To understand the power of the XFL bringing football back to St. Louis, I think it’s important to take a look at the 60 year buildup that led to such a special moment.
The Beginning (1960-1987)
Our story of St. Louis football begins in 1960 with the Chicago Cardinals. The team had been battling the Bears for Chicago’s market share for some time, and they were losing badly. With the St. Louis market ripe for the taking, the team took the opportunity and made the move south. During their tenure in St. Louis the team was commonly known as the “Big Red,” or less creatively, the “Football Cardinals” as to avoid confusion with the baseball team. The Cardinals were competitive for many of their early years in St. Louis, fighting vigorously for a playoff spot under the leadership of Charley Johnson. Despite several winning records in the 60s the Cardinals never made the playoffs, sparking a trend that would become all so familiar in St. Louis. In 1964, the Big Red actually considered making a move to Atlanta, but were convinced to stay with the promise of a new stadium. This would not be the last time the Cardinals would make such a move, and the next time the city of St. Louis would not be so lucky.
The Big Red Bails (1988)
After 28 years of mediocrity, posting no playoff wins with just three appearances, the Cardinals took off and flew to Arizona. The Cardinals consistent lack of success and mediocrity had led to decreased fan turnout. This decline in attendance, along with the aging Busch Memorial Stadium, prompted then owner Bill Bidwill to seek greener pastures. As a result of heavy backlash from diehard fans, Bidwill refrained from attending several of the team’s last home games in St. Louis. After the season was over, fans could only watch in disgust as the Gridbirds packed up their bags for good. For the first time since 1960, St. Louis was without football. The first of many waits had begun.
The Dome and the Ghost Team (1988-1993)
With the Cardinals leaving for Arizona, St. Louis found itself without a football team. With calls to re-enter the league, the city put together a stadium proposal to attract an expansion franchise. That stadium, later known as The Dome at America’s Center, would come to host the 2005 Final Four, professional soccer matches, concerts, and even religious conferences. In 1991, the city of St. Louis petitioned for an expansion franchise, known as the Stallions, to enter the NFL. With people confident in the proposal, construction for the Dome began in 1992. Things seemed bright for the future of football in St. Louis. Just as the hype was building up, all hope disintegrated. The NFL announced that Charlotte and Jacksonville would receive teams instead. The seemingly inevitable St. Louis Stallions evaporated in an instant, becoming nothing more than a memory. The Stallions had seemed so inevitable in fact, that merchandise had already been made for the team. With the franchise going kaput, everything had to go; including tens of thousands of t-shirts, which were destroyed. Despite local support and a state-of-the-art stadium, St. Louis would have to wait a bit longer for more football.
Searching For a Tennant (1992-1994)
Despite the Stallions being sent to the glue factory, there was high demand for football in St. Louis, and businessmen were ready to spend. With their sleek new stadium under construction, St. Louis had heavy leverage over cities with existing teams. They just needed an owner to reach out. It seems unthinkable today with all that’s happened over the last 20 years, but the team that answered the call was none other than the New England Patriots. St. Louis native James Orthwein, who had acquired the Patriots from former owner Victor Kiam, was determined to bring the team to his home city. The St. Louis Patriots would have become a reality had it not been for Foxboro Stadium owner Robert Kraft who kept the team in New England by refusing to budge on the established stadium lease. Unable to relocate the team, the disgruntled Orthwein sold the team to Kraft. Seemingly cursed as Tantalus was to food and water, the Patriots had been snatched away from St. Louis at arm’s reach.
The Wait Is Over (1995)
After nearly a decade of impatient waiting, the NFL finally had a team for St. Louis’ football faithful. The Los Angeles Rams, a team that was facing hardship both on and off the field, was looking for a stadium deal with the city of LA. After a series of losing seasons, fan attendance had fallen off a cliff, and playing at the dated Anaheim Stadium wasn’t helping things either. The Rams situation in 1995 is eerily similar to how it was 20 years later, save for one key difference as will soon be discussed. Unable to work anything out with Los Angeles, Rams owner Georgia Frontiere made the fateful decision to relocate the team to her home city of St. Louis. The near finished Dome and football-hungry public were enticing enough to enter The Gateway to the West, and the St. Louis Rams were in business.
The Greatest Show on Turf and Decline (1995-2010)
Out of the numerous football teams St. Louis has seen throughout the years, it’s hard to find one that could compete with the appropriately named Greatest Show on Turf. Led at the helm by Kurt Warner, a grocer turned Hall of Fame quarterback, the Rams saw a complete turnaround from their first few years of mediocrity. Warner along with Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and other notable stars went on to play in two championship games, winning Super Bowl 34 in dramatic fashion. Unfortunately for St. Louis, that was all they would get from the Rams. Though they made it back to the Super Bowl two years later, they lost, and proceeded to start a seemingly never-ending series of losing seasons. As the years went by, The Greatest Show on Turf continued to fall apart, eventually leaving the city with nothing but a shell of the team’s former glory. Things got so bad for the Rams that they only won six games in a three-year stretch. As the stars left so did the fans, and ownership had become displeased with the team’s relationship with the city. Enter Stan Kroenke.
Kroenke’s Lust for Money (2010-2016)
After the passing of Georgia Frontiere in 2008, full ownership passed on to billionaire Stan Kroenke. In an interview he took in 2010, Kroenke tried to quell any rumors of relocation. “I’m going to attempt to do everything I can to keep the Rams in St. Louis.” “There’s a track record,” Kroenke said. “I’ve always stepped up for pro football in St. Louis. And I’m stepping up one more time.” Despite the team’s continued lackluster performance on the field, he was unhappy with the Rams’ low attendance. In complete contrast to what he promised in his interview, Kroenke eyed potential relocation. By 2014, St. Louis fans were starting to become nervous. Kroenke had just announced his purchase of 60 acres of land in Inglewood, California. Ownership insisted that the land was not going to be used for a stadium, with Rams COO Kevin Demoff stating, “I promise you Stan is looking at lots of pieces of land around the world right now and none of them are for football stadiums.”
While continuing to say otherwise, Kroenke was taking advantage of the team’s contract with the city, which stated that the Dome had to be ranked as a top-ten stadium in the NFL. The Dome was most certainly not a top-ten stadium, with St. Louis fans ranking it as one of the worst venues in the league. This effectively gave the Rams the right to leave, with Kroenke brazenly announcing his plan to build a 80,000 seat stadium on his Inglewood property. The city of St. Louis countered Kroenke’s plan with their own proposal. Known as National Car Rental Field, the 60,000 seat stadium would be situated on the St. Louis riverfront and was projected to cost over a billion dollars. This was a heavy price tag for such a small city, and it would have been one of the top 10 most expensive stadiums in the world. This wasn’t good enough for Kroenke and the NFL, who stated that the proposed venue was outside of the agreed-upon lease and could not prevent the Rams from leaving. The Rams played their last game in St. Louis on December 17, 2015 in which they beat Tampa Bay 31-23. To local outrage, they announced their departure soon afterwards. St. Louis felt cheated and lied to. They had been assured that the team wouldn’t leave, and when the Rams did threaten to relocate, they had given them a proper stadium proposal. The weary Dome fell empty as its tenant packed its bags for the last time.
With the untimely departure of the Rams, another desperate longing for football took hold of St. Louis, a void that could only be satiated through the return of a team. Years went by without news. There was speculation that the newly founded AAF might bring the city a franchise, but that hope never materialized. Just as all hope seemed lost however, a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. A failed business venture from 17 years prior, Vince McMahon’s XFL was on the minds of few to no one. That wouldn’t be the case for long, with a seemingly spontaneous announcement that the league would return in 2020, along with football in St. Louis. After years of waiting, The Gateway to the West would finally get their team, and the city’s anticipation and excitement cannot be understated. Months later, the XFL’s team names were revealed. The name local fans would become oh so accustomed to? The St. Louis Battlehawks.
The Rapid Rise of the Battlehawks (2020)
Fans wasted no time in making acquaintance with their team. St. Louis found itself on top of the league in social media following, merchandise sales, and later in season ticket holders and attendance. The Battlehawks also quickly found their team’s identity, fans rallying around the infamous cries of “KaKaw!” In the Battlehawks’ home opener, the lower bowl was jam-packed, enthusiasm was through the roof, and there was enough energy to power the city. Attendance for the game reached a record setting 30,000 fans, and it could have been considerably higher if the stadium’s upper bowl seats were available.
The next week produced similar results, Battlehawks fans rocking the dome with electric cheers in the team’s hard-fought victory against Seattle. Regarding the team’s PR success, team president Kurt Hunzeker said, “The reality is so much better than you could dream. I didn’t really understand how much St. Louis wanted to embrace pro football, and specifically a homegrown pro football team.” When inquired about the influence the departed Rams had on fans showing up to games, Kurt responded, “…I grew up in St. Louis and when the football Cardinals left that was like a piece of me leaving. What we didn’t want to do is come in and start scratching the scar tissue, we wanted to come in and be very positive…and St. Louis has really rallied behind that positivity.”
The Battlehawks’ fan base was no joke, and they had a team they could truly be proud of. Quarterback Jordan Ta’amu had stellar performances in nearly all of his starts, reinforcing his reputation and his nickname as the Throwin’ Samoan. The young talent took firm control over the games he played with his explosive receiving core, notably L’Damian Washington, De’Mornay Pierson-El and Alonzo Russel. St. Louis also thrived off of the running game, veteran running backs Matt Jones and Christine Michael making the league’s top ten list in rushing yards. Even Marquette King and Taylor Russolino, the Battlehawks’ punter and kicker made a splash, posting impressive numbers under deafening shouts of “BOOM” for King and “BANG” for Russolino. The Battlehawks also made their mark defensively, Will Hill was a frontrunner for tackles, Andrew Ankrah for sacks, and Kenny Robinson in interceptions. In every game the they played, opponents felt the force of the energetic and dynamic Battlehawks, a team St. Louis could sincerely rally behind.
The Rapid Fall of the Battlehawks (2020)
The Battlehawks were absolutely crushing it in St. Louis. The football was excellent, the fans were loud and proud, and things looked bright for the future. What could go wrong? A lot, actually. It was easy to ignore at first, but in just a couple of months it was practically everywhere, both in the news and on the streets. It was the Covid-19 pandemic. Debate on whether the 2020 season would be cancelled was commonplace in XFL circles, and people’s worries soon materialized. In fact, what happened was worse than most people had feared. Not only was the season canceled, but the entire league went under as a result of the virus. The Cardinals took off, the Stallions trotted away, the Patriots capitulated, the Rams head-butted the city to the ground and the Battlehawks caught coronavirus. The history of St. Louis football rots of missed opportunities, broken promises and just plain bad luck. That’s where things stand today.
Hope for the Future
Though it seemed unlikely that spring football and the XFL would ever return, fate had something else in mind. Hollywood star and multimillionaire Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who interestingly did promos for the XFL back in 2001, made the decision to co-purchase the league with RedBird Capital Partners. Though details regarding the future of the league are scarce, it’s clear that The Rock is heavily committed to the league and with his brand recognition it’s hard to see the future as anything but bright. Football will be back in St. Louis, and hopefully this time it’s here to stay.