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The Imperfect Host, Part One: The Citizens of Super Bowl City

Super Bowl 50 is in Santa Clara, but San Francisco is hosting the NFL mini-theme park Super Bowl City. Fitting a city in a city isn't any easier than it sounds.
Photo by Tarin Towers

Construction is almost complete in San Francisco for the transient mini-megalopolis known as Super Bowl City, the social-engineering arm of this year's NFL championship game, which is scheduled to open on Saturday. The 49ers put in a bid to host the 2016 Super Bowl—the L hadn't yet been scrapped for aesthetic reasons—in 2012, when the new and then-unnamed stadium in Santa Clara was still a hole in the ground. The bid, submitted on an iPad given to each of the group of team owners who choose Super Bowl hosts, won largely based on that new stadium. Levi's secured the naming rights less than two weeks before the owners chose the Bay Area as hosts.


Levi's is certainly ready. Its bragging rights include its first-in-the-nation LEED certification, with its living roof and reclaimed wood, and a stadium app you can use to get an $11 bottle of Bud Light Platinum delivered right to your seat. People on the suite level can also call up an order of locally sourced crab fondue ($110) or grilled artichokes ($48); the proles can preorder an $11 cheeseburger or look up which bathroom line is the shortest. It is a tiered experience of the most scrupulously modern NFL kind: suite nachos are $110; at Bourbon Steak and Pub inside the stadium, they're $19. Nachos in the stands will only set you back $6.

Levi's is also a 45-mile drive (or two hours on public transit) from Justin Herman Plaza, the busiest transit corridor in San Francisco and, for three weeks, home of Super Bowl City. Nikki Humes, a server at Hog Island Oyster company, isn't looking forward to having to pass through security and go through bag check every day in order to get to work at the Ferry Building. "My wine key won't pass through security. I can leave it at work, but I'm still going to stand in line and wade through a million people just to get there." Ferry riders will have to make the same trek or walk around the event; no bicycles are allowed in the perimeter. Some 265,000 people come into San Francisco to work on an average weekday, and many of them either work in or pass through the city's financial district, which surrounds the Super Bowl City site. They may well ignore Super Bowl City, but they'll certainly notice its presence.


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The "fan village," which everyone from the mayor's office to the local transit authority to the Coalition on Homelessness stresses is free, all-ages, and open to the public, is expected to draw a million people to the Bay Area, only 75,000 of whom can attend the actual game at Levi's. This temporary theme park will feature a Fan Energy Zone, which includes the helpfully named Fan Dome, Fan Wall, and Fan Stage, where gamers can don avatars and play themselves on coliseum-size video screens. It also promises to feature "user generated content" and "the latest in data visualizations," which will almost certainly mean that real-time analytics will be proudly displayed over cruel tweets mocking the gamers.

A million people, you say?

The Host Committee for Super Bowl 50 declined to make promises about people or dollar numbers. This might have something to do with the America's Cup, which took over large swaths of San Francisco's northern waterfront in 2012 and 2013 for viewing areas and a park full of exhibits, and for sailing events beset with trauma and disappointment. The event was touted as a moneymaker that would draw millions of tourists for the several sailing events and 600,000 to the final race, add 8,800 local jobs, and bring 1.4 billion to the Bay Area.

It didn't. Instead of 16 teams participating in the race, only four sailing syndicates signed on to local plutocrat Larry Ellison's rules and requirements for space-age monster yachts. According to the SF Budget Analyst, only 2,800 jobs were produced, and the net cost to the city was $11.5 million; tax revenue from tourists had been projected at $23.9 million, but only $5.8 million of that materialized. San Francisco bid again for the 2017 race, but the bid was rejected when the city refused to once again offer free rent for its piers and assume total financial responsibility for fire and police services.


Conveniently located between 45 and 120 minutes from San Francisco, it's the San Francisco Super Bowl. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

People raised these figures when San Francisco floated the idea of bidding on the 2024 Olympics, and they're being raised again now as the Super Bowl approaches.

"It's an absurd comparison," Nathan Ballard, spokesperson for the Host Committee, told VICE Sports. "The America's Cup is a yacht race. It is a big event, but it's not in the same category as the Super Bowl, which is the single biggest sporting event in the world in terms of advertising dollars and investment.

"Here's what I am willing to say," Ballard continued. "Every city that has hosted a Super Bowl has wanted to do it again. I am willing to project that San Francisco comes out in the black. City and county governments tend to make a lot of money off this, because you have a huge influx of tourists from all over the world. This is the biggest single sporting event on planet Earth, and San Francisco thrives in part because we have a bustling tourist industry. All of our hotel rooms will be filled and all of our restaurants will be packed and our city coffers will be more full than they ordinarily would in February. Really, there is no reasonable person who thinks otherwise."

The Unreasonable People

Non-sports fans in San Francisco tend to get a little grumpy about sports, Steph Curry notwithstanding. The San Francisco Giants have won the World Series every even year since 2010, and each of those three wins brought such happiness to thousands of fans that they burned couches and dumpsters in the middle of intersections, caused bus service to be suspended, shot and stabbed one another, and caused more than a million dollars in property damage.


When San Franciscans grouse about football in general and the Super Bowl in particular, it usually has to do with those 45 miles between Levi's Stadium and downtown San Francisco. The complaints are easily categorized: there's the "Why don't they rename them the Santa Clara 49ers?" school and the "Why don't they have the Super Bowl party where they're having the Super Bowl?" one.

Popular opposition to the Super Bowl City temporary theme park is not as simple as a hip distaste for sports, though. At least 17 city blocks will be closed to all traffic, including bikes and buses; about half that number won't even be open to the public without credentials for residents and city workers. Nineteen different bus routes will be rerouted around the event. The SF Municipal Transit Agency has also been installing high-definition traffic cameras capable of facial recognition and audio capture around the event perimeter, prompting privacy activists to ask why, if these are traffic cameras, they're being installed just before the Super Bowl events on blocks that will be closed to vehicles. Despite MTA statements, both SFPD and federal security personnel will be able to monitor these cameras remotely, at least during Super Bowl week.

When you're repping your city's sports successes, and also are the mayor of that city. Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

In a bid for civic engagement and tourist stimulation, the Host Committee has installed 10 golden Super Bowl 50 statues at notable landmarks all over town, complete with solar panels that light them up at night. At least two of the 1,600-pound statues were vandalized shortly after their unveiling. Normally, each statue would incur $1,125 for a "minor encroachment permit," but the Recreation and Parks Department waived this in the spirit of, uh, waiving fees. (The Host Committee did pay other installation fees.)


One mobile San Francisco landmark is the historic F line, a set of vintage streetcars imported from around the world that run up the Embarcadero waterfront, starting at Fisherman's Wharf and turning onto Market Street from Ferry Plaza. The cars continue up Market about four miles, to the Castro District. A chunk of the Embarcadero will be shut down in the Market-bound direction, meaning the F line will run only between Fisherman's Wharf and Super Bowl City.

Because of this, merchants in the Castro District, San Francisco's gay mecca, were concerned they'd be cut off from the Super Bowl tourist money that's supposed to be flooding the city's restaurants, bars, and shops. The F line not only serves locals and the queer community but generally funnels visitors to the Castro who wouldn't necessarily seek it out for its sex toy shops, gay bars, and LGBT arts and culture scene. The Castro Merchants Association pressed the city for help, and now a series of advertisements paid for by the Office of Economic and Workforce Development and the Host Committee will direct visitors to the Castro. In a reciprocal gesture, some rainbow-bedecked Super Bowl paraphernalia directs Castro denizens downtown, including a Castro–Super Bowl whirligig that can only be described as "quite gay."

One such businessperson is Imad Bitar, who with his brother Allam owns and operates four businesses in the Castro, including two racy toy stores and Puff N' Stuff, a touristy gift shop, where VICE Sports spoke to him. His main concern was the influx of homeless people into the neighborhood over the past few years, a number Bitar said has increased over the past few months. He thought the most recent surge might be related to the focus on closing homeless encampments under overpasses, a move that District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener—who represents the Castro neighborhood—endorsed recently in a letter to six city officials. The letter prompted outcry from homeless advocates who pointed out that the overpasses give homeless people refuge from the rain.


"It's worse up here than ever," Bitar said. "Not only more homeless people with no place to go but more mentally unstable, more disruptive. People shouting in the middle of the street. I've been up here for 30 years and I've never seen it this bad."

Bitar drew a connection between homelessness and gentrification. "Since they started fancying up Valencia, they're not welcome on Valencia anymore, it's too 'clean,' and now Mission Street, too. And then the underpasses under the freeway, who are they bothering there? And it's dry! There are very few places where people can spend time at night and not feel rushed out, so they come up here where it's busy, and hope people don't notice. More people are homeless the more the city becomes expensive, you know?"

Bitar is also a painter. His portraits are in a community art show a few doors up at AHF Men's Wellness Center, and he has worked on art projects with homeless youth in the Castro and the Mission. He mentioned Jazzie's Place, a new LGBTQ shelter that opened in the Mission District in June. (NB: Where Bitar says 'kids,' he seems to mean anyone without gray hair.) "It's great that they have a place to go," he said of Jazzie's Place, "the transgender and gay kids who have no place else to feel safe in, but then they get kicked out after three months. Who can find a place in that time, with rents how they are?

"So they go back on the street, only this time they don't trust the system because it took them in and spat them out, so now they hide out from services. Some of the kids up here, they have a sugar daddy for a while, but then he kicks them out, and what can they do, they can't pay rent, they're on the street and they're hustling, they're at risk for HIV—that life, that's not good for a person's mental, physical health."

Super Bowl 50 has been touted by the Host Committee and City Hall as the most philanthropic Super Bowl in history, with a fundraising arm called the 50 Fund raising $50 million to, among other things, alleviate poverty in the Bay Area. The 50 committee counts 67,306 SF residents as beneficiaries of that fundraising, although its critics complain about a lack of transparency.

Sam Dodge, San Francisco's Homeless Czar, told VICE Sports he hadn't been apprised of how much of that $50 million will come to San Francisco. "It's not clear to me what they're spending those donations on, but it seems like they're doing stuff all over the Bay Area," he said. Given the impact that game 45 miles away will have on San Francisco, the hope is that some of that assistance will come to those who can't afford an apartment here, much less a ticket to the game. Right now, that's all still just hope.

If you are in San Francisco and concerned about a homeless person, or if you want to know where there is an open shelter bed available, call 311 rather than 911. The Homeless Outreach Team will be on duty during Super Bowl Week, just as they are all year round.