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Battlehawks want one win to play for a title on dwelling area

The first time an NFL team played in a Super Bowl in its home stadium was in 2021 as Tampa Bay reached the 55th playing of the game at Raymond James Stadium.

The Dolphins weren’t quite ready when the game was played in Miami in 1968, ’69 and ’71. The Saints were mostly bad in all the years New Orleans hosted. The sites never aligned during the stretches Pittsburgh, San Francisco and New England were winning multiple championships.

When the United Football League was formed this year, the league gave itself a chance for a home team to reach the first championship by awarding St. Louis the game thanks to established support of the Battlehawks. League officials openly discussed that possibility when the game was announced.

“It took forever for the NFL to get a home team in their championship, so is St. Louis going to be able to pull that off in our first year?” UFL executive vice president Daryl Johnston said in March at The Dome at America’s Center. “It will be fun to see and would be a great opportunity to have the home team in their stadium.”

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Of course, the odds improve when a league has only eight teams.

The St. Louis Battlehawks (7-3) will have a chance to make it happen at 6 p.m. Sunday when they face San Antonio (7-3) at the dome, with the winner advancing to the June 16 championship.

The Battlehawks defeated San Antonio in two regular-season meetings, but all that matters now is who will emerge from their conference championship showdown.

The winner could determine the success of the UFL’s biggest game. The Battlehawks are the draw, having averaged 34,365 fans per game while the rest of the league’s games in seven cities averaged around 10,000.

“I don’t know if there’s pressure. I’m just determined to be great in this league,” Battlehawks coach Anthony Becht said. “I wanted to win the championship last year. I didn’t get it and was pissed off. I hate watching the Super Bowl because I didn’t get to play in it. There’s still jealousy. I came close as a player and didn’t get it. I haven’t won a championship since my senior year of high school.”

Becht joked at the championship game announcement about the pressure of having the home championship within reach. Now the moment has arrived thanks to a 13-12 win over the Brahmas last week.

The Battlehawks broke the league attendance record in their first game this season at 40,317 and there’s no telling how many might go to the June 16 title game if St. Louis is playing. But what if the Battlehawks aren’t there?

“I feel very good about it,” UFL CEO Russ Brandon said when the game was revealed. “This is a great Battlehawks town, and this is a great football town. It’s just a great sports town. I think the fans will show out and represent our league and the Battlehawks in a big way.”

The rate of ticket sales for the championship game indicates that fans in St. Louis are waiting to see if the Battlehawks get to that point. If they don’t, the matchup will include San Antonio against Birmingham (9-1) or Michigan (7-3), which play each other at 2 p.m. Sunday.

This year’s schedule had the Battlehawks playing at home mostly on days the Cardinals also were in town. The Cards play Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium with the Battlehawks playing at night. The UFL championship game does not have competition with any major events in the city.

The biggest crowd for a game involving one of the UFL semifinalists played outside of St. Louis this season was Birmingham drawing 14,056 against the Battlehawks.

That might have been partly because of the return of quarterback A.J. McCarron returning to play a game in his home state for the first time since his college days at Alabama. McCarron opted to play a second season with the Battlehawks because he felt there was a chance to win a championship.

But he said pressure is not something he’s feeling.

“I don’t view this as a pressure game, just go out and have fun,” he said. “At the end of the day, the worst-case scenario is you lose the game and it sucks, but life goes on. You still have real (problems) to worry about.”

Battlehawks players Darrius Shepherd, AJ McCarron and Travis Feeney speak on Monday, April 22, 2024, before throwing out the first pitch for the Cardinals’ game vs. Arizona. Video by Ethan Erickson

Ethan Erickson

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