When the San Francisco 49ers were flying high during the Bill Walsh era, envious critics dismissed their fans as the “white-wine-and-brie” crowd, unworthy of the long-held notion that football is a real man’s sport.
To be sure, Niner fans at Candlestick Park dressed more like preppies than the outlaw motorcycle persona favored by partisans of the Oakland Raiders, and Walsh’s teams had a reputation for outsmarting rather than out-muscling their opponents. The Genius always insisted his players were just as tough as the next team’s.
But now that the red-and-gold are preparing to play their first game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara on Aug. 17 (Will the place shrink when it rains? Is this the Field of Jeans?), that effete canard may actually become reality. For those of us who attended games at Kezar Stadium and Candlestick Park, it’s as if we hardly know you anymore.
Concession stands in the eco-friendly, energy-efficient, wi-fi enhanced edifice will sell 16 types of wine and an assortment of cheeses. In all, fans will have 180 menu items to choose from. The stadium boasts more vegan options than any other stadium in the National Football League, “and none of them are tofu,” according to a spokeswoman.
People who just want a hot dog will get hormone- and nitrate-free franks in natural casings steamed over an organic tomato and mustard seed broth (honest, I’m not making this up). They’ll be served on LaBoulanger buns that are custom baked, so that the final product won’t overwhelm the meat and condiments with dough, according to Centerplate concessions, which has the food contract.
For those who don’t want to eat with the common rabble, celebrity chef Michael Mina will have a year-round restaurant at the stadium with a parking lot that will turn into a tailgate section on game days.
Actually, there doesn’t figure to be much in the way of common rabble at the stadium. According to one estimate, two nose-bleed seats, two beers and two hot dogs at Levi’s will cost $243, up from $88.50 at Candlestick. Then there’s the licensing fees of $2,000 to $80,000 per fan for the right to buy season tickets. Thank God for those Silicon Valley stock options!
The 49ers have come a long way since their start at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, a facility that was so poorly designed that only 16,000 of the almost 60,000 seats were between the goal lines. That didn’t bother a lot of fans who warmed up at neighborhood bars before the kickoff, and then rained abuse and flying objects on the mediocre home team.
Beer was sold in bottles in those days (forget about wine) and many of the empties were hurled at players using the tunnel at the south end zone. Quarterback John Brodie, who was never forgiven for replacing Y.A. Tittle, once told Baltimore great Johnny Unitas “if you’re going to walk with me, you better put on a helmet.”
Then there were the flocks of seagulls that descended upon the crowd looking for food. “You always wore a hat at Kezar,” recalled Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, who was a ball boy there during his youth. “If you didn’t have a hat, you put a program or newspaper on your head. Those birds were lethal.”
The birds cleaned up their act when the Niners moved to Candlestick Park after the 1970 season, delaying their arrival until about 4 p.m. on game days. The weather was much better in the fall than during the summer, but the Stick was built for baseball and was never really suited for football.
But it did have a unique home-field advantage. Because the field was below sea level, the playing surface could be wet or dry depending on the tides. Offensive lineman Randy Cross said he always checked the tides on his way to the stadium to determine what cleats to wear on game day.
None of that figures to happen at Levi’s Stadium, which appears to be too clean and antiseptic to ever develop character. The stadium is well suited for people who want non-stop entertainment but aren’t particularly interested in football, further evidence of my theory that there’s a direct correlation between the cost of a ticket and the knowledge of the ticket holder.
Since my source for tickets is unsure about using his seniority to sign-up for good (but expensive) season tickets, I may never get a chance to find out. But at least I have my memories — and my 60-inch LED high definition computer ready television set with built-in Wi-Fi, Web browser, HDMI and smart remote.
Now, if I could just get pizza delivered to Lake of the Pines.
George Boardman has attended 49er games as a boy (Kezar Stadium) and man (Candlestick Park) since the late ’50s. He resides in Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays in The Union.