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Future of 49ers unclear no matter which way new stadium vote goes

The San Francisco 49ers would like you to believe that Tuesday's vote will determine their future.

For now and forever more.

But it's not that simple. Voters in Santa Clara, Calif.-- a city of 117,000 about 45 miles south of San Francisco -- will be asked to approve Measure J. The ballot measure would authorize the go-ahead for construction of a new football stadium for the 49ers, subsidized by the city.

Check "yes" on your ballot and they will come? Actually, it's far more complicated than that.

The measure -- which with light voter turnout might be decided by as few as 20,000 voters -- isn't exactly an iron-clad guarantee. It is an airy concoction of optimistic premises that could deflate at any time.

The city's financial contribution would be $444 million, with $114 million split between a hotel tax and city funds. The rest would come from the sale of naming rights and seat licenses.

"The problem I have is if people seriously think there's no financial risk involved," said Roger Noll, professor emeritus of economics at Stanford University.

Noll, an expert on sports stadiums and their economic impact, is skeptical of the measure, despite the 49ers' claims that it's a safe bet for Santa Clara citizens. Noll recently outlined his doubts in an op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, the primary newspaper of the city that would like to keep the 49ers but has never figured out a way to replace decrepit Candlestick Park.

The 49ers have been angling for a new stadium since Joe Montana was winning Super Bowls. They've watched their rivals across the country build new stadiums while they went from dynasty to dormancy.

Eddie DeBartolo couldn't get a new stadium, despite winning a ballot measure in San Francisco in 1997. It wasn't long after that election that DeBartolo was forced to give up ownership of the team, eventually selling to his sister and brother-in-law, Denise DeBartolo and John York. In late 2006, the Yorks abruptly pulled out of negotiations with San Francisco and declared their true love for Santa Clara.

Their son, Jed York, is now the acting owner of the team and has taken the lead on the stadium issue. Measure J stands for Measure Jed, because this vote will determine the 29-year old's legacy.

Bay Area voters have a long history of antagonism toward stadium measures, with good reason. The San Francisco Giants -- after losing five different ballot measures -- eventually built their own beautiful ballpark without tapping into public funds. In contrast, the Oakland Raiders remodeled the Oakland Coliseum on the taxpayer's dime -- one of the worst deals in the history of stadiums.

While the Giants set the stadium bar high, it's the latter deal that Noll says should resonate with Santa Clara voters, because Measure J recreates the same kind of fatal flaw as the Oakland deal. It creates a stadium authority to market and sell personal seat licenses.

"The team gets someone else to bear the risk," Noll said.

In this case the risk-bearer is a relatively small town, attempting to undertake an enormous project. Football stadiums aren't great economic deals under the best of circumstances. The one logical move in the Bay Area stadium scene -- for the 49ers to share a stadium with the Raiders -- doesn't seem practically feasible.

Santa Clara has assured voters that if $330 million can't be raised through naming rights and seat licenses the 49ers will pay for the costs or the project will be killed. But, in a cart-before-the-horse scenario, the stadium authority will be created and borrow finances before those rights can be sold.

"The sequence of decisions is incorrect," Noll said.

The entire deal is predicated on a lot of suppositions. But selling naming rights isn't easy right now -- just ask the Giants, Jets and Cowboys. And selling tickets and seat licenses for a team that is moving away from a significant portion of its fan base could present challenges (especially since the 49ers season ticket base has been shrinking in recent years). If the projected money isn't raised, it could be costly.

"If there's a $100 million drop, it wouldn't be a big deal for San Jose or San Francisco," Noll said. "But it would be a big deal for a city the size of Santa Clara."

Perhaps the biggest question if the measure passes is the 49ers own financial commitment. With cost overruns, it could amount to well more than half a billion dollars. No one thinks the York family can stomach that kind of investment.

"The worst thing that could happen to the Yorks is if this passes," said one source close to the ballot process.

Yet the 49ers are doing everything in their power to pass the measure. A recent report estimated that they are spending an average of $300 per needed vote.

Noll thinks what the team is really paying for is leverage.

"I still think they want to be in San Francisco," Noll said. "If this passes, the 49ers can say to San Francisco, 'Now what are you going to do for us?'"

No matter what happens in Tuesday's vote, the 49ers future is anything but clear.

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