Welcome to the “San Francisco” Super Bowl

So it’s Super Bowl week here in the Bay Area, and the mood around here is…meh. I’m sure there are plenty of locals who are super-excited about hosting the Big Game — the 50th Super Bowl! — but nobody I know seems to be among them.

This is not San Francisco.

There’s been a lot of press about defaced signs, traffic headaches, and unhappiness at the way the game-week festivities are being funded. But I think the local attitude has deeper roots than that. Like Thanksgiving dinner, hosting the Super Bowl is aggravating all the little dysfunctions that make this place an interesting and often infuriating place to live.

First, a little primer on the geography of the Bay Area. Culturally speaking, there are (at least) five distinct areas covering the region ringing our Bay. There’s the North Bay — Marin County and the gateway to Wine Country to the north. There’s the East Bay — basically, everything east of the center of the Bay. There’s the South Bay — the Santa Clara valley, the actual valley that became known as Silicon Valley. There’s the Peninsula — everything between the southern border of San Francisco and northern Santa Clara county. And then there’s San Francisco.

San Francisco is a beautiful, vibrant city. Here are some things you may not know about San Francisco:

  • It is only the second largest city in the Bay Area at a population of 800,000; San Jose has 1.1 million residents. Despite that, among Bay Area residents it is generally known as “The City.”
  • Traditionally, SF has been seen as the cultural center of the Bay Area. This leads some City folks to have a dismissive attitude towards those of us who live in other parts of the area — it’s often much harder to get friends in the City to visit us in the South Bay than the reverse.
  • People outside the area don’t seem to get the idea that we have our own regional identities — the other day a friend recalled Sting saying “Hello San Francisco!” to an audience at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View — about 39 miles south of SF.
  • Although many tech startups are choosing to locate in San Francisco these days, the “older” tech companies are based closer to the actual Silicon Valley. Many employees at these companies — Google, Apple, Facebook, among others — choose to live in The City, and so many of those companies have created private shuttle bus systems to keep these employees happier. In turn, this has made it easier for those well-paid tech employees to live in SF, raising housing prices and creating tension with non-tech workers who are finding themselves priced out of their neighborhoods and homes.
  • These shuttle buses, considered together, are now the largest transit system in the Bay Area, and certainly far more functional than the patchwork of public transit systems used by everyone else. This exacerbates the tension.

So what does this have to do with football? Well, here’s one more tidbit. Despite the fact that the national marketing is focused on San Francisco, and that the pre-game “Super Bowl City” and associated activities are happening in the city proper, the actual game will be at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley, 43 miles south of downtown SF. As far as I can tell, this is the greatest distance between a Super Bowl host city and the actual game, ever. The only two previous games that have come close were Super Bowl XVI, held at the Pontiac Silverdome (29 miles from downtown Detroit), and of course Super Bowl XIX, held at Stanford Stadium, a mere 34 miles from downtown SF. By comparison, MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ is only 11 miles from downtown Manhattan, and the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale is about 18 miles from downtown Phoenix. Even the fabled Rose Bowl in Pasadena, host of 5 Super Bowls, is only 11 miles from downtown LA.

Of course, Levi’s is the new (since the 2014 season) home of the San Francisco 49ers, which is also a bit crazy in comparison to the rest of the NFL. Of the 32 NFL teams, 28 have a city in their name (the exceptions being Carolina, New England, Arizona, and Tennessee). Of those 28, only 7 have stadiums outside the city limits of their hometown, and other than Levi’s, the longest distance outside of downtown is 18 miles (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX). San Francisco is actually only 17 miles from O.co Coliseum, home of the Oakland Raiders. (Levi’s is actually closer to O.co as well — 32 miles.) And of course, Candlestick Park, the 49ers’ old home, was only 6 miles from downtown SF, and inside the city limits.

So you can imagine that the old guard of 49er Faithful, residents of The City, have not been entirely happy with the move to Santa Clara. It’s an hour’s drive in decent traffic, with limited public transit (at minimum, a Caltrain ride to the joint VTA station in Mountain View and a transfer to the light rail there). It’s also not surprising, then, that the San Franciscans feel only a limited ownership of the Super Bowl being held in the lovely new stadium so far away.

For those of us who live in the South Bay, by contrast, it’s annoying to see so much of the marketing pretend that we’re San Francisco. It’s like we’re hosting a huge party, but everyone is thanking our next door neighbor for their hospitality. At least the teams and the media are staying in hotels in the South Bay, and flying in to San Jose International.

So that’s the dysfunctional intra-regional politics. What makes it worse is that for the NFL in particular, this has been a near-disastrous couple of years for the Bay Area. The 49ers’ move to Levi’s has coincided with a management crisis that saw a successful head coach first undermined, then fired, and replaced with an inexperienced, ineffective coach who led the team straight into the cellar. A group of 49er season ticket holders crowd-funded a campaign last year to fly banners over the stadium suggesting that the owner, Jed York, part ways with the team. Meanwhile, the 49ers have been dealing with a PR crisis surrounding their desired use of the Santa Clara youth soccer fields — a beautiful complex next to Levi’s that has been there for a decade or more — for game-day parking. During the Super Bowl week, it’s hosting the media center, and the Santa Clara youth soccer league, after failing to have a last-minute injunction filed against the NFL, are just hoping that when the fields are replanted, they won’t have sustained permanent damage.

And as for the other NFL team in the Bay Area? After having left the City of Oakland with a huge bill related to their move back from LA in the mid-90's, the Raiders are threatening to move again — to basically anywhere that will have them — unless Oakland builds them a new stadium.

Given all that, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the mood around here can best be described as “nonplussed.” Hopefully, traffic won’t be as bad as it could be, and the visitors to our lovely area will have a pleasant visit, bringing money to our hotels and restaurants. And, like Thanksgiving dinner, on Monday Feb. 8, it’ll be over and our intraregional family dysfunction will go back to simmering just under the surface.