Column: San Francisco just learned the cost of doing the NFL a favor

Kevin Starr was California's top chronicler.
Kevin Starr was California’s top chronicler.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

You could call it adding insult to injury: After the National Football League’s 49ers abandoned San Francisco for a new stadium in Santa Clara in 2014, the NFL threw its former franchise city the crumb of a week of branded events leading up to this year’s Super Bowl, to be played at the new venue on Feb. 7.

San Francisco is now confronting the bill for hosting those events. They’ll cost more than $4.8 million in public services, almost none of which will be reimbursed. The tally prompted the city’s budget and legislative analyst to draft an anguished complaint to city leaders, noting that the costs of three major public events during the pre-game week had been largely a civic secret.

Everyone is going to make a killing, including the private citizens who are smart enough to schedule a vacation paid for by Airbnb’ing their homes.

— Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown


“This fact represents a nondisclosure to the Board of Supervisors of significant expenditures,” reported Severin Campbell, the city analyst, “and represents a disservice to the Board of Supervisors.”

The report prompted three supervisors to draft an emergency resolution requiring the city to recoup the money from the NFL or the Super Bowl 50 host committee, but it may be too late. That’s because there is no written agreement between the city and the league or host committee requiring reimbursement.

Indeed, in bidding to host the pre-game parties, the city committed to not ask for repayment of its fire, police or emergency services. In doing so, Campbell observed, San Francisco proved to be dumber than Santa Clara, which extracted an agreement from the host committee requiring reimbursement for all city expenses connected with the game, including police, fire and emergency services, a bill that’s expected to reach $3.6 million.

The issue with the costs to San Francisco isn’t merely the size of the bill. The $4.8 million in costs is a minuscule proportion of the city’s $8.9-billion budget. But the city is already facing a budget deficit of $100 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1, and a projected shortfall of $240 million for the year after that. Mayor Ed Lee has ordered city departments to cut costs by 3% over the next two years.

Then there’s the thought of being taken for a ride by the NFL, which collects $10 billion in revenue a year, making it a larger economic entity than the city itself. “Santa Clara got the Super Bowl, and San Francisco’s getting the traffic and gridlock,” Supervisor Jane Kim told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Of course, this is typical of the NFL’s relationship with communities that it pretends to be playing for partners but really plays for suckers. The league banks on municipalities bending over backward to grab a bit of reflected glory from its events, especially the big annual championship game. (Are you listening, Inglewood?)


Local supporters of the deal have essentially told the critics to quit bellyaching. They argue that the pre-game events are expected to bring a million visitors into the city, as though it’s all gravy.

“Super Bowl 50 is coming, and with it all the usual naysaying from the usual sources about city money being used to host a ‘corporate event,’” former Mayor Willie Brown wrote in the Chronicle. “You bet it’s a corporate event. It’s being put on by the NFL which, when it comes to capturing the American psyche, is probably the most powerful corporation around. ... Everyone is going to make a killing, including the private citizens who are smart enough to schedule a vacation paid for by Airbnb’ing their homes.”

Brown ridiculed critics who say that the money financing the Super Bowl events should be “spent instead on the homeless or housing or health programs.” It’s events like these, he argued, that produce city revenue in the first place.

Brown happens to be a member of the host committee, so he could be expected to think the pre-game week is a grand happening.

As is usual with such events, the gains are conjectural and the costs concealed (until now). The host committee appeared to put the San Francisco bid together like a sort of three-card monte game, as city analyst Campbell described the process. City staff in place in 2012, when the bid was being prepared, believed that “the bid outlined city services to be provided ... and outlined terms of reimbursement for these services.

“However,” Campbell added, “none of these staff had reviewed the bid document or were able to furnish the budget and legislative analyst with such a bid document.” The bid was structured in such a way that it did not have to be submitted to the Board of Supervisors.


What about that bid committee?

It’s a nonprofit panel comprising a passel of Bay Area luminaries, including (among others) Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, star chef Thomas Keller, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Brown, all of whom no doubt are intimately involved in the planning. The group has reportedly raised $50 million from local corporations, but some of that is going to charity and the exact source and destination of the rest is still confidential, and may never be revealed.

Meanwhile, city agencies have been instructed to comb their budgets for surplus funds that can be used to pay down the deficit. These are funds that the agencies typically hold for unexpected contingencies, but hey, the cost of a big corporate party is an unexpected expense, right?

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