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Column: L.A. Wildcats show heart and feed off crowd’s energy in home debut

Fans cheer on the Los Angeles Wildcats during their home debut against the Dallas Renegades at Dignity Health Sports Park on Sunday.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Fans generated genuinely energetic cheers for the home team at Dignity Health Sports Park on Sunday, the kinds of sound rarely directed toward the Chargers in great number or volume during their three-season pit stop in Carson.

The noise erupted with 4 minutes and 37 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the XFL L.A. Wildcats’ home debut. The Wildcats, who had lost their inaugural game last week at Houston, had capitalized on the league’s three-point extra-point alternative — an intriguing innovation the NFL should consider—and had cut the Dallas Renegades’ lead to 19-18. The cheers were rhythmic and unmistakable coming from a crowd that was announced as 14,979 bodies in the stadium but often yelled above its weight.

“Let’s go Wildcats,” they chanted, and players encouraged them by waving towels and raising their arms on the sideline. “When an L.A. crowd gets behind you,” Wildcats coach Winston Moss said afterward, “there’s nothing else like it.”

Their hopes for a comeback fizzled when Dallas running back Cameron Artis-Payne scored on a 17-yard run, and although the one-point attempt afterward was unsuccessful, the Wildcats couldn’t score on their subsequent possession. Dallas left with a 25-18 victory and the Wildcats were left to figure out how they can grab attention and fans in a heavily congested sports market.

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The quality of play on Sunday generally was shaky and sometimes was appalling, with dropped catches and missed tackles becoming routine. There was more heart than sheer skill on display, but there was an element of charm in that.

The visiting L.A. Wildcats lost 37-17 as P.J. Walker led an onslaught for the Houston Roughnecks in an opening game of the rebooted league.

A year ago, Dallas quarterback Landry Jones, a career NFL backup, was working a minimum-wage construction demolition job in Fort Worth, Texas. Given the chance to reunite with Bob Stoops, his college coach at Oklahoma, he became the first player to commit to the XFL. On Sunday, in his first game since 2017, he passed for 305 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions. He also gained 13 yards rushing. “It felt great,” said Jones, who missed Dallas’ opener last week because of a knee injury.

Wildcats quarterback Josh Johnson, 33, has spent time with 13 NFL teams since he played at the University of San Diego. He wasn’t happy with his performance on Sunday but thinks he and his team can get better. “We left a lot on the field today,” he said. “I missed throws that I know I can make, easy completions.”

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Los Angeles Wildcats quarterback Jalan McClendon runs onto the field before the team's home debut on Sunday.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Wildcats coach Winston Moss huddles with his players during the franchise's home debut Sunday against the Dallas Renegades.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The Wildcats’ game presentation was standard for professional leagues, with lots of music and giveaway items tossed into the stands and rally towels distributed to fans as they entered. But players were allowed to do TV interviews on the sidelines during the game, which wide receiver Nelson Spruce found odd in a good way. After the second of his two touchdowns on Sunday he was being interviewed while trash talking with a Dallas defensive back and trying to learn where he was supposed to go on the next play. It’s unique and it could help XFL teams build emotional connections with fans, a must for survival.

“It kind of keeps you loose, really,” said Spruce, who played at Westlake High in Thousand Oaks and had short stints with the Rams and Raiders in addition to a season with the San Diego Fleet of the Alliance of American Football. “As long as it doesn’t interfere with the game I’m cool with it.”

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Jeffrey Pollack, the XFL’s president and chief operating officer — and younger brother of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman — said he felt the same good energy in Carson as he had experienced at XFL games in Washington, D.C., New York and Seattle. “The crowds have been enthusiastic and already seem to be emotionally invested in some way and that’s pretty remarkable for a league that’s just getting its start and for teams that are just getting their start,” Pollock said. “So we’re appreciative of everyone who’s shown up.”

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Highlights from the Wildcats’ loss to the Dallas Renegades on Sunday.

The XFL, owned by promoter and WWE mogul Vince McMahon, knows its target audience. Pollock said surveys showed there are 38 million to 40 million fans who want to see football after the Super Bowl and are potential XFL fans. “Our fans are younger than football fans generally. Millennial. Under 44. Highly wired. Interested in gaming and fantasy and statistics. And that’s exciting,” Pollock said.

“We know this is going to take time. We know that fandom is earned. It’s not given. And the XFL has been in the planning stages for almost two years. We’ve been able to have some patience as we plan and invest time to plan properly, and now we’re prepared to invest the time to grow and earn our stripes.”

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The gaming element is no small consideration. “We think we’re entering the market at a good time, as that’s starting to grow and gain its footing and our strategy is, we like to say we’re ready to embrace the spread. We have no legacy, no sort of history,” Pollock said. “All we have is a sort of a blank sheet of paper, and as we design this league we’ve said in 2020 if you’re going to design a new football league you should design it in mind for the sports betting world that we’re all heading to.”

But as Moss acknowledged, a successful team is the best marketing tool.

Fans celebrate a touchdown by the Wildcats during Sunday's loss to the Dallas Renegades.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The Wildcats, 0-2 in a 10-game season, don’t have much more time to make a favorable impression. He noted the memorial patch each player wore on Sunday in memory of Lakers great Kobe Bryant, who won over a city with his dedication, effort and championship performances.

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“You knew that guy stood for something and when a fan base knows that somebody’s giving their all and putting their heart and soul into it and it’s giving the team a lift and the team is winning, not just the city, and we need that type of dynamic,” Moss said. “And so we’re looking and searching for and hopefully one of our guys will rise to that level where they can have that connection with the fan base to where this guy’s going to rise up ... It will motivate the city to come and watch us play.”


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