A Unique Pro Football Experience: A Fan’s Perspective of a D.C. Defenders Game

This past Sunday, I was lucky enough to make it out to the DC Defenders vs. St. Louis Battlehawks UFL game at Audi Field in Washington, D.C

Despite the hot weather and a disappointing outcome on the field, I had a memorable time that showed me how a non-NFL professional football team can provide a unique experience to its fans that will leave them wanting to come back to more games in the future.

The stadium itself, Audi Field, is located in the Navy Yard district of Washington D.C. and is easily accessible by foot or by metro from the rest of the city.  This alone is a reason for local residents to be excited about the team, as many football fans in the area are all too familiar with the painstaking process of commuting to the decaying FedEx field in the suburb of Landover.  Thus, the ability to take in professional football in a nicer venue and more convenient location is a welcome relief.

To maximize my gameday experience, I bought a ticket in section 137 of Audi Field.  For the games of MLS club D.C. United, this section is known as a supporters’ section, where there are no stadium seats and tickets are general admission, meaning that the earlier you arrive at the section, the closer to the field you can stand.  The same rules apply to the section at Defenders’ games.  I showed up about thirty minutes before kickoff, and was rewarded with a spot in the third row.

The highlight of being in the supporters’ section is undoubtedly participating in the famed cup snake.  Fans are encouraged to buy alcoholic or nonalcoholic beverages, and upon finishing their drinks, are welcome to stack their empty cups together to form a snake-like chain.   Throughout the game, fans yelled out chants such as “Feed the Snake! Feed the Snake!” and “C-U-P-S Cups Cups Cups!” as the snake grew longer and longer.  By the fourth quarter, it stretched almost all the way to the top of the stadium, and there had to be at least 1,000 cups in the snake.

Unfortunately, I picked a terrible game for my first Defenders game at Audi Field.  Going into the game, the Defenders were undefeated at home in the entirety of its two-year history, but the streak came to an end on Sunday as the home team lost to the visiting Battlehawks.  And not only did the Battlehawks beat the Defenders; they routed them, as the game ended at a dominant score of 45-12.  St. Louis jumped out to a quick 17-0 lead, before D.C. made it 17-12 by halftime.  But the second half was all St. Louis, as they scored the remaining 28 points in the game, including 25 in the fourth quarter.

But that will not be what I ultimately remember from the day.  The supporters’ section at Audi Field provided an experience unlike any other I’m aware of in professional football.  The rowdy atmosphere made the game feel like more of a college football game than a UFL game.  Even as the Battlehawks ran up the score, the fans were still cheering loudly and having a good time.  And generally speaking, there was much less of a corporate imprint on the game compared to a typical NFL game, as there were much fewer commercials and general product placement at the stadium.

In my view, the D.C. Defenders have the perfect recipe for success for non-NFL professional football in the United States.  Located in a nice stadium of reasonable size (Audi Field has a capacity of 24,000 seats) in an accessible part of town, the team plays in a perfect venue to watch a spring football game.  The festive atmosphere of my section was unlike anything I’ve experienced at a sporting event, and made me feel like I was at a party rather than a football game.  It was this atmosphere that made my experience a great one, despite the hot weather and the Defenders’ one-sided defeat.

I believe it would be wise for other teams in the UFL and in leagues across the globe to take measures to make their game day experiences more unique.  Whether it be in the form of a raucous pregame tailgate or a certain section of the stadium where loud cheering and partying is encouraged, teams should strive to add fun components to their stadium experiences that encourages a fan to watch their team play in person rather than following along at home.   As a matter of fact, the Defenders game was by far the highest attended UFL game of the week, as the 16,058 fans in attendance easily bested the crowds in Houston, Arlington, and Memphis.  Personally, I’ll definitely be back at Audi Field for more games this season.

A current student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carter played football in high school and has been a lifelong avid football fan.