DC Proper Finally Has Its Own Professional Football Team
The XFL is back. Again, again. (So is the beer snake.)
Week 1 of the 2023 XFL season is in the books. The good news: The Rock’s professional football league looks quite a bit like XFL 2.0, the 2020 version that was actually doing quite well until a global pandemic. On Sunday night at the D.C. Defenders’ home opener, the most obvious difference between the 2.0 and 3.0 versions of not-the-NFL was the highly visible marketing of the league’s official liquor and energy drink sponsors, Teremana Tequila and ZOA Energy Drink. Both were prominently showcased on the scoreboards throughout the night. Both are owned by Dwayne Johnson.
For a team, and a league, that’s essentially made up of unknown and overlooked players, the Defenders seem to have carried over a lot of goodwill and enthusiasm from their last game, played nearly three years ago. Audi Field, a stadium built for Major League Soccer’s D.C. United, was roughly 75% full for the duration of the game. For better or worse, enthusiasm never waned. The source of that enthusiasm may be an issue.
Until the Defenders’ Michael Joseph’s pick-six in the third quarter, the biggest crowd reaction was for The Rock, and the loudest chants were for the beer snake. Johnson and fellow XFL owners Dany Garcia (Johnson’s ex-wife and current global strategic advisor! What an interesting relationship!) and Gerry Cardinale of RedBird Capital appeared on the Jumbotron midway through the second quarter. The beer snake, and the pros and cons of constructing a beer snake, almost became the story of the night.
The beer snake made its first appearance during the 2020 Defenders home games. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Fans collect used plastic cups to make a giant snake. (If you’re not familiar, whatever you’re imagining is likely not as magnificent as the actual thing.) On Sunday, the snake was picking up momentum when Johnson and friends made their appearance. By the third quarter, security was confiscating the plastic reptile, and the XFL was quickly becoming the No Fun League. Then some fans decided to make lemonade out of lemons, which in this case means that they threw actual lemons on the field. Enough lemons to pause the game. Enough lemons to make the announcers on ESPN acknowledge the fruit and the confiscated beer snake.
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Soon after, Joseph made the aforementioned interception and runback, cutting the Defenders’ deficit to four, and the crowd in the end zone erupted like this was a playoff football victory. This was not a crowd just there for novelty. This was a crowd that wanted a quality D.C. football team. And a beer snake.
Other than the stadium soundtrack (Saliva, Disturbed, Limp Bizkit, Metallica, Undertaker’s gong before every third down for the Seattle Sea Dragons), nothing about XFL 3.0 was reminiscent of XFL 1.0. Initially marketed in 2000 as a real-life version of NFL Blitz meets Mutant Football League, the on-field product of the XFL this time around is more akin to the meat-and-potatoes football Johnson glorifies in Ballers. It’s the football equivalent of the NBA’s G League, a collection of athletes who are very good — occasionally maybe even good enough for the big-big leagues.
The most surprising aspect of this iteration of the XFL might be the lack of surrounding pomp and circumstance. Other than a brief appearance by the most successful professional wrestler of all time, there was nothing special about Sunday night at Audi Field. Maybe that’s the point. There was no halftime show. Instead, fans were treated to the kickers from both teams attempting field goals in extremely windy conditions for 10 minutes. (Halftime is only 10 minutes! Great!) Local high schools have more colors and logos on the field than the only professional football team in D.C. proper. It appears that this XFL just wants to be known for their on-field product. That might be enough.
We know of The Rock because of what he did in the WWE. Yes, he was a college football player at the University of Miami and a professional football player in the CFL, but if that’s all he did, there’s no XFL 3.0. Yet the tie between this league and pro wrestling is almost nonexistent. None of the merchandise, both officially licensed inside the stadium and the bootleg stuff sold outside, tied Johnson’s wrestling persona to this league. There’s no hint of Vince McMahon’s idea of football. Players choosing their own names for jersey backs (I saw a few fans in Rod Smart’s immortal HE HATE ME jerseys) is gone. The new rules actually make the game safer — the kickoff rule makes for safer but arguably less exciting play — and 3.0 is very, very different from 1.0. It’s even more polished than 2.0, and 2.0 was working just fine until that pesky pandemic. So I would not bet against this thing working, and I would never bet against The Rock. I would bet against the availability of lemons at the next Defenders game.
Oh yeah, and this game, and two of the other XFL games this weekend, had really exciting endings. The Defenders sneaked this one out with a 22-18 victory over the Seattle Sea Dragons, and the crowd went home happy. That’ll help.
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