‘St. Louis was all in’ – UFL leader Daryl Johnston speaks on Battlehawks and new merger

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ST. LOUIS – St. Louis football fans start the new year with a nice surprise. The St. Louis Battlehawks will officially return for their third spring football season in five years.

The Battlehawks are one of eight teams in the newly-formed United Football League, which follows a merger between the XFL and USFL spring football leagues. League officials announced the merger on New Year’s Day.

Last year, St. Louis shattered an XFL and professional spring football league attendance record by packing more than 38,000 fans in their home opener. The Battlehawks went 7-3 and helped more than a dozen players earn NFL tryouts.

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When it came time to make decisions for the merger, UFL executive Daryl Johnston says keeping a team in St. Louis was a key choice.

“I love the fact that St. Louis was all in when the XFL was back for its second opportunity [last year],” said Johnston in a Zoom call with media members on Wednesday. “They demonstrated week in and week out at those home games just how much they embraced the spring football element.”

Johnston, a former fullback with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys for 11 seasons, is the Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the UFL. It’s a similar role to one he had when the USFL was revived in 2022.

Johnston says St. Louis’ football history, both of recent and the past, made it an appealing market for a UFL team.

“We understand the St. Louis community lost the Rams and how devastating that is,” said Johnston. “We’ve seen that a number of times in the NFL where a franchise picks up and leaves that host city and how frustrating it is for the fanbase.”

He continued, “I think everybody had their eye on St. Louis. … You can think this is the best place for you to be, but when you actually show up there, the support that St. Louis provided for the Battlehawks, then it’s a whole different thing. … We’ve seen it a number of times in different cities where spring football has come in and it hasn’t been able to sustain itself and stay. I think that St. Louis was one of the ones that really picked it up right away and got behind it again wholeheartedly. I think that was the most impressive thing for me.”

With six of eight UFL teams located in the central time zone, St. Louis also made plenty of sense for a team geographically.

“The biggest thing is to be financially sustainable as well as draw that interest with the fanbase. When you talk about that geographical location, that’s helpful,” said Johnston.

He adds there was “nothing intentional” with how the markets were selected, “but probably in the back of everybody’s mind [was] being smart about it from a budget standpoint and really understanding how much better rivalries are when there are proximities to the city. There’s already a chip on the shoulder for both sides that want bragging rights at the end of the game.”

St. Louis’ closest opponent will be the Memphis Showboats of the USFL Conference, approximately four hours away. San Antonio will serve as a market for the Battlehawks’ training camp, which will begin in the middle of February.

The Battlehawks are planning to open their season on March 30, and Anthony Becht will return as head coach for the second straight season. Rosters and schedules have not yet been released.

Johnston hopes the merger will also improve ties between the NFL and the professional spring football scene.

“The number of people we have at the top of our league office that have connections to the NFL, I’m hoping we’re able to accelerate that process and have meaningful conversations with the NFL about what our league can provide,” said Johnston.

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“I had a number of head coaches [and a] number of coordinators say, ‘Hey, you guys have to keep grinding. You guys have to make sure this thing is sustainable, because we need you. We need the ability for our players to come down and play in your league, or for us to come down to your league, find players and bring them up that have actually been at game speed.'”

“I don’t want us to be considered a developmental league or a feeder league. We’re a professional, stand-alone football league. What we’re trying to do is maximize the talent and quality of play in our league. One way we can do that is having access to guys who are in the NFL, on that fringe, on that cusp.”

Johnston says St. Louis has set the bar high for the upcoming season.

“Our players from the USFL are excited to get into a stadium like St. Louis,” said Johnston. “We’ve never had what St. Louis has had [in terms of attendance]. Our guys are excited because they want to be in front of people. They want to feel the energy from the crowd, they want to tap into that.”


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