My seven-year-old nephew loves the Carolina Panthers. This is in large part because he loves panthers, the animals, which are predatory and fast and awesome. Still, he’s excited for the Super Bowl this Sunday. Which is great. It also makes him just about the only person I know in the Bay Area who is.
Granted, this may be because I live in Berkeley, which is 10 miles east of the city but could be its own sovereign, sports-free state. A couple years back one of our neighbors, an otherwise normal-seeming 45-year-old real estate agent, claimed not to know what the Super Bowl was. She may even have been telling the truth.
Still, this extends beyond Berkeley. Friends who live in the city grumble about the traffic caused by the “Stupid Bowl.” North Bay residents are angry about the whole Santa Clara 49ers business. Others abhor the corporate stink—the omnipresent Super Bowl branding—and outsized impact, which extends from road closures to hidden costs to the police escort that accompanied a media bus to San Jose on Monday, slowing the midtown commute. Because nothing is more important than making sure reporters arrive on time to record what Brock Osweiler thinks about Caddyshack. (Spoiler Alert: he liked it).
If you sense a certain bitterness then I must apologize. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When San Francisco landed the Super Bowl, back in May of 2013, it doubled as a strategic football move. You know, to secure home field advantage. At the time, the Jim Harbaugh-led 49ers appeared primed for a decade of dominance.
And then, well, you know what happened next.
Rarely—never?—has a franchise been dismantled with such precision and efficiency. Not just the team, but the soul of the 49ers. Have you been to Santa Clara? It’s a nice enough place but it ain’t the Bay Area. Candlestick Park may have harbored its own frigid microclimate—windstorms abetted by marauding fog— but at least it had character.
So forgive those of us in the Bay Area if we aren’t elated right now. Last Thursday, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story detailing an “Escape from Super Bowl City,” that listed, “concerts and events for the Bay Area resident who considers the Super Bowl at best an inconvenience to the region and at worst a taxpayer-supported abomination.” It included a Neil Diamond cover band, a white elephant sale in Oakland, Snoop Dogg in Petaluma and “children playing the hits of Led Zeppelin” in San Jose.
The quest of author Peter Hartlaub was to find “safe spaces” in the Bay Area during Super Bowl week. Smart man. Most of us aren’t so fortunate.
Let’s hear from some locals.
“It’s horrible,” says Joseph Redd, an Uber driver and native of the Mission District who says he’s moving 10 passengers per gallon of gas instead of his usual 20, due to the congestion. “I really want to see the numbers. Is this really increasing the bottom line of the city? They need to do a forensic accounting. Were we suckers?”
Redd’s referring to the roughly $5 million in costs the city’s incurring to “host” a game that's being played 45 miles away. As two members of the Board of Supervisors wrote in a Chronicle op-ed recently, Santa Clara is getting a lucrative marketing event while “San Francisco is hosting the traffic jam.”
“I’m still pissed they moved,” says Robert Gaustad, owner of Bobby G’s, a popular bar in Berkeley. “Then they slap a sign on it, like Santa Clara is the same thing as San Francisco. It’s all about the money.” Not that it matters: Gaustad says the upcoming release of Pliny the Younger, a sought-after triple IPA, will generate exponentially more interest and business than the game, for which he plans on doing nothing out of the ordinary. “Pliny’s the real Super Bowl around here.”
Seth Peckler is as diehard as they come. A 49ers season-ticket holder for 24 years, he tailgated with a group of 14 friends—a second family, really—before every game at Candlestick. He is not pleased. “Jed York got a crappy stadium built that only protected luxury box owners and didn’t take into account the fans or the elements, like that it’s 100 degrees in the shade in September, or the rain later,” Peckler says. “Why spend the money when he’s got it sold out? Who cares if they actually show up? The team is now worth $2 billion. He’s laughing all the way to the bank.” So Peckler’s rooting for something else this weekend: “The El Niño to hit. Let the NFL feel what the fans get on game day.”
Ah yes, Jed York, 35-year-old CEO of the Niners, the man who brought the Super Bowl to San Francisco and the 49ers to their knees. Let’s check in with him, shall we?
Here he is this past Monday, hunched in a black armchair aboard a fake stage on the third floor of the cavernous Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco, holding a microphone. He’s seated next to NFL senior VP of events Peter O’Reilly, as well as Keith Bruce, the CEO of the Super Bowl host committee and Daniel Lurie, the chairman of the host committee. They are “answering” a set of “questions” from a local TV anchor. After a video presentation touting the Bay Area’s history as the home of “the disrupters, the provocateurs, the enemies of the status quo,” the be-suited men talk about how it is their “right and honor to redefine the Super Bowl.” After fifteen minutes of self-congratulation, they’re followed by four area mayors, from San Francisco, Santa Clara, Oakland and San Jose, who proceed to congratulate each other with even more gusto. Can-do spirit. Innovation. Economy.
Afterward, as San Francisco mayor Ed Lee bolts before the press can quiz him on anything substantive, York sticks around and, to his credit, answers questions, pivoting and smiling in a dark suit and red tie. His answers are bland, predictable. Talk to reporters who cover him regularly and they say he’s smart, but not as smart as he thinks he is. That he’s impulsive. That the Chip Kelly hiring—a ray of hope for Niners fans—was a bit of a Hail Mary and might last a few seasons at best. That Kelly won’t coexist with Trent Baalke. That there’s only so much he can do.
To say York is disliked by local fans would be an understatement. Still, it’s possible to feel empathy for the man. He only spent a year in the working world, as a financial analyst at Guggenheim Partners in New York, before joining the 49ers, at which point his parents gave him too much responsibility too early. And while he’s had some success, it'll likely never match that of his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. Eddie is up for the Pro Football Hall of Fame (the decision will be made on Saturday) and 49ers fans don’t care very much about the controversies of his later years (the felony charge of failing to report an extortion attempt in Louisiana that forced him to give up control the team). He was an owner who loved the players and the fans. Last fall, when I spoke to DeBartolo for a story, he teared up while describing former Niners as “family,” adding, “to this day, no question, Joe Montana is probably my best friend.”
One imagines current players wouldn’t say the same about York. “I really feel for my nephew,” DeBartolo said. “We haven’t talked about football much in the last 18 months.”
Then again, in person at least, York doesn’t seem too concerned. At one point during the press conference, while discussing the turf at Levi’s Stadium, he said: “Peter [O’Reilly] asked us if we could not make the playoffs this year to make sure the turf was as good as possible. I said, ‘OK, if that’s what we have to do, then we’ll take that under advisement.’ ”
Good one, Jed.
Stepping away from the owners in suits and the predictable press conferences, what about the spirit of the game?
Theoretically, that’s embodied by Super Bowl City, a free, “family-friendly” enclosure across from the ferry building downtown. I visited it on Monday and, putting aside for a moment the costs and complaints and the blatant marketing, I can report that, yes, I saw families having fun. Kids ran around on patches of grass. Moms posed, heads peeking above mannequins of Broncos and Panthers players. Gray-haired men swirled and sniffed 2013 Russian River Pinot Noir in the wine tasting area. Banjo Man, longtime human avatar of the Niners, walked through the proceedings, plucking away.
Here’s what else I saw:
• A structure made entirely of Bud Light cans, which enclosed a giant football made of Bud Light cans, which was adjacent to a server selling Bud Light to nonexistent customers. After all, nothing says San Francisco like Bud Light.
• Assault rifles. Lots of them. In fact, the area resembled a militarized zone, with bomb-sniffing dogs and cops in full combat gear. It detracted a bit from the “family fun” vibe.
• A couple of intrepid young men vaping some weed on a grassy hillock, 20 yards from one of the cops, because this is the Bay Area, after all.
Something else struck me on my walk down the so-called “50th Mile” on Market to Super Bowl City: what wasn’t there. The weird SF vendors. The homeless. Similarly, there was a distinct lack of street poets swilling from brown paper bags and declaring end times. Which is to say, it felt nothing like San Francisco.
Why is this? Well, as you may have heard, the city tried to clear the streets in an attempt to put on a happy face. Some of the homeless ended up in a tent city under a bridge near the freeway (leading to efforts to crowd fund their tents). Others were, in essence, sequestered. “We’ve had this big influx of petty drug cases,” Eric Quandt, Deputy Public Defender, told me. “Cases where there are like six codefendants and very little evidence. I doubt it's a coincidence that law enforcement timed the huge number of petty arrests just days before San Francisco turned itself into Super Bowl City. It seems pretty transparent that law enforcement is trying to ‘clean up’ San Francisco just when there is a national spotlight upon the city, in spite of Constitutional safeguards.” (The city, on the other hand, argued that the arrests are not Super Bowl-related.)
Then there’s the exciting artifact I encountered on one of my strolls: an intact Super Bowl 50 sign. Perhaps you’ve read about the alterations to some of the other pieces of “art”—how vandals-slash-freedom-fighters transposed the “SUPER BOWL 50” letters and numerals into messages including: “SUP BRO”; “SUPERB OWL”; “OOPS”; “UP R BOWEL”; and “LEE ROBS”. Really, it’s brought out the best of the creative community.
As I gazed at the clean and unperturbed sign, a pair of fans in Niners jerseys came up and posed for a selfie. Nearby, a Super Bowl staffer kept watch. He was a nice young man. Said he had to keep an eye on the statue from 11 a.m. on, for about six hours. An easy job. He said I’d just missed some action, though. “About an hour and a half ago, they came by and cleaned off some graffiti,” he said. Apparently, the vandals hadn’t rearranged the letters but instead tagged the sign with, according to my informer, “a sexy F word.”
I thanked him and prepared to leave. As I did, he looked disappointed. “Don’t you want me to take a picture of you with the sign?” he asked.
Someone reading this column might think this is all a bit harsh. To play devil’s advocate, he’d probably point out that we’re a bunch of elitists in the Bay Area (true). And that it’s only a couple weeks of Super Bowl annoyance (also true), and Niners fans are spoiled by success to begin with (true again) and, besides, traffic is always crappy in San Francisco (yup) and there must be some positives.
So, okay, let’s talk about the positives, because they do exist. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf noted that community organizations in her city have received $1.3 million in grants from the 50 Fund, which is pretty cool. (50 Fund is an organization with the “goal to make Super Bowl 50 the most philanthropic and giving Super Bowl ever”). And yes, this Super Bowl has apparently generated more philanthropy than any game prior, which may be a low bar to clear but it’s still something.
Then there’s the influx of visitors, leading to interesting cultural opportunities. This Friday, for example, Michael Sam is visiting Hi-Tops, the city’s first gay sports bar. (The event, during happy hour on Friday, benefits the Sports Equality Foundation). Jesse Woodward, the bar’s co-owner, says that nobody he knows seems to care about the Broncos or Panthers or the game but, hey, it brought Sam into town and they’re psyched about that.
And some sectors are no doubt benefiting economically: hotels, restaurants, shops (and theoretically Uber drivers, only they’re upset about lower wages and reportedly plan to protest by clogging the area around the stadium on Sunday). One report estimates the positive economic impact at $220 million for the Bay Area.
Then I think of my brother, who’s hosting a Super Bowl party on Sunday. His son slept with his new leather football the other night. The two play catch in the driveway twice a day. The boy is seven, after all. He loves sprinting around the corner, and evading imaginary tacklers and the call to “Go deep!” He doesn’t know anything about concussions, or Roger Goodell, or corporate marketing speak. He just thinks it’s cool that the Super Bowl is here.
Then again, sadly, most of us aren’t seven years old. We can’t ignore all the noise. And, in the end, maybe it’s that the Super Bowl—this version of it, at least—just isn’t a Bay Area thing. It’s big and bland, a celebration of bad beer and clipped diction and hierarchy and entertainment for the masses, contested in a soulless ATM of a stadium in some far off land called Santa Clara and presided over by self-satisfied men in suits and, well, that’s not us.
And so it was concerning on Monday when, near the end of his Q&A with reporters, York spoke of a goal, one that doesn’t involve the 49ers. It’s something that will chill many a local’s heart. “We’d like,” said York with a smile, “to host multiple Super Bowls.”