The "Leitch Across America Tour" kicks off this week in the San Francisco Bay Area. (I'm aware that title sounds like a series of geographic inseminatory accidents. Just go with it.) Every couple of months, I'll be visiting a new city for a week, exploring the local sports culture, talking to fans and luminaries, attending games, and trying to figure out what makes the fanbases tick. The plan is to hit cities huge and small, from major metropolises to smaller college towns. The only way I know the world is through its sports; Leitch Across America is an opportunity to understand it better and put it into context -- a sort of Lonely Planet of sports.
We're still working out the kinks this week; we'll have this honed to a science after we do a couple of these. But for now, to quote the final "Calvin & Hobbes," It's a magical world out there. Let's go exploring.
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- This is going to be the last season for professional sports at Candlestick Park. No one's sure yet if they're going to implode it Kingdome-style, take it down bit by bit old Busch Stadium-style, or just let it sit there abandoned for years Tiger Stadium-style, but after the 49ers play their final game there this year, whenever that is, the place is done. (Nothing's confirmed, but they're probably gonna blow it up.)
It has lasted for 53 years, an eternity, really, and it's worth noting that it wasn't particularly beloved from the beginning. Anytime you get frustrated about billionaire owners using public funds to build stadiums to fill their own pockets, note the horror of the Candlestick Park swindle of the '50s, which helped keep the city in debt until the '90s and got so ugly that it included the mayor of San Francisco telling newspaper reporters that the leader of the grand jury investigating his role in bilking the public was "a drunk." Candlestick Park has been a junky fossil from the beginning, and all the great moments there ("The Catch," the uplifting response after the 1989 World Series earthquake, the last-ever announced Beatles concert) are somewhat devalued by the fact that they took place there. Roger Maris once said, "The trouble with this ballpark is that they built it alongside the bay. They should have built it under the bay." No one's going to miss Candlestick Park.
So obviously: The concern is not that the San Francisco 49ers are moving. The concern is that they are not going to be the San Francisco 49ers anymore. Because they won't be.
Oh, sure, they're keeping the same name, and if you don't know the Bay Area at all, you probably won't even notice anything different other than the blimp shots during 49ers games next year. But it needs to be explicitly clear: The 49ers are going to be nowhere near San Francisco.
Construction is well underway on Levi's Stadium -- even if it is the name of the company, that possessive is deadly for a stadium title; who is this guy Levi, and why does he own the place? -- in Santa Clara, Calif., and it'll not only be ready for kickoff in 2014, it'll be ready to host the Super Bowl in 2016. When you come in for a game, though, know that you're much better off flying into the San Jose airport (6 ½ miles away) than the San Francisco one (31 miles). AT&T Park, the home of the Giants and considered to be one of the most charming urban parks in the country, is close enough to Candlestick Park that you could walk it (if you weren't scared by the neighborhood surrounding the Stick, anyway). If you're a runner, you can get there in 50 minutes. You won't get to Levi's Stadium that fast in a car.
All told, the new 49ers' stadium is roughly 40 miles away from San Francisco. In the four major sports, the closest any team comes to being that far away from the town in their name is the 30 miles the Detroit Pistons play from Detroit and the 20 miles the Tampa Bay Rays play from Tampa. (And it's actually closer to the Bay.) The most common comparison the 49ers use is how far the New England Patriots are from Boston (roughly 30 miles), but a) they're not called the Boston Patriots; b) you can take a train from Boston to the stadium. Unless my geography is at a third-grade level -- and this is without question a possibility -- this is sort of unprecedented, like the minor-league Somerset Patriots calling themselves "the New York Patriots."
I've heard this a lot this week so far from fans: We've lost the 49ers. I couldn't figure out if this was true or not. It sounded true, but I don't live here. So I rented a car and drove down there.
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I left the Avis rental counter in Union Square at roughly 10:30 am yesterday and, roughly 55 minutes later, I was looking at the massive husk of Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara. I didn't hit much traffic -- and nothing close to what I'd encounter on a gameday -- but that still doesn't strike me as disastrous. If I tried to drive from Times Square to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, I'd hopefully make it in time for happy hour. Of course, if I were smart, I'd just take public transportation, and it's not entirely clear to me that'll be an option, outside of Amtrak. If you live in San Francisco and don't have a car -- as many San Franciscans don't -- you might just be out of luck. Still, I was driving 40 miles out of a major American city on a weekday. I had expected a lot worse.
The first thing I noticed is how massive the stadium is. It seats 1,400 fewer people than Candlestick but covers almost 1,000,000 more square feet. It's a bit staggering, actually; Santa Clara is not a town with a lot of tall buildings, so taken outside any urban context, the stadium almost looks from afar like an alien ship descending upon an unsuspecting populace. It's a bit disconcerting: Right next door is the California's Great America amusement park, and the roller coasters look comparatively dinky and lame. Though I do love the idea of going on a roller coaster and then walking over to a football game.
Santa Clara has a population of 118,263 people and is right in the middle of tech paradise, with Cupertino (Apple), Sunnyvale (Yahoo!), San Jose (Cisco), Menlo Park (Facebook) and Mountain View (Google) all nearby. (We're talking California "nearby" here. It's still 10-15 miles between places.) The major company in Santa Clara, and the primary employer, is Intel, which is about two miles from the stadium. Right across the street from the stadium is David's Banquet Hall and Conference Center, which, I suspect, is about to be overwhelmed. The houses near the stadium are the ugly identical "Western" rowhouses that are popular in densely populated California suburbs; they all are straight from "Edward Scissorhands," only with stucco roofs. It's definitely wealthy here. Just down the road from Candlestick Park is the Bret Harte Elementary School, generally considered one of the poorer public schools in the country. Just down the road from Levi's Stadium? The Santa Clara Golf and Tennis Club.
But as nice as it is, Santa Clara is a bit bland -- at least right now. The only Mexican restaurant I could find nearby was basically Chevy's with a different name, in the middle of a corporate complex -- everything around the stadium is a corporate complex -- and is one of those places where both the patrons and the servers are wearing the name of their employers on their shirt. There's one park nearby, one of those fancy nice new ones that are so safe and overprotective that they're not really very much fun for kids. There's a VTA stop trolley right nearby, but it's tiny, and I was there for roughly two hours and didn't see a single train. It's all very … easy, and therefore indistinguishable from almost any other upscale California suburb. It honestly reminded me of Encino. It's tough to see how this area doesn't get overwhelmed when the Super Bowl is here.
Of course: The Super Bowl was never coming to Candlestick. From all accounts, San Francisco wasn't willing to come even close to offering what Santa Clara was to get the stadium built, and they probably didn't have a place to put it anyway. (There was some initial talk of keeping the new stadium in the Bayview district, where Candlestick is, but there were countless environment issues, and that still wouldn't solve the issue of just how inconveniently located, highway-wise, Candlestick was initially built.) All told, San Francisco officials were prudent and smart in not giving the 49ers the public funds they wanted. That doesn't happen often enough; no one else might remember how awful Candlestick's construction was for the city initially, but city officials sure did.
There's a risk of doing too much Levi's vs. Candlestick comparison -- there isn't a stadium in the country, no matter how lousy, that wouldn't come out ahead when contrasted with Candlestick -- but it's undeniable that Candlestick was an untenable situation moving forward. The 49ers had to move somewhere, and it's a lot easier to build a baseball stadium in a densely populated urban area than it is a football stadium. (As New York can tell you.) Santa Clara is clean, wealthy and has space. For 49ers ownership, the move was a no-brainer.
But there's more to it than that, and it's something that strikes at the heart of the Bay Area experience. When you talk to people who live in Silicon Valley and/or work for some of the massive tech companies in the region, you get the sense that a move like this is long overdue: That the 49ers are better off in the Valley regardless of the sweetheart stadium deal. The 49ers have long been the crowd jewel of San Francisco sports -- even after the Giants have won two World Series in three years, you still see more 49ers gear on the streets -- and Silicon Valley just stole them away from the city. Not just stole them, even: It's more that they're in the only logical place for them to be, the only place in the area thriving and functional enough to house them. They are here because they are supposed to be. As one Santa Clara resident emailed me:
The demographics of the fan base has been shifting south for years. This will not be an overnight "oh, look, there are more season ticket holders from the Peninsula and South Bay." And the main reason for this: money. Take a look at this chart. The personal wealth concentration is not in San Francisco; it's in Silicon Valley. And this excludes the corporate dollars, which are centered down here as well. From a cold-blooded economics view, the Niners did the smartest thing possible: They built a stadium where the money lives and works.
San Francisco is all about the new new thing (Twitter, Reddit), but the big boys -- Apple, Cisco, Facebook, Intel -- they're all in the Valley. The question is not one of whether or not the 49ers should have moved out of San Francisco. The question seems to be why it took them so long.
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Levi's Stadium isn't far enough along to be able to tell much about it: They've still got a ton of work to do. All you can tell is that it is huge. I bet it's going to be fantastic, though. It's costing $1.2 billion. It better be.
On the drive back to the city after lunch and one last lap around the new stadium, I passed Candlestick. I've never actually been to Candlestick, and when there's nothing going on there, the area is almost entirely empty. So I ducked off the freeway, drove to the Point and got out of my car to check out the old bird.
The minute I stepped out, the wind blew the hat off my head on a day that hadn't been particularly windy. I stepped in a huge pothole. And there was a dead pigeon right next to my car. And Candlestick was as ugly close up as it has always looked on television. I thought I'd have a big, say-goodbye-to-history moment. Instead, I grew bored about five minutes in and got back into my car.
I love the idea of a downtown park, like AT&T Park, or Ford Field in Detroit, or Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, a place you can walk to, a place that feels organically connected to its city. And I'm extremely excited about some of those plans for a new Warriors stadium, which look dazzling.
But as much as I want to get my dander up about the 49ers keeping the name of a city they've left (and they really should consider another name: Maybe "Golden State" again?), and heading to what's essentially a suburb (without much good food nearby), and taking a sweetheart public deal … it's tough to argue they didn't do the right thing for themselves and the city and the area here. That's not what I was expecting to find when I hopped in that car and drove south. But I think it's probably the truth.
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