WASHINGTON — Fans crowded outside Audi Field two hours before kickoff Saturday morning, forming long lines at the stadium’s gates so they could be the first to grab their seats and get a glimpse of what warmups look like in the XFL. In the streets around the venue, cars were bumper-to-bumper in traffic, as a bevy of fans made their way to the XFL’s inaugural game.
When kickoff approached, spectators had almost filled up the stands. Home fans were ready to support the DC Defenders before watching them play, booing the Dragons when they sprinted onto the field.
While many spectators didn’t know what to expect from the XFL’s first game, Saturday provided a glimpse of what the game — and fanbase — could look like. The stadium remained full and the teams pulled off a handful of highlight plays as the Defenders beat the Dragons 31-19.
“It was awesome,” Dragons quarterback Brandon Silvers said. “Being in here, it’s a soccer stadium, but it looked damn good as a football stadium. They definitely got a nice home crowd for them. It just sucks we didn’t come in here and get the win.”
Audi Field, which has a capacity of 20,000 and usually hosts D.C. United, welcomed 17,163 fans. There were lots of eyes on the game across the country, too, as ABC broadcast it.
The XFL made its first attempt to fill a perceived hole in the NFL offseason in 2001, but poor attendance and TV ratings forced the league to shut down after a season. With the Super Bowl last Sunday, the XFL, under WWE CEO Vince McMahon, made its return Saturday with two games.
“The first XFL 2020 game was probably one fans really enjoyed,” said Dragons coach Jim Zorn, who starred at quarterback for the Seahawks between 1976-84. “Our players enjoyed it even though we came out on the short end.”
Fans saw the league’s new rules in action from the opening kickoff, as Defenders kicker Hunter Niswander roamed the 30-yard line by himself to kick off. His teammates lined up at the opposite 35-yard line, and the return team lined up at the 30-yard line. The teams couldn’t move until Dragons returner Keenan Reynolds caught the ball.
The overall gameplay was similar to the NFL’s style. In the first quarter, Dragons wide receiver Austin Proehl cut across the middle of the field, and Silvers connected with him for the league’s first touchdown. But the Dragons (0-1) lined up on the 2-yard line to attempt a one-point conversion.
Kicking plays are prohibited on extra points in the XFL, and teams have the option of running a play from the 2, 5 or 10-yard line worth one, two or three points, respectively. Zorn, who coached in the NFL between 1997 and 2012, said making those decisions was one of the biggest differences from the NFL.
Other changes included the on-field interviews and microphones on coaches during the broadcast, which the XFL implemented to try to attract fans. Zorn joked he’ll give players wristbands that include his plays going forward so foes don’t know his playcalls.
“It’s definitely different,” Proehl said. “After you score a touchdown or make a big play or whatever it may be, I think it’s fun to kind of go over there and celebrate with your teammates. You’re not really expecting to have cameras. … I think it’s a good addition to this league. I think it makes it fun.”
While there’s usually a running game clock in the XFL, the clock stops more often after the two-minute warning to encourage comebacks. The Dragons had a final drive, but Silvers left with an apparent injury in the final two minutes, and backup B.J. Daniels couldn’t convert a fourth down. Silvers said postgame he feels fine.
Dragons players are eager to see the atmosphere next Saturday, when they play the Tampa Bay Vipers at CenturyLink Field, which has a capacity of more than 69,000.
“We know we have great fans waiting on us in Seattle, but we didn’t know really what was going on coming in here,” Silvers said. “It was a great turnout. We play for the fans even if you go on the road. We don’t want to play when no one’s in the stadium.”