49ers, Giants Wonder About Their Fans
Soon, we’ll discover if both teams can continue that pattern.
The 49ers are by far the most popular team in the Bay Area, primarily because they were the first pro team here and secondarily because football is the No. 1 sport in fan interest in this area.
In 1978, Matt Levine, who later became a key figure in the startup of the San Jose Sharks, did a survey for Giants owner Bob Lurie, who was trying to find ways to increase attendance at Candlestick Park. The survey showed that area fans preferred football by nearly a 2-1 ratio, and that interest in the 49ers topped that in the Giants, the No. 2 team, by a similar margin.
Note the year. The Giants that year had made a strong run at a division title before slipping back to third, fueled by a nice comeback by Willie McCovey. The 49ers were in Year 2 of the Joe Thomas Era. They had finished 2-14, and they probably weren’t even that good. Yet, they were the fan favorite by a large margin.
That favoritism didn’t always extend to the box office. Forty-Niner attendance had always been up and down, and 1978 was definitely a down period. Crowds were generally what they are now for the exhibition games, perhaps half of capacity.
It wasn’t until Bill Walsh turned the 49ers into an organization which eventually produced five Super Bowl champions that attendance took off. For years, the 49ers not only sold out but had a waiting list for season tickets which was around 10,000.
That waiting list has disappeared. That became evident when they started advertising on telecasts last season that season tickets were available, and it was the impetus for John York to fire both general manager Terry Donahue and coach Dennis Erickson – and to authorize a big contract, including a $24 million signing bonus, for No. 1 pick Alex Smith. York realized the fans had to have hope that the team will get better.
The 49ers don’t release specific information about season tickets but they’ve acknowledged they’re not sold out on a season ticket basis this year. Their sales for individual games in the first half of the season are strong enough to indicate that those games will sell out, but if fans don’t see some early season wins, we could see blackouts in the second half of the season.
Off what I’ve seen in practice and in the third exhibition – the only one in which starters play significant minutes – the 49ers should have a strong defense this year, anchored by a linebacker corps headed up by Julian Peterson, who played only the first five games last season before being knocked out by injury. Peterson is capable of an All-Pro year, and other linebackers aren’t far behind: Jeff Ulbrich, Derek Smith, Jamie Winborn, Andre Carter. Winborn, who is stronger on pass coverage, will alternate with Carter, whose strength is rushing the passer.
I’m not certain, though, whether that will translate into wins, because the 49ers have problems on offense. They don’t have an NFL-calibre starting quarterback. They have some good receivers, with Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle the best, but they have no go-to guy. In fact, coach Mike Nolan’s toughest decisions will be deciding which receivers to keep, because there are so many who are roughly comparable. And the one who has shown the least, Rashaun Woods, is the No. 1 pick from 2004 and has a relatively big contract.
Their running backs should be solid, with rookie Frank Gore pushing Kevan Barlow and Maurice Hicks available as a changeup. It all starts with the offensive line, and the 49ers have made moves to strengthen it, signing free agent tackle Jonas Jennings and drafting David Baas and Adam Snyder. If Jeremy Newberry can play on a knee that has no cartilage, this could be a much improved group -–but that's a very big if.
WHILE THE 49ers have built their attendance on winning teams, the Giants have stressed the ballpark experience, and it is indeed a great one. The park is a gem. Except for some seats at the top of the stadium, the wind which can roar down King Street and up the channel spanned by the Lefty O’Doul Bridge, is blocked out.
The Giants also put together a very good team for the park. The five-year record, 2000-2004, is the best five-year span in San Francisco Giants history, with a .585 winning percentage. The 1962-66 Giants, a team which had five eventual Hall of Fame players – McCovey, Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and Gaylord Perry – is second at .578.
The combination of the park and a contending team has allowed the Giants to soar past the three million mark every season; In 40 seasons at Candlestick, they exceeded two million only three times and had 11 seasons when they were under one million, which is why they were almost moved twice.
Owner Peter Magowan hasn’t taken the attendance bonanza for granted. He remembers the erratic attendance at Candlestick, and he’s feared that, if the team ever dropped out of contention, PacBell attendance would take a big drop.
This season, with Barry Bonds out, the Giants have fallen off sharply; the Colorado Rockies and Pittsburgh Pirates are the only National League teams with worse records. The Giants still have a remote chance of making the postseason because they’re playing in a pathetically weak division, so they’ve made some desperate moves to try to strengthen the team for a stretch run. As much as I’ve criticized those moves, I still understand why they felt they had to make them. So many tickets were pre-sold, the Giants official attendance has remained high, but there have been many empty seats for the less attractive games, as ticket-holders have stayed home and apparently been unable to unload their tickets, which validates Magowan’s fears.
Lately, the Giants have belatedly realized their old plan was no longer working and have gone to a youth movement, especially in their pitching staff. That’s wise, because they have some good young arms and need to start giving them experience, to prepare them for next year and beyond.
They still have multiple questions, though. Nobody can be certain about Bonds’ future, not even Barry himself. Will he come back as the hitter he’s been, or will age and injuries take their toll? Can he play in the field? Will the Giants finish cleaning out the veteran deadwood? Will manager Felipe Alou survive his over-the-top “messenger from Satan” comments?
BOTH THE 49ers and Giants have to wonder how their fans will react now that they’re in a rebuilding mode, officially for the 49ers, unofficially for the Giants.
Many Giants fans who have written me have been disgusted with the veteran-heavy team the Giants have fielded this year and have welcomed the infusion of young pitchers. But will they retain their enthusiasm if the Giants can’t immediately climb back into serious contention next year?
The 49ers know they’re not going to be in serious contention this season, and the majority of their fans realize that, too. The question is whether they’ll be satisfied with the enthusiasm and improvement of the young players, even if the team doesn't win often.
The answers to those questions will determine whether the 49ers and Giants have truly built a solid fan base, or if their fans will slip back into the fickle California mode.
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