, there are other factors that have contributed to the rise of the defenders.

Winning definitely helps.

Steve Doman, who co-hosts a Defenders-themed podcast with Rautenstrauch, noted the accessibility and newness of Audi Field, which opened in 2018 near Nationals Park at Navy Yard.

Tickets average around $40 apiece, and games whiz along with minimal disruption to the clock.

“Our fans, it’s a real blessing,” said Defenders coach Reggie Barlow. “I am honored that we have the opportunity to train in this arena. It’s a beautiful arena. You can tell these fans aren’t just passionate about soccer, but DC fans are passionate about all of their sports.

The support has helped defenders feel welcome in the district – even though most of the players and coaches don’t live in the area. As part of the reinvigorated XFL, all eight teams are based at the league’s headquarters in Arlington, Texas during the weekdays and then fly to each city on the weekend of a game.

In the meantime, however, the Defenders won’t play back in the District until April 16 in a lunchtime game against the Arlington Renegades. First up is a two-game road trip against the Orlando Guardians (Sunday) and the Seattle Sea Dragons (April 9).

But when they return, the Cylinder Cups will slide up the North End Zone bleachers from the base of the steep section to within a few rows of the top.

“I’m just happy that the fans are happy,” Ta’amu said, and we’ll keep growing this beer line.”

Source : www.washingtontimes.com

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