In the last few seasons the 49ers played at Candlestick Park, I got into the gate for roughly $50 per game. The swarms of ushers and ticket-checkers customary at modern professional sports games were conspicuously absent at the old concrete bowl, and so by the end of the 2013 regular season, I’d found a permanent place in the lower level on the 45-ish-yard line (visitor’s side). I was welcomed in without a real seat by some older white men from Berkeley who’d inherited their season tickets from their father, whom they told me had held season tickets for the 49ers’ entire 42 years at the ’Stick, and a wild, often-drunk man in his mid-30s who drove in from Fresno and wore things like Batman masks with a 49ers cape.
The two parties clashed, but that wasn’t my problem. All I knew was that I’d been fortunate to find hospitable hosts in such an incredible section and that the men from Berkeley were kind enough to regale me with stories of their memories at Candlestick from before I was born, when the 49ers were the team of the decade.
The seats faced the big hill that made up the western border of the property; when the sun began to set in usually the third quarter or so, the sky would often turn bright, vibrant colors that made the whole aesthetic more than was deserved by what was really a comically antiquated stadium that somehow smelled stale no matter what time you were there.
From those seats, I watched the peak of the Jim Harbaugh years, the ones that now seem like they’ll ultimately be but a blip on the long, extended timeline of shitty 49ers teams since Eddie DeBartolo had to give the team to his sister, Denise, who then gave it to her son, Jed York.
But the Niners couldn’t have asked for better moment with which to move the team down to Santa Clara; the last 49ers game to be played at the ’Stick was the one saved by NaVorro Bowman’s miraculous pick-six, which seemed to play out in slow motion (though that was really just because he was slow as hell running across the field). The Niners won, fireworks were shot off, and “Hello, Goodbye” blasted from the PA, an allusion to the Beatles playing their final U.S. show at the stadium back in 1966.
Less than four years later, the team finds itself amid a perfect storm of waning fan interest at its new, hyper-modern stadium 40 miles south of San Francisco.
The 49ers spent $1.3 billion to build the new stadium and, incredibly, seem not to have thought to, among other things, assess just how hot it would be on the East side of the stadium during day games, especially early in the NFL season. Photos of the empty home side of the new-ish 49ers stadium are now as much of a tradition as the yet-to-be-broken-in stadium could be said to have.
Unfortunately for the Niners, their big, glass-paneled press box faces directly into the stands hit with the most glaring rays. (The view from the opposite side of the stadium is not quite as bleak as the one offered to sportswriters.) It’s not a pretty sight, and it’s exactly what Jed York should see from his owner’s box while the team he wrested away from its only competent coach since Bill Walsh continues to not just disappoint but enrage those of us who are emotionally attached to this dumbass team.
What you are seeing in that empty-stadium porn is the result of distance from San Francisco, early-season heat, and a team that is seemingly getting more anonymous by the snap; in all, it’s schadenfreude incarnate. It’s more than that, though—corny as it is to say, it can’t be understated how much the move to a new stadium cleaved any remaining bridge between the dynasty 49ers and the 49ers of the present and future. The move did away with the shared experiences of the franchise’s best years, even if each passing year proved Candlestick to be more dilapidated and outdated.
The move severed relationships among longtime ticket holders and priced out the old guard of fans who haven’t yet accepted that watching an NFL game on the couch is much more enjoyable than it is in person and, in conjunction with the proximity to the new-monied Silicon Valley oligarchy, it drove home who NFL games are for now.
This isn’t to gloss over Candlestick’s many, many issues. Candlestick, in many ways, sucked. But it had been around forever, hosting everything from that Beatles concert to the 1989 World Series as well as anything 49ers-related. The traffic sucked (as it does at the new stadium, anyway), and it was usually windy and cold, but it was a legacy site instead of a modern marvel headlined by Michael Mina’s tailgate with appearances by Ayesha Curry.
In Santa Clara, fans get more amenities (and, thankfully, wider concourses), but without character or any real indication that the football is the main event—though, really, why should it be?
Realistically, the focus on more amenities has fucked the 49ers in another way: with concourses and suites and porches from which to watch the game, it takes a lot of butts out of seats—which is, at least from a non–front office perspective, all anyone can quantify, anyway.
Most of this was fully within the 49ers’ control, but they are suffering the misfortune of the football product collapsing just as they needed fans to become more committed to spending money, time, and other resources to watch games in person. Those stands are not just empty of bored fans who don’t want to sit in traffic to get roasted in the sun all Sunday watching a terrible team. (Though, for most reasonable people, that should be enough.) What people across the country may not see is how at the beginning of the fourth season in Santa Clara, the stadium has failed to be any more broken in than it was when it opened. Candlestick was a shitty home. But it was a home. The stands at Candlestick spoke loudly for the changing Bay Area; the lifelong season ticket–holders like my white pals from Berkeley blended with younger, Hispanic fans from more blended towns reaching down into San Joaquin valley.
When the team moved to Santa Clara, large swaths of those fans were cut out of the equation. Season ticket prices were reasonable—working-class friends of mine had been able to afford packages during the Alex Smith years, even—and suddenly, the privilege of watching the Niners required $4,000+ investments for anything below the 400 level. And more generally, for fans in San Francisco, the stadium might as well be on Mars. The team has attempted to provide reasonable access to Santa Clara, be it through Amtrak or Caltrain, but it’s still at the tip of a peninsula becoming more and more crowded due to booming development from the second Silicon Valley bubble.
This isn’t an accident. Teams across the four major sports have realized it is much more lucrative to cater to wealthy, mildly interested customers and corporate clientele than to the old rowdy fools in Ronnie Lott jerseys. Take the Michael Mina tailgate thing: It’s cosplay, a version of a traditional football enthusiast’s pastime laid out for the rich and snobby. It’s fine, I suppose, but inherently ridiculous. If I want to do some version of fine dining, the last place I want to be is at a football game, and if I’m at a football game, the last thing I care about is the best meal of my life. The Niners experience, I suppose, is now pitched at people who think differently. Is this working out?
I’ve been to Levi’s Stadium twice; I happened to move cross-country just weeks after the Niners lost in that wild NFC Championship against the Seahawks. I flew home for the first regular season home game against the Bears. It was a somewhat unremarkable game, other than Colin Kaepernick pissing away the lead throughout the fourth quarter. I bought a standing-room ticket for $180 and wanted to die. But wildly enough, as I posted up at a railing somewhere near the 50-yard-line, who should walk in front of me, but my Candlestick friend Adam, Batman mask and all.
Later, again, strangely, I ran into my older friends from Berkeley while waiting for the Amtrak back up to the City. They’d spent 42 years on the 50-yard-line and with season tickets rights, they’d now spend their Sundays in corner endzone seats a couple levels into the sky.
My second trip to Santa Clara was different; I was covering Super Bowl 50, boiling in an auxiliary press box vaulted over the end zone on the “hot” side of the stadium, watching Cam Newton crap his pants on the field and go totally silent after the game.
Neither experience was representative of the regular season ins and outs of 49ers fans still living in the Bay Area, but when we talk about empty seats and the distance from San Francisco to Santa Clara, a lot of the immeasurable things like relationships and tradition get lost. All of it indexes in ways you can measure. Tickets on the secondary market are cheap as hell for this season already. A Seahawks-49ers game the Sunday after Thanksgiving will cost you a whole $62, thanks to wildly deflated demand. Considering the cheapest season tickets run $85 a game, it amounts to people paying not to go.
And who can blame them? When it comes to photos of the stands in Santa Clara, the joke is clearly not on the fans, but on the team ownership. It’s the 49ers, and Jed York, who look like assholes—which they are. When you see the empty home-side stands throughout the season, ask yourself what York is thinking as he sits in an air-conditioned box, taking in the same view.
It seems like the concerns over the stadium are growing within the 49ers front office. In a statement, the 49ers said:
We empathize with our fans whose experience at Levi’s Stadium Sunday may have been negatively impacted by the unseasonably warm weather the Bay Area has recently experienced. We proactively communicated the anticipated conditions to ticket holders prior to game day so that they could make the appropriate preparations. On game day, our staff worked diligently to provide fans with free water, sunscreen, cooling towels and personal misters while directing people to relief in shady or climate-controlled areas of the building.
Last year, we engaged one of the largest stadium architecture firms in the world to help us review a number of aspects of the stadium with the goal of enhancing the fan experience. Much of their feedback has been implemented this season and has already garnered a great response from our fans. We have also asked our partner to investigate feasible solutions to address concerns regarding warm weather days, both for the short and long terms.
Ostensibly, a real solution would have to be something like an FAA-compliant and earthquake-proof canopy. For now, the team should probably invest in massive numbers of giveaway sunglasses and make sure the team stores are full of tank tops to replace the long-sleeve shirts most of us own from the Candlestick days. Their scheduling suggests an awareness of the issues, with its tip-toeing around early-season Sunday afternoon games; this is not only kind of depressing, but probably untenable, and so a perfect fit for a stadium that is truly remarkable in one way: It’s already not what anybody—anybody—wants for the 49ers.