There are similarities between the 1981 49ers and this year’s team, especially the fact that the success of both teams was totally unexpected.
But the reaction of their fans has been quite different.
In 1981, as the team began piling victory upon victory — especially the 45-14 dismantling of the Dallas Cowboys in the sixth game of the season — fans grew very excited. I went to a couple of 49ers Booster Club meetings and they were positively giddy.
And, they started pouring into Candlestick for games, starting a string of true sellouts that went on for many years.
This year, while there are some fans who are very excited, there are many others who are skeptical, picking the team apart, saying they aren’t good enough to advance in the postseason.
And, they haven’t yet flooded the stadium on game day. For years, the 49ers have bought up the cheap seats so they could declare sellouts and be on home TV. I think that’s a smart policy because television is the best selling tool for a team, and as long as the NFL continues its ridiculous policy of blacking out games that aren’t sellouts, it’s the only way to go.
But, the 49ers have not had a legitimate sellout this season. From the press box, I can see anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 empty seats. There are always some fans who buy tickets but can’t get to the game, but those numbers are in the hundreds, not thousands.
It seemed the last home game, coming after that dramatic road win over the previously undefeated Detroit Lions, would be an exception, but the opponent was the sad sack Cleveland Browns, so the sea of empty seats remained.
What explains the difference in fan reaction between 1981 and this season? I suspect it’s because our society has undergone such a change. There was no social media in 1981. People actually wrote letters; younger readers may not know what they are, but they were written on typewriters, not computers, and put in a mail box.
Now, readers fire off emails without a thought. They’re in fantasy football leagues and they think they know far more about the game than they actually do. They dissect team strategy — the coach usually comes up short in these discussions — and disseminate their views through blogs. It all makes them feel very important. It’s difficult to be an unabashed fan if you’re constantly critical of the team and its coaches.
Sunday’s game against the New York Giants should be a real test for 49ers fans, a game with playoff implications against a very good team. The Niners have won six straight, and the Giants are leading the NFC East. For those fans who have been around a while, there are memories of the Giants winning the 1991 NFC Championship game, ending the 49ers’ hopes of winning a third straight Super Bowl.
Around the country, fans, media and NFL people will be watching this game with great interest, so, it will be especially interesting to see if 49ers fans come to the game or maintain their distance, continuing to talk about the team being boring and not playoff ready.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.