Cleared to Engage: BattleHawks fill hole in St. Louis sports culture


Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Duttlinger

Kakaw is the new law in St. Louis sports. The city of St. Louis felt the heartbreak of losing their football team when the Rams left for Los Angeles in 2015 and the feeling lingered in the hearts of sports fans in the Lou, until now. The St. Louis Battlehawks have captured the hearts of sports fans, not just in St. Louis, but across the midwest and the country. Known for their immediate success on the field and extravagant post-game celebrations, the BattleHawks have quickly filled the football vacancy in one of the greatest sports cities in America. 

The BattleHawks are the only XFL team that is in a market that doesn’t have an NFL counterpart. This gives them the advantage of being St. Louis’ football team, a responsibility that they don’t take lightly. They currently lead the XFL East in the standings with a 3-1 record and a 2-0 record at home in “The Dome.” 

St. Louis football fans have welcomed the BattleHawks in with open arms, so much so that they set the season high for attendance in the XFL for the home opener against the New York Guardians. The crowd of close to 30,000 was considered a sell out because tickets were not sold for the upper deck. The bowl was full creating a loud and electric atmosphere to welcome St. Louis’ newest team home for the first time. It was also the perfect timing, the Sunday following Mardi Gras. St. Louis was already rocking, but now there was football to go with it. 

Last week, SLU’s Sports Business Association hosted an event in the business school with four members of the BattleHawks front office. Team President, Kurt Hunzeker; Director of Corporate Partnerships, Gabe Rendon; Senior Manager of Marketing and Communications, Catherine Boyle; and Ticket Sales and Experience Manager, Andrew Myer all sat down to explain and answer student’s questions about the new franchise. SBA President Rebecca Duttlinger said, “We thought having the BattleHawks on campus to speak would be a great opportunity to introduce students and professors to a brand new St. Louis professional sports organization in a professional and interactive way. We are so lucky and thankful that we had the opportunity to work with them.” 

All of the panelists called St. Louis home before they came to work for the BattleHawks and the new job opportunity served as a homecoming for some. It all started around eight months ago with a “crash course of how to build a sports team from scratch,” in Hunzeker’s words. He said that the best thing about it is that “no one can tell any of us that we are doing it wrong, because no one has ever done what we are trying to do before.” He then laughed and said that they may not be doing it right, but they aren’t doing it wrong either. 

They love engaging with the community, a strategy the previous football team in St. Louis appeared to struggle in. “‘Fun’ was at the forefront, [but for] me being approachable was absolutely mandatory,” said Hunzeker. This willingness to communicate with fans is extremely apparent through his use of social media. Hunzeker has gone as far as to do a segment on his personal Twitter account called “We’re Listening St. Louis,” where he tweets answers to questions fans have sent to him. Not only does he answer questions, but he also makes big announcements as to the operations of the game day atmosphere. The fans asked for rally towels, the BattleHawks delivered. The fans asked for more vendors roaming the dome, the BattleHawks raised the number from 40 venders to 60 venders. The fans asked for another merchandise cart, the BattleHawks obliged, and all of these new amenities were announced through Hunzeker’s twitter account, not the team’s official account. He said, “it helps us get better by having that open communication.” And despite only being four games into their season, the BattleHawks have figured out ways to get better every single week.

Community engagement has been a huge part of the team since its creation back in August. Since then, they have done over 273 community engagement and grassroots events, something that has been essential in their marketing strategy and ticket sales initiatives. One of these initiatives has been the BattleHawk bar network, a group of bars throughout St. Louis, the surrounding suburbs and even as far as Michigan, that brings the BattleHawks to the fans that can’t make it downtown to the dome for a game. It’s all about creating an atmosphere for fans that brings the game to them and makes it enjoyable. Myer talked about how they don’t have to marry you on the first date. It’s all about getting fans to come back and continue engaging with the team in a variety of ways. 

If you follow St. Louis sports, and maybe even if you don’t, you have probably heard or seen KaKaw, the fan-invented rally cry for the BattleHawks. A fun fact about the cry is that the team never initiated it. This was purely a fan driven movement. “BattleHawks is a name that is aviation centric,” said Hunzeker, “and the fans were like ‘that’s cool, we’re going to make it a bird and we’re going to say KaKaw,’ and then it just grew organically and that’s awesome.” One of the pillars that the front office focuses on is how to become relevant. The creation of KaKaw continues to help the team become relevant because it joins people in the area together and gets them talking about the new team. 

Not only have the BattleHawks become relevant in St. Louis extremely quickly, but they have captured the hearts of many midwesterners and Americans as a whole.  “At our core, we are St. Louis’ team,” said Boyle, “but we of course want to [have] a wide reach.” According to their data, there are BattleHawks fans in 49 of the 50 states already. (North Dakota is the last hold-out, so if you know anyone…) This fandom has grown so quickly due to the unrivaled social media presence that the BattleHawks have created in the XFL. 

The XFL in general has taken a younger, less professional stance in their social media presence. They are known for their memes and instigation of smack talk amongst the teams, something that gets the attention of a younger audience. Data is already showing that the audience for an XFL game is averaging closer to our age, whereas the audience for an NFL game is closer to our parent’s age. The XFL has become a “game of one-up-manship,” said Hunzeker. The teams, in good faith, like to talk smack to each other and find ways to outdo their opponents. 

The BattleHawks social media team has been on-point all the time according to their front office. They excel in relating to fans and getting players excited. The content that is posted isn’t staged and all of the actions are done completely voluntary, something that makes their brand authentic. “Social media is 24/7,” said Boyle, “you have to be paying attention or you could miss an opportunity, and [our content team] hasn’t missed an opportunity.” It’s all about awareness, action, responsiveness and listening to the people.

One of the best examples of the impact the BattleHawks social media has had is the Bud Light Seltzer celebration after their first win. Hunzeker joked that had they known what the players were about to do, they “totally would have tarped the locker room.” Following the game, quarterbacks Nick Fitzgerald (now nicknamed Fitzseltzer) and Taylor Heinicke grabbed some of the Bud Light Seltzer that was left on a table in the locker room and shotgunned them. The content team caught the moment on camera and it quickly went viral. According to Hunzeker, “That video for Bud Light Seltzer has proven to be more, has driven more value than their Post Malone Super Bowl Commercial because it exploded virally and it was so authentic.”

The BattleHawks have quickly filled a hole in the sports culture of St. Louis since August. It’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon and become a fan! This team is St. Louis born and bred and constantly reminds fans how much they appreciate them. Be sure to follow them on social media to stay updated on their push for the playoffs and events they have going on all around St. Louis.