There are only two reasons, symbolic and economic, to keep a pro football team within the city limits — and neither appliesto the politicians’ attempt to keep the 49ers in San Francisco.
The symbolism is important to a lesser city. Cities such as Cincinnati, St. Louis and Kansas City would be virtually unknown if it weren’t for the presence of Major League Baseball and NFL teams.
Once, San Francisco was in that category. Then, Mayor George Christopher campaigned successfully to get the Giants to move from New York to San Francisco in 1958 because a San Francisco dateline would appear on baseball game stories nationally.
That is no longer necessary. San Francisco is well known nationally and even internationally; for years, it has been known as the favorite city of Europeans. Tourism is booming. The City was even the focus of the political campaign this fall, as Republicans tried unsuccessfully to scare voters about the “San Francisco values” that would surface if Nancy Pelosi were to become speaker of the House. Name recognition is not a problem for San Francisco.
Economically, there is a big difference in what baseball and football bring to a city.
Baseball teams play 81 home games every year. Fans eat at restaurants around the park. Some who come from areas of some distance stay in hotels in the home city. New ballparks have revived dormant downtown areas in Baltimore, Cleveland and Denver. San Francisco doesn’t need that kind of help, but, even so, the Giants’ park has stimulated economic activity in China Basin.
Football does not give a city that kind of economic boost. There are only 10 games, regular season and exhibition, unless a team makes the playoffs, which the 49ers haven’t since 2002. As the 49ers’ presentation in Santa Clara last week emphasized, the tailgating experience is critical to the fans’ enjoyment. They don’t eat in local restaurants and they seldom stay in local hotels.
There is one notable exception to this rule: Hosting the Super Bowl can be a huge moneymaker for a city. Because relatively few tickets are allotted to the home city, people come in from around the country, staying in local hotels and eating in local restaurants. And the Super Bowl is played at the one time of the year when San Francisco tourism lags.
But guess what? It probably would make little difference to San Francisco if the Super Bowl were played in Santa Clara or San Francisco.
The money spent by visitors at that time is spent primarily in the week leading up to the game. San Francisco prospered with the one Super Bowl played in this area in January 1985 because visitors stayed in San Francisco, going to Stanford only on game day. It was a lose-lose situation for Stanford, which had to pay for extra police on game day but got no economic benefit. It would be the same for Santa Clara. Can you imagine visitors opting to stay in Santa Clara instead of San Francisco during the week leading up to a game?
The 49ers may have started in San Francisco, but much of their fan base has shifted to the Peninsula and South Bay. Mayor Gavin Newsom should spend his time on more critical problems. San Francisco does not need the 49ers.