The first 49ers game I ever went to was against the Chicago Bears at Kezar Stadium. My dad took me. It was a December afternoon in 1967, and I was 14 years old. Kezar was a faded old bowl plunked down in the middle of the working-class Inner Sunset. Scary-looking brick Polytechnic High School was across from it, along with some houses whose roofs afforded a free view of the gridironâ€”a veritable West Coast Wrigley Field. Golden Gate Park, filled with still-mysterious creatures called hippies, lay just beyond the foliage of Kezar Drive.
My memory of that day is so old that it resembles an ancient newsreel, flickering and spotty. I vaguely remember that Kezar had narrow wooden bench seating, that the stadiumâ€™s paint was peeling off, and that the field seemed a long way away. I can see seagulls circling overhead and hear 60,000 people cheering, a sound the exact pitch of which Iâ€™ve never encountered again. My only distinct memory is of the Bearsâ€™ Gale Sayers returning a punt for a touchdown, the instant when he cut back against the Ninersâ€™ defense an imperishable fragment of violent athletic perfection.
In 1971, the Niners departed decrepit Kezar for sleek, modern Candlestick Park, which they shared with the San Francisco Giants. When Candlestick opened in 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon threw out the first ball and said, â€œThis will be one of the most beautiful baseball parks of all time.â€ Nixonâ€™s prediction did not prove accurate, but the first time I saw the â€™Stick, I would have agreed with him wholeheartedly. I was awed by the steep concrete bowl and the otherworldly escalator that climbed into the sky, the sea of orange seats, and, most of all, the big field, a green universe between chalk lines where epic deeds were going to be performed.
Over the years, I gathered indelible memories of the 49ers at Candlestick Park. Jerry Rice soaring into the air in the north end zone to break Jim Brownâ€™s all-time touchdown record. Joe Montana scanning the field. Steve Young outrunning defensive backs. A young girl sitting next to me crying with happiness when Alex Smith fired the winning bullet to Vernon Davis in the 2012 NFC divisional playoff, after which Davis himself wept. And, during the last 49ers game ever played at the â€™Stick, on December 23 of last year, in an ending too implausible to script, NaVorro Bowman returning an interception the length of the field and launching himself deliriously over the goal line to win the game.
The 49ers will produce more lasting memories. But they wonâ€™t produce them in San Francisco. This September, the San Francisco 49ers, the team I have been faithfully rooting for since that hazy day in â€™67, will start playing their games at their new Leviâ€™s Stadium in Santa Clara. Candlestick Park will be detonated in early 2015, joining the original Kezar Stadium in the trash can of history. An era that began in 1946, with the 49ersâ€™ very first game at Kezar as part of the now-defunct All-America Football Conference, has come to an end. For the first time since Tony Morabito, who ran a lumber-carrying business in his native city, launched the 49ers in front of a crowd of longshoremen, factory workers, and draymen, San Francisco does not have a professional football team that plays in the city. This feels strange and wrong.
The simple truth is that, unless youâ€™re a well-off resident of Santa Clara, San Mateo, or Santa Cruz County, or you passionately hated Candlestick (a not-so-small minority, even among San Francisco sports diehards), this move is a tough pill to swallow. The new stadium is priced for plutocrats, it is soul-shrivelingly corporate, and, of course, it is 40 exhaust-choked miles from San Francisco. But an equally simple truth is that for most of us fans, none of that necessarily matters. Because none of it is going to derail our love affair with the 49ers.
The dirty little secret about being a fan is that youâ€™ll put up with anything. Thereâ€™s pretty much nothing the team can do to permanently alienate you. The 49ers can hire Joe Thomas as general manager and Dennis Erickson as coach. They can start Jim Druckenmiller at quarterback. They can go 2â€“14. They can draft A.J. Jenkins. They can sign washed-up O.J. Simpson and insufferable Deion Sanders. And yes, they can leave town and build a $1.3 billion new stadium an hour away and frisk their loyal fans for thousands of dollars just for the right to spend even more on their season tickets (the dreaded seat license arrangement, more on which later), and weâ€™re still going to watch them every Sunday. Because the 49ers are not their owners, not their front office, and not their stadium. Theyâ€™re a Platonic concept, an unchanging, constantly changing entity made up of all the teams that have run onto the field over the years. And those of us who have drunk the red-and-gold Kool-Aid are not about to let the financial maneuverings of some suits deprive us of one of our favorite things in life.
For me, the move is mostly moot because, like a vast majority of fans, I usually watch the 49ers on TV. Iâ€™m as committed a fan as they come: Iâ€™ve only missed a handful of games in 35 years, the words â€œBilly â€˜White Shoesâ€™ Johnsonâ€ induce PTSD-like symptoms, and Iâ€™m still brooding about that phantom pass interference call on Eric Wright. But Iâ€™ve only been to about a dozen 49ers games in my life. The tickets were always too expensive (ah, I did not then know the meaning of the word), and Iâ€™m happy enough screaming at the set at home. So on a practical level, it doesnâ€™t really make that much difference to me whether the 49ers play at Candlestick Point or at the bottom of the bay in Santa Clara. Ninety-nine percent of the time, Iâ€™m not going to be at either place.
And then thereâ€™s the other reason not to hold a grudge about being jilted: The new stadium is way, way, way better than the old oneâ€”and thatâ€™s accounting for the traffic jams and concession glitches that bedeviled the park at its grand opening last month. (The 49ers say that the problems will be addressed.) I went on a media tour of Leviâ€™s Stadium this summer, then followed that up by joining a goodbye tour of Candlestick, so the comparison is fresh in my mind. And I can attest that Leviâ€™s is to Candlestick as a shiny new maroon Bentley convertible with a chauffeur, a 42-inch HD TV, a Rogue RA:1K stereo, and a wet bar stocked with ChÃ¢teau dâ€™Yquem is to a yellow 1962 Volkswagen bug with a rusty body, torn vinyl, three empty Bud cans under the front seat, an engine that gets vapor lock after an hour on the freeway, and a worthless yet bust-inviting roach in the ashtray.
The most dramatic and obvious difference between the two stadiums is in the concourses. Candlestickâ€™s public walkways were one step up from the Black Hole of Calcutta. Negotiating that narrow concrete passageway with a tray full of beers as a wall-to-wall phalanx of drunken yahoos bore down on you would have taxed even the lateral-movement abilities of Gale Sayers himself. Leviâ€™s concourses, on the other hand, are like the fashion ethos of the 1970s blue jean: Theyâ€™re wide. They stretch on and on. They allow even the most unsteady fan to wobble to his or her seat without colliding with half of the population of Los Gatos on the way.Â
Then there are the bathrooms. Candlestick appears to have been designed by one of those Werner Erhardâ€“like behavior-modifying sadists for whom going to the bathroom indicates weakness of will. When the secret history of the â€™Stick is written, its longest chapter will be about the legions of fans who missed epic moments while waiting to relieve themselves. Leviâ€™s, on the other hand, will have 28 percent more plumbing fixtures than Candlestick and 250 more toilets. The only people complaining about this are catheter salesmen.
The contrast between the locker rooms is even starker. The old 49ersâ€™ clubhouses at the â€™Stick were ridiculously cramped, with Montana and Rice squeezed into a little space at the top of some absurdly placed stairs. The locker room below had only eight showers. The dingy, smelly tunnel that led out to the field was so low that current 49ers guard Alex Boone, who is 6 foot 8, had to duck his head when running down it. At Leviâ€™s, the 49ersâ€™ locker room is like a temple for oversize gladiators, with genuine walnut finishes on the 10-foot-tall lockers, high ceilings, and big TVs lining the walls. Even the visitorsâ€™ locker room (which, per hallowed, this-is-our-house custom, is much less opulent and spacious than the home locker room) is far nicer than the 49ersâ€™ lockers at the â€™Stick.
Then there are the bells and whistles. Candlestick, not to put too fine a point on it, didnâ€™t have any. Its one attempt at being state-of-the-art, a radiant heating system, failed to work, prompting a famous lawsuit by flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli, who wore a parka into the courtroom to demonstrate how cold his box was. Leviâ€™s, as you might guess, is wired up the wazoo. The two 200-by-48-foot scoreboards at Leviâ€™s are the largest of their kind in any outdoor NFL stadium, and almost 10 and a half times (!) bigger than the scoreboard at Candlestick. As befits its location in the heart of Silicon Valley, the stadium has 40 times more broadband capability than any other ball field in the country. You can push a button on your Samsung Galaxy S5 and a gigantic genie will appear, bearing in his brawny arms a perfumed houri whose veiled charms are redolent of the dusky east. OK, that app is still in beta, but you can order a beer at a concession stand with your phone and pick it up without waiting, or have your food delivered to your seat. If you order at the stands, the wait shouldnâ€™t be too bad: Thereâ€™s one cash register for every 185 fans, two-thirds more than the ratio at the â€™Stick. And the food will be better, too, with dishes like Rajasthani lamb curry and Niman Ranch pulled pork sandwiches with apple-jalapeÃ±o coleslaw and homemade barbecue sauce, which can be washed down with 40 different beers.
Another striking difference between Leviâ€™s and Candlestick is the extent of the private spaces. Candlestick was built long before teams had hit upon the idea of turning over the most desirable seats in the stadium to corporate clients who would pay big bucks to sit in glassed-in luxury suites and private warrens. The new stadiumâ€™s corporate clubs are vast and opulent, and there are also 9,000 club seats and 176 luxury suites (the â€™Stick had 94). The crowning privatized glory is the rooftop, whose panoramic views of the South Bay and access to a beautiful green roof, luxuriant with vegetation, are sure to dazzle the VIPs and other paying guests who are allowed entry. As our gaggle of media serfs walked for the fi rst and probably last time through one of the corporate clubs, past a custom wine refrigerator fi lled with high-end cabs and pinots, it struck me that this space was so mega-expensive that it made the $325 seats nearby seem downright democratic. The opera feels egalitarian by comparison. If youâ€™re a techno-libertarian who ascribes to a corporationsare- people philosophy, you may find this encouraging. If youâ€™re not, then all that gleaming corporate space may strike you as a tad creepy. But itâ€™s a big part of how a modern, $1.3 billion stadium gets paid for.Â
Last year was a busy one for public giveaways to the National Football League. In Virginia, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell, who styles himself as a budget-slashing conservative crusader, took $4 million from taxpayersâ€™ pockets and handed the money to the Washington Redskins, for the team to upgrade a workout facility. Hoping to avoid scrutiny, McDonnell approved the gift while the state legislature was out of session. The Redskinsâ€™ owner, Dan Snyder, has a net worth estimated by Forbes at $1 billion. But even billionaires like to receive expensive gifts.
Taxpayers in Hamilton County, Ohio, which includes Cincinnati, were hit with a bill for $26 million in debt service for the stadiums where the NFLâ€™s Bengals and Major League Baseballâ€™s Reds play, plus another $7 million to cover the direct operating costs for the Bengalsâ€™ field. Pro-sports subsidies exceeded the $23.6 million that the county cut from health-and-human-services spending in the current two-year budget (and represent a sizable chunk of the $119 million cut from Hamilton County schools). Press materials distributed by the Bengals declare that the team gives back about $1 million annually to Ohio community groups. Sound generous? Thatâ€™s about 4 percent of the public subsidy the Bengals receive annually from Ohio taxpayers.
In Minnesota, the Vikings wanted a new stadium, and were vaguely threatening to decamp to another state if they didnâ€™t get it. The Minnesota legislature, facing a $1.1 billion budget deficit, extracted $506 million from taxpayers as a gift to the team, covering roughly half the cost of the new facility. Some legislators argued that the Vikings should reveal their finances: privately held, the team is not required to disclose operating data, despite the public subsidies it receives. In the end, the Minnesota legislature folded, giving away public money without the Vikingsâ€™ disclosing information in return. The teamâ€™s principal owner, Zygmunt Wilf, had a 2011 net worth estimated at $322 million; with the new stadium deal, the Vikingsâ€™ value rose about $200 million, by Forbesâ€™s estimate, further enriching Wilf and his family. They will make a token annual payment of $13 million to use the stadium, keeping the lionâ€™s share of all NFL ticket, concession, parking, and, most important, television revenues.
After approving the $506 million handout, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton said, â€œIâ€™m not one to defend the economics of professional sports â€¦ Any deal you make in that world doesnâ€™t make sense from the way the rest of us look at it.â€ Even by the standards of political pandering, Daytonâ€™s irresponsibility was breathtaking.
In California, the City of Santa Clara broke ground on a $1.3 billion stadium for the 49ers. Officially, the deal includes $116 million in public funding, with private capital making up the rest. At least, thatâ€™s the way the deal was announced. A new government entity, the Santa Clara Stadium Authority, is borrowing $950 million, largely from a consortium led by Goldman Sachs, to provide the majority of the â€œprivateâ€ financing. Who are the board members of the Santa Clara Stadium Authority? The members of the Santa Clara City Council. In effect, the city of Santa Clara is providing most of the â€œprivateâ€ funding. Should something go wrong, taxpayers will likely take the hit.
The 49ers will pay Santa Clara $24.5 million annually in rent for four decades, which makes the deal, from the teamâ€™s standpoint, a 40-year loan amortized at less than 1 percent interest. At the time of the agreement, 30-year Treasury bonds were selling for 3 percent, meaning the Santa Clara contract values the NFL as a better risk than the United States government.
Although most of the capital for the new stadium is being underwritten by the public, most football revenue generated within the facility will be pocketed by Denise DeBartolo York, whose net worth is estimated at $1.1 billion, and members of her family. York took control of the team in 2000 from her brother, Edward DeBartolo Jr., after he pleaded guilty to concealing an extortion plot by a former governor of Louisiana. Brother and sister inherited their money from their father, Edward DeBartolo Sr., a shopping-mall developer who became one of the nationâ€™s richest men before his death in 1994. A generation ago, the DeBartolos made their money the old-fashioned way, by hard work in the free market. Today, the familyâ€™s wealth rests on political influence and California tax subsidies. Nearly all NFL franchises are family-owned, converting public subsidies and tax favors into high living for a modern-day feudal elite.
Pro-football coaches talk about accountability and self-reliance, yet pro-football owners routinely binge on giveaways and handouts. A year after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the Saints resumed hosting NFL games: justifiably, a national feel-good story. The finances were another matter. Taxpayers have, in stages, provided about $1 billion to build and later renovate what is now known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. (All monetary figures in this article have been converted to 2013 dollars.) The Saintsâ€™ owner, Tom Benson, whose net worth Forbes estimates at $1.2 billion, keeps nearly all revenue from ticket sales, concessions, parking, and broadcast rights. Taxpayers even footed the bill for the addition of leather stadium seats with cup holders to cradle the drinks they are charged for at concession stands. And corporate welfare for the Saints doesnâ€™t stop at stadium construction and renovation costs. Though Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal claims to be an anti-spending conservative, each year the state of Louisiana forcibly extracts up to $6 million from its residentsâ€™ pockets and gives the cash to Benson as an â€œinducement paymentâ€â€”the actual term usedâ€”to keep Benson from developing a wandering eye.
In NFL city after NFL city, this pattern is repeated. CenturyLink Field, where the Seattle Seahawks play, opened in 2002, with Washington State taxpayers providing $390 million of the $560 million construction cost. The Seahawks, owned by Paul Allen, one of the richest people in the world, pay the state about $1 million annually in rent in return for most of the revenue from ticket sales, concessions, parking, and broadcasting (all told, perhaps $200 million a year). Average people are taxed to fund Allenâ€™s private-jet lifestyle.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of six Super Bowls, the most of any franchise, play at Heinz Field, a glorious stadium that opens to a view of the serenely flowing Ohio and Allegheny Rivers. Pennsylvania taxpayers contributed about $260 million to help build Heinz Fieldâ€”and to retire debt from the Steelersâ€™ previous stadium. Most game-day revenues (including television fees) go to the Rooney family, the majority owner of the team. The teamâ€™s owners also kept the $75 million that Heinz paid to name the facility.
Judith Grant Long, a Harvard University professor of urban planning, calculates that league-wide, 70 percent of the capital cost of NFL stadiums has been provided by taxpayers, not NFL owners. Many cities, counties, and states also pay the stadiumsâ€™ ongoing costs, by providing power, sewer services, other infrastructure, and stadium improvements. When ongoing costs are added, Longâ€™s research finds, the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Tennessee Titans have turned a profit on stadium subsidies aloneâ€”receiving more money from the public than they needed to build their facilities. Longâ€™s estimates show that just three NFL franchisesâ€”the New England Patriots, New York Giants, and New York Jetsâ€”have paid three-quarters or more of their stadium capital costs.
Many NFL teams have also cut sweetheart deals to avoid taxes. The futuristic new field where the Dallas Cowboys play, with its 80,000 seats, go-go dancers on upper decks, and built-in nightclubs, has been appraised at nearly $1 billion. At the basic property-tax rate of Arlington, Texas, where the stadium is located, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would owe at least $6 million a year in property taxes. Instead he receives no property-tax bill, so Tarrant County taxes the property of average people more than it otherwise would.
In his office at 345 Park Avenue in Manhattan, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell must smile when Texas exempts the Cowboysâ€™ stadium from taxes, or the governor of Minnesota bows low to kiss the feet of the NFL. The National Football League is about two things: producing high-quality sports entertainment, which it does very well, and exploiting taxpayers, which it also does very well. Goodell should knowâ€”his pay, about $30 million in 2011, flows from an organization that does not pay corporate taxes.
Thatâ€™s rightâ€”extremely profitable and one of the most subsidized organizations in American history, the NFL also enjoys tax-exempt status. On paper, it is the Nonprofit Football League.
This situation came into being in the 1960s, when Congress granted antitrust waivers to what were then the National Football League and the American Football League, allowing them to merge, conduct a common draft, and jointly auction television rights. The merger was good for the sport, stabilizing pro football while ensuring quality of competition. But Congress gave away the store to the NFL while getting almost nothing for the public in return.
The 1961 Sports Broadcasting Act was the first piece of gift-wrapped legislation, granting the leagues legal permission to conduct television-broadcast negotiations in a way that otherwise would have been price collusion. Then, in 1966, Congress enacted Public Law 89â€‘800, which broadened the limited antitrust exemptions of the 1961 law. Essentially, the 1966 statute said that if the two pro-football leagues of that era mergedâ€”they would complete such a merger four years later, forming the current NFLâ€”the new entity could act as a monopoly regarding television rights. Apple or ExxonMobil can only dream of legal permission to function as a monopoly: the 1966 law was effectively a license for NFL owners to print money. Yet this sweetheart deal was offered to the NFL in exchange only for its promise not to schedule games on Friday nights or Saturdays in autumn, when many high schools and colleges play football.
Public Law 89-800 had no nameâ€”unlike, say, the catchy USA Patriot Act or the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Congress presumably wanted the bill to be low-profile, given that its effect was to increase NFL ownersâ€™ wealth at the expense of average people.
While Public Law 89-800 was being negotiated with congressional leaders, NFL lobbyists tossed in the sort of obscure provision that is the essence of the lobbyistâ€™s art. The phrase or professional football leagues was added to Section 501(c)6 of 26 U.S.C., the Internal Revenue Code. Previously, a sentence in Section 501(c)6 had granted not-for-profit status to â€œbusiness leagues, chambers of commerce, real-estate boards, or boards of trade.â€ Since 1966, the code has read: â€œbusiness leagues, chambers of commerce, real-estate boards, boards of trade, or professional football leagues.â€
The insertion of professional football leagues into the definition of not-for-profit organizations was a transparent sellout of public interest. This decision has saved the NFL uncounted millions in tax obligations, which means that ordinary people must pay higher taxes, public spending must decline, or the national debt must increase to make up for the shortfall. Nonprofit status applies to the NFLâ€™s headquarters, which administers the league and its all-important television contracts. Individual teams are for-profit and presumably pay income taxesâ€”though because all except the Green Bay Packers are privately held and do not disclose their finances, itâ€™s impossible to be sure.