Vote Could Push 49ers Toward New Stadium -- Or Out of Town
So far, about $150 per registered voter in Santa Clara, Calif.
That is how much the storied Bay Area NFL franchise, once synonymous with success but now wallowing after seven seasons of non-playoff mediocrity, has spent to ensure it can secure an overflow parking lot as a site for a proposed $937 million stadium, which would be located an hour south of its current ratty Candlestick Park home.
Next Tuesday, about 25,000 voters, less than a quarter of Santa Clara's population, are expected to decide yes or no on Measure J. That 49ers-backed initiative would allow the franchise to proceed with its stadium plan and lease the Great America theme park-owned satellite parking area across from the team's practice facility as the construction point.
How desperate are the 49ers? The franchise has spent $4.1 million since 2009, not on a badly needed new stadium slated to open in 2014, but for an election that would give the 49ers rights to a site for it.
They would be the San Francisco 49ers in name only. The Santa Clara site is about 45 miles south of San Francisco, the namesake for an iconic NFL team that gave us Montana to Rice, Dwight Clark and "The Catch", and five Super Bowl titles under the charismatic reign of former owner Eddie DeBartolo. His business-savvy sister, Denise, and her husband, John York now own the franchise.
This stadium could be a boon or a boondoggle, the latter of which would be a repeat of the Raiders' ill-fated return to Oakland in the mid-1990s. When a scheme to sell seat licenses failed, cash-strapped Alameda County taxpayers were stuck with a $100 million bill to refurbish the still shabby Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
Funding the 49ers' proposed South Bay stadium is a complex mix of fingers-crossed financing: The team and the NFL (ostensibly) would contribute nearly $500 million. A city and hotel tax would account for $114 million. A stadium authority in Santa Clara would cough up $330 million by selling bonds (never easy), naming rights, vendor rights and -- the likely kiss of taxpayer revolt -- seat licenses, plus charging a ticket surcharge.
If the 49ers are looking for the NFL to kick in, they're in for a long wait: The league's G3 fund to assist stadium construction is kaput. Commissioner Roger Goodell told ComcastSportsNet New England last week that, while the NFL has helped build stadiums in particular markets, "This stadium in particular will be mostly privately financed by the San Francisco 49ers.
"We do not have a specific G3 program, but this is part of what we're discussing with our clubs and our players association about investing in our game," said Goodell, who backs the 49ers on Measure J but also has expressed support for a shared 49ers-Raiders stadium facility.
To the York family that owns the team, a yes vote means the 49ers can proceed with plans for a football arena that would make it more competitive financially with the 26 more profitable franchises in the 32-team NFL.
The 49ers have been thwarted since 1997 on various stadium initiatives in San Francisco, where construction is dogged by expensive environmental concerns and recalcitrant voters.
Now that they're this close to finding a site, they're outspending the opposition group SantaClaraPlaysFair.org -- which raises questions about use of public funds and traffic woes in an area clogged with tech companies -- by 500-to-1.
Team president and CEO Jed York, who rarely says no to an interview, begged off a FanHouse request for a quick chat about this expensive stadium campaign. He's consumed with chasing victory in the Santa Clara election.
"That's my only focus for the next [few] days," he said.
While New York-New Jersey basks in the triumph of its new $1.6 billion Meadowlands Stadium and being awarded the 2014 Super Bowl, the 49ers, Raiders and Chargers only see empty seats in their crumbling stadiums, and declining revenues threatening the bottom line.
Welcome to the Golden State, home of the oldest, most dilapidated NFL stadiums in the country in San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego -- a bucolic place where sports fans aren't eager to fork over a dime for a billion-dollar sports palace.
Who can blame them? Californians already are fed up with fiscal mismanagement and a budget crisis so dire, the state's debt load is considered the riskiest in the U.S. Think Greece, without the immediate threat of default.
So individual cup holders, retractable roofs, luxury suites and a new outdoor 49ers stadium to replace ancient, sad Candlestick Park (and to entice a California Super Bowl) aren't foremost on the minds of weary residents who are grappling with a nearly $18 billion deficit and budget cuts to services such as state-subsidized child care.
The NFL was there to help the Meadowlands, Jerry Jones and Cowboys Stadium and even the remodeling of Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
Goodell insists new stadiums are vital to the NFL's continued growth -- "Investing in new stadiums creates new revenue which the players benefit from," he said -- but the league has done nothing for California, where three teams in sizeable television markets struggle to remain profitable to the rest of the NFL and relevant to their ticket-buying fans.
The 49ers' stadium push in Santa Clara is the closest any of these franchises has come to making a legitimate stadium construction project happen on the home front.
What if Santa Clara says no? The alternative could be starting from scratch again with San Francisco -- former 49ers president Carmen Policy is leading an effort to keep the team in the city limits -- or relocation to one of the proposed privately funded playgrounds in the unstaked territory of Los Angeles.
If nothing is done, the constantly rebuilding 49ers can expect television blackouts similar to those that have had Raiders fans boiling for years.
So keep your eye on the Santa Clara stadium vote next Tuesday. This being California, either way, the outcome is bound to make someone frown.