- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2023

If there was one thing that D.C. Defenders games were known for before the XFL folded three years ago at the start of the pandemic, it was the beer snake — the sprawling, fan-made tradition of stacking beer cups up the rows upon rows of the stadium.

And now that the spring football league is back in its third iteration, so too is the Audi Field’s resident reptile. With a few modifications.

Fans are now only allowed to form the snake in two sections of the stadium and are encouraged to dispose of the cups properly afterward. But that “code of conduct” hasn’t prevented a raucous and joyous atmosphere from taking hold for the XFL’s hottest team. 

Through six games, the Defenders are undefeated and sitting atop the standings in the eight-team league. But perhaps more telling, people are actually showing up to watch: In Audi Field’s 20,000-seat venue, 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 seeing the atmosphere in there, I mean, it’s amazing,” Defenders quarterback Jordan Ta’amu said after Monday’s 37-26 win over the Houston Roughnecks. “We can’t do it without (them). We love D.C. We love the fans. We love the people. It’s a great town to be a part of.”

Ta’amu is like a lot of players who have 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 hasn’t appeared in a regular-game season or made a 53-man roster.

Ta’amu isn’t even a stranger to upstart 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 an extremely fun fact, he’s the passer who actually beat out former Commanders starter Taylor Heinicke in St. Louis’ quarterback competition in 2020.)

Whether this version makes it over the long haul remains to be seen. The XFL’s second iteration ceased operations because of the pandemic and filed for bankruptcy shortly after. 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 once again.

Despite strong attendance in the District and elsewhere, there are challenges. The XFL’s television ratings are down more than a million viewers from the league that ran in 2020 — going from nearly 1.8 million viewers per game to 656,900 as of 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, did not have to compete with the NCAA Tournament — which was canceled that year because of the pandemic. This year’s edition, too, has games that are being broadcast at later times than the previous iteration. This XFL has a different television package in which games are aired on ESPN, ABC and FX rather than ESPN, ABC and Fox. 

“We do keep a close eye on these things,” Johnson said. “And you have to.”

Johnson maintained the league wasn’t in danger of folding. His business partner and ex-wife, Dany Garcia, said there will “absolutely” be an XFL season in 2024.

“This isn’t one-and-done,” Johnson said. “This isn’t ‘let’s expand the portfolio, let’s make a little money and let’s get out of the game.’ This truly is a passion project that has dated back to when we were kids coming out of the University of Miami.”

The XFL may never be a giant like the NFL, but it provides an alternative for fans missing the league that currently isn’t in season. Or in a city like the District, the XFL can also be a substitute for those long fed up with their NFL team. At the Defenders’ first home game this season, a blaring “F — Dan Snyder” chant carried throughout the stadium as fans expressed their frustration with the Commanders owner. 

Defenders season ticket holder Christian Rautenstrauch recalled how in his section, there are a father and son who are “so frustrated” with the Commanders. And there’s another fed-up Washington fan who now declares himself to be a “Defenders guy,” Rautenstrauch said. 

“It just felt like everybody like bought in (to the Defenders), you know?” Rautenstrauch said. “It was a league where people didn’t have to buy in. It’s a new league, nobody’s got a Defenders ‘history.’ And everybody just showed up, and was like, we’re just gonna go all out here.”

There are other factors, of course, besides apathy toward the Commanders that have contributed to the Defenders’ rise. 

The winning certainly 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 in Navy Yard.  

Tickets average about $40 a pop and games zip along thanks to minimal clock stoppages.

“Our fans, it’s a real blessing,” Defenders coach Reggie Barlow said. “I’m humbled that we have an opportunity to coach in this arena. It’s a beautiful arena. You can tell these fans are passionate about not just football, but D.C. fans are passionate about all their sports.

The support has helped the Defenders feel welcome in the District — even if most players and coaches don’t reside in the area. As part of the relaunched XFL, all eight teams are based at the league’s headquarters in Arlington, Texas during the week and then fly into each city the weekend of a game. 

In the meantime, however, the Defenders don’t play again in the District until April 16 in a noon game against the Arlington Renegades. Up first 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 slither up the north end zone stands from the bottom 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’re gonna keep that beer snake growing.”

• George Gerbo can be reached at ggerbo@washingtontimes.com.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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