“Who’s got it better than us?!? Nooooo-body!”
Just a couple years ago, that was a rallying cry for the San Francisco 49ers under coach Jim Harbaugh. The iconic NFL franchise enjoyed its greatest run since the late 80s and early 90s, reaching three consecutive NFC Championship Games and coming within one completed pass of winning the 2013 Super Bowl.
Now? It’s a dark bit of nostalgic comedy. If you’re a 49ers fan (as, full disclosure, I am), plenty of people have it better than you.
Perhaps even more than other sports, football is a game of rote numbers and measurements. You get four downs to advance the ball 10 yards; varying achievements are assigned corresponding numerical values; stats and averages measure the value of teams and players.
But sometimes, just sometimes, it comes down to mojo. To karma. To energy. To vibes. Choose your non-linear noun.
Now is one of those times, as the Niners’ red and gold loses its shine with startling speed.
First, Jim Harbaugh. Now reportedly Frank Gore and Patrick Willis. This week has already brought a devastating succession of hits for Niners fans. But the biggest one actually came before last season, and it set the table for the recent upheaval threatening to the banish the Niners back to the basement of the NFC West.
More money, more problems
The 49ers inaugurated their fancy new $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium with a pre-season game against the Denver Broncos last August — and oh, what a stadium!
Gotta update your Facebook status? Cutting edge Wi-Fi’s got you covered. Hungry mid-game? Peruse a plethora of high-falutin’ cuisines to titillate your every taste bud. Gotta entertain some corporate clients? Behold club suites, bars, restaurants and luxury boxes galore.
The Niners lost that game 34-0. Fans complained about extreme heat and a lack of shade — one literally died after collapsing in the stands. After the game, grounds crews had to rip up the playing surface — twice; turns out the billion-dollar corporate palace that had everything didn’t have a field that met NFL standards.
It was a pre-season game, and thus meaningless in the technical sense. But viewed through a certain prism, you could pack a whole lot of meaning into what all went wrong.
Lest we forget: Levi’s Stadium, now home of the San Francisco 49ers, is actually located an hour south of, you know, San Francisco. It’s in Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley — where the money is, baby.
But many longtime 49ers fans felt left out by the move — with sky-high ticket costs and seat licensing they could no longer afford to support their favorite team. Not that they missed much this past year if they craved passion and atmosphere as much as touchdowns and interceptions.
To get to Levi’s Stadium, you drive forever through endless Silicon Valley nothingness. You tailgate in an amusement park’s parking lot, with cars jammed together and no real room to toss the football around. Inside the stadium, the atmosphere is tepid: Many fans — “attendees” is probably a better word — seem more distracted by restaurants and status updates than interested in the actual game.
“Will opponents ever fear playing in this building?” Bay Area sports columnist Tim Kawakami wrote last November. “So far, no.”
Contrast that with Candlestick Park, the 49ers’ home for decades prior. That stadium was known for getting raucous — sometimes too much so. The gravel lots there offered not rigidly marked spaces, but room to run beer-fueled pass-routes for imaginary touchdowns. At halftime, you could check out the San Francisco skyline from the stadium’s outer rim.
Now you go to a San Francisco 49ers game in Santa Clara and you don’t feel like you’re at an event that has the slightest thing to do with San Francisco, the team’s namesake. Thats because it doesn’t.
The 49ers are hardly the first pro sports team to move to the suburbs and cater to corporate clientele at the cost of atmosphere and authenticity. They certainly won’t be the last. But they do stand as a reminder that the Sports Gods don’t always take kindly to money-mongering hubris.
Better days ahead?
As the Niners struggled to an 8-8 record last year in Levi’s Stadium’s inaugural season, the air of dysfunction surrounding the team steadily increased. Now fast forward to this week, and the 49ers as we knew them these past few years are officially over.
Harbaugh, the coach beloved by many fans, is gone after a December move that 49ers CEO Jed York termed as mutual. Harbaugh says it was hardly so. It emerged Monday that linebacker Patrick Willis abruptly plans to retire, while defensive end Justin Smith considers doing the same thing. Offensive guard Mike Iupati plans to sign elsewhere.
But perhaps most symbolic of all, longtime franchise running back Frank Gore appears ready to end his career with another team. First it was the Eagles, now it might be the Colts — either way, he looks gone after his trainer bashed the team on Facebook. This just days after York spoke optimistically of the team keeping Gore.
In Gore’s case especially, these aren’t just players — they’re pillars, mainstays who helped lift the team from the toilet to the top over the past several years.
Sure, maybe Willis still would have decided to retire had the team remained in genuine Super Bowl contention. But no matter: It’s all part of the same dark cloud hanging over the 49ers since they made the move to Santa Clara in 2014 following a 12-4 season and third-straight NFC title game appearance. The list of karmic comeuppance goes on, but we’ll stop cataloguing every instance for now.
Niners fans looking for a target have found one in York, the team’s young top man who became CEO through family connections. They gave him no quarter on Twitter as the team began to implode this week:
— Lexie Forman-Ortiz (@LexieFO) March 9, 2015
— Andy Paul (@trinam3) March 9, 2015
— Danny (@DannyOglivie) March 9, 2015
As the tea leaves showed Harbaugh was on his way out last year, the scuttlebutt was that York and general manager Trent Baalke wanted the 49ers franchise to bear their stamp and their identity — that Harbaugh was getting too much credit and had become the face of the organization.
For better or worse, York has become that face as he and Baalke look to replace the players Harbaugh led to regain some of the proud franchise’s former glory. Can York rebuild a successful team in his image? If so, all will be forgiven, and he’ll have that sparkling new Silicon Valley home to celebrate in. Right now, however, a quick turnaround doesn’t seem likely.
As the disappointed Niners fans who once filled Candlestick in their Gore and Willis jerseys learned this past season, all that glitters isn’t red and gold.