I found professional football a wondrous thing when I was first introduced to it, back in the 1960s.
Games between near-mythic gladiators were listened to on the radio, or read about in Monday’s newspaper, where reporters used the power of language to bring readers into the experience and atmosphere of the game. Home games weren’t broadcast on TV in that dark era, so it was either attend in person, listen on radio, or read about it. The networks only broadcast top-tier games on TV and our Forty-Niners weren’t in the top-tier in those days, not even close. When they played the NFL’s best teams (and weren’t home) we could have the pleasure of seeing them go down to ignominious defeat live.
When home in those days, the Forty-Niners played in Kezar Stadium, named for city benefactress Mary Kezar, which sat at the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park and adjoined a quaint residential neighborhood of Victorian homes. It was just down the hill from the University of San Francisco, which supplied some of the team’s early stars, and was as close to the geographic center of town as was possible to find for construction of a football stadium. Regular attendees knew not to drive there – such was madness. They walked, or took a bus.
The turf, maintained by the city’s parks and recreation department, was often muddy and brown. All the seats were plain wooden benches. Food was modest. Beer was cheap and free-flowing. Fans were the local hoi polloi. But when you were at Kezar, you knew damn well you were in San Francisco, watching the local boys play some football.
Kezar wasn’t luxe in any sense of the word but it was intimate. Fans were on top of the field and each other. A community was created every home game day. Season ticket holders became family with one another and, by the end of any game, with more casual attendees as well.
And, by God, the Forty-Niners, although never big winners at Kezar, were always quirky originals and fun to watch. On the offensive side of the ball, John Brodie, Ted Kwalick, Gene Washington. On the defense, there was Dave Wilcox, Rosie Taylor, Jimmie Johnson, Mel Phillips. Most players, certainly those without marquee status and million-dollar contracts, had off-season employment or owned small local businesses.
The team of that era and the place they played football couldn’t be any more different than today’s Forty-Niners or their stadium, sitting as it does in the midst of low-rise corporate office buildings, the Santa Clara Convention Center, a moat-like parking expanse and a dull and aging amusement park. The setting is classic American suburban, therefore automobile-based. Parking lots of various sizes encircle the stadium like the camps of a besieging army.
The stadium itself was all I imagined it to be from reading about it and seeing it on television – plastic, generic, electronic, corporate. The slope of the stands make most seats feel farther from the field than they are. Openings on the northern and southern ends dissipated fan noise and connection to the game and each other. Big screens broadcasting field action live compensate for poor visibility. Corporate logos are everywhere.
The architectural feature that dominates the stadium is the luxury suite/press box building, essentially a non-descript soulless high-rise of glass and metal, which could be any of the surrounding Santa Clara office buildings, or, really, any corporate campus building in Anywhere, USA.
In short, there is no sense of particular place or setting.
The economics of professional sports have changed since the 1960s, to be sure. The NFL, itself a nonprofit institution that earns over $12 billion in revenue from ticket sales and merchandizing, takes in additional $billions in corporate sponsorships, in-kind contributions and underwriting – and that amount is expected to grow 5% in the coming year. The average NFL team is worth something like $2 billion.
Running that sort of business requires commitment to amenities for sponsors and fans: luxury boxes, gourmet food, (gasp) seats with backs. And it requires maximizing revenue through instruments like seat licenses, high season ticket prices and fees. So, in a perverse way, it is altogether fitting for an organization like that to do its business inside something like Levi’s Stadium.
In that narrow way, the place is perfection, unlike, of course, the team that plays there.
In every way, the San Francisco Forty-Niners football team I saw last weekend were the worst possible exemplars of American football. No quirkiness. No drama. No dash. No personality. No fun. Rudderless. Aimless. Passionless. Unsuccessful and unengaged.
The Forty-Niners are awash in logos but drifting away from the very characteristics that made them, and the game they play, so special.