The Problem With 49ers Fans

The real problem with 49ers fans is not apathy, but a stadium that should have met the wrecking ball over 10 years ago. (Getty Images)

The real problem with 49ers fans is not apathy, but a stadium that should have met the wrecking ball over 10 years ago. (Getty Images)

A memo providing elementary advice for 49ers fans on how to be fans – “Wear Red!’’ – drew predictable scorn as it circulated online Wednesday. The disdain steered wide of the clichés about white-wine drinking that followed San Francisco fans through the ‘80s and ‘90s, but presumptions of softness were implicit in every critique.

The real problem with 49ers fans, though, is not apathy or docility. It’s a stadium that should have met the wrecking ball over 10 years ago, hosting a team that was dreadful for nine years and only returned to the playoffs after its owners had cut a deal to move 40 miles south. The embarrassment of the memo makes a perfect preamble to the official Candlestick farewells that will take place 21/2 weeks from now, when the 49ers host their final regular-season game in this tenement. Showing up at the dump by the Bay is not for the soft.

The memo’s authenticity stamp appears in its schoolmarm-ish second point: Be on time. The writers knew their audience.

For Sunday’s showdown with the Seahawks, the 49ers want their park to duplicate the perfectly orchestrated lunacy of a game in Seattle. It’s a delight to show up early there. Dozens of bars sit within walking distance. A rail station serves the stadium. Wide pedestrian boulevards allow fans to congregate outside the park without inhaling exhaust.

At the ‘Stick, public transit is limited to buses that often get stuck in traffic. The concourses are cramped, and the parking lots not at all tailgate-friendly. Situated in a neighborhood with a reputation for crime, they never have been, and access routes constipate like an octogenarian on painkillers.

But fans overcame the disincentives when they were coming to watch Joe Montana or Steve Young throw to Jerry Rice. In the years since, season-ticket holders didn’t necessarily abandon the team, but they often sold their seats on the secondary market or simply gave them away while they stayed home to watch in high-def and switch to another channel whenever Mike Nolan or Dennis Erickson blundered. The in-stadium experience declined. Fights in the stands increased. Clusters of fans who had known their section-mates for years found themselves among strangers, often of the supremely inebriated variety. Meanwhile, TVs kept getting bigger and sharper.

The result? You saw a lot of opponents’ jerseys in the ‘Stick, and a limited understanding of football protocol among the people wearing 49ers colors. In one 2011 game, the time-warped fans did the wave as the 49ers lined up on offense. Left tackle Joe Staley tweeted later: “Thanks to the fans for being so supportive and great this year so far. Keep it up. Just don’t start the wave anymore when we are on offense.”

The memo addresses this, telling fans to save noise for the 49ers’ defense.  It also reminds them of a new chant for first downs, introduced last year and played over loudspeakers to prompt the fans. It’s not organic, but neither are a lot of these fan-unity displays. Most traditions in the newer stadiums were born in marketing meetings. Baltimore chose its “Seven Nation Army’’ defense chant by soliciting fan votes on the team website.

As the fan memo made the rounds Wednesday, the team sent out invitations to a Thursday press conference announcing its new Santa Clara stadium’s “one-of-a-kind partnership with a Bay Area culinary all-star.’’ So much for killing off clichés. I wonder if it’s the same person who introduced tofu dogs at the ‘Stick concession stands more than 20 years ago.

One thought on “The Problem With 49ers Fans

  1. I was a season ticket holder during the glory years–76-85 and gave them up when I moved to Southern Ca. I re-upped 7 years ago and have seen major improvement. I like Gwen a lot and think she makes some good points. The stadium access is next to horrible–similar to Dodger Stadium here. I always take the bus, which is much easier than trying to drive. I think once you are in the stadium it is a really nice environment. The food is good and the service has improved very much. I think Gwen goes a little overboard in her critique. After all, there are only 2 games left and let’s remember the great things we enjoyed there and wish it a fond yet needed good-bye. It is no Seattle as far as a quality stadium but that is sure to get better next year.