The inaugural DC Defenders game at Audi Field
The inaugural DC Defenders game at Audi Field Credit: Aman Kidwai

D.C. sports fans showed up in force—over 17,000 strong—to watch the DC Defenders defeat the Seattle Dragons, 31-19, on Saturday afternoon for what was the inaugural game of the newest professional football venture: Vince McMahon‘s rebooted XFL.

The wrestling mogul previously launched the league in 2001 but it folded after just one season. This time, McMahon is taking a different approach. With a focus on developing a quicker, more offense-centric version of the sport, rather than purely gimmicks, the league made an impressive debut in its opening weekend. It also helps to have ESPN, Fox Sports, and ABC as broadcasting partners. According to the Sports Business Journal‘s Austin Karp, ABC’s XFL games this past weekend averaged 3.3 million viewers.

Saturday’s game at Audi Field also attracted people from all over the D.C. region, and for a variety of reasons. 

“Poetic justice,” Ron Watkins, 71, a long time district resident told City Paper as the game was winding down, enjoying that D.C. was handing Jim Zorn a loss. Zorn was back in town as the Dragons head coach. He last spent time in the area as the head coach of the Washington NFL team before being fired after two seasons with a 12-20 record.

Watkins, a Howard University graduate, voiced his support for fellow Howard alumnus Pep Hamilton, D.C.’s head coach, and for there being a pro football team located in D.C. after the NFL franchise moved to Maryland in 1997.

“This is electric to be able to come back and have D.C. have a true home team,” Watkins said.

Other fans cited their football fandom as a reason for attending. The announced crowd of 17,163 booed Seattle during warm-ups and cheered for a winning football team. They watched as ESPN reporter Dianna Russini chased down players to interview during the game.

“I’m not originally from the area and I’m way more likely to come out to a game here than Landover, Maryland,” said a 30-year-old fan named James.

“The environment has been the best part of the day, way better than I expected,” added Gabriel, 28. “I’m coming back next week, for sure … and the people behind us were saying they’re coming back next week too.”

For the league, its coaches, and players, the weekend was the culmination of two years of preparation which included staffing up front offices, holding tryouts, drafting teams, mini-camp, a preseason session where all eight teams traveled to Houston, and then practicing for a game with rules different than the NFL and the college game.

“Traditionally you have enough film on the opponent … that you’re able to come up with plays to attack some of the things you saw on film,” Hamilton said in his post-game press conference. “It was truly a feeling out process.”

Hamilton could count on quarterback Cardale Jones against Seattle. The former Ohio State star threw for 235 yards and two touchdowns as he completed 16 of 26 attempts while dealing with pressure in the pocket.

In the first quarter, Jones completed two consecutive passes for a first down on third-and-long. The crowd began chanting “M-V-P” for the Defenders’ signal caller. He hit former Washington NFL receiver Rashad Ross for a 31-yard touchdown on fourth-and-6 for the game’s go-ahead score and also tossed a 39-yard score to Khari Lee on a trick play in the third quarter for the Defenders’ first offensive touchdown.

“I had a good idea of what type of quarterback we had,” Hamilton said. “Of all our guys, there’s more evidence of how well Cardale can play in big games, in pressure packed situations.”

But true to the franchise’s name, it was their defensive efforts which boosted them to victory on Saturday. Elijah Campbell blocked a punt which Jonathan Celestin recovered in the end zone for the Defenders’ first touchdown of the day and Alabama product Bradley Sylve returned an interception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal the win. 

Hardcore football fans kept an eye on the quality of play and the new rules, which included tweaks to punts and kickoffs as well as a new set of options for the point after touchdown and an emphasis on faster pace of play, with the league stating a goal of keeping games under three hours.

And fans at home watching on TV had the added benefit of hearing mic’d up coaches, interviews with players in the middle of the action, and listening in on the referees as they deliberated replay reviews. While the quality of play is clearly not the same as the NFL, the XFL is giving Defenders players another chance to play the game they love.

“At the end of the day it’s still professional football, still playing with amazing players. These guys are getting paid to play football,” Jones said. “[The] only thing different is we’re playing a different time of year.”

Week 1 provided a nice start for the league and the Defenders, and Hamilton only expects his team to get better once everyone gets more familiar with the new rules. On Saturday, the fans in D.C. played their part.

“I thought it was a great atmosphere, our energy was great,” Hamilton said. “D.C. is a great sports town … We wanna give them a reason to come back out and support our football team.”