The Super Bowl: the headache every city wants

By C.W. Nevius
January 18, 2016 Updated: January 18, 2016 3:54pm

Now that the Chicken-Little-ing of the Super Bowl has begun — nightmare traffic, mind-bending crowds and cost overruns — is this event really worth the trouble?

Here’s a test: This is the 50th Super Bowl, and it has been hosted by 15 cities (New Orleans and Miami have each hosted 10). Of those host cities, how many have said afterward, “Wow, that was horrible. Let’s never do it again”?

I’d say zero. In fact, no sooner is the game over than the cities jump back in line to bid for the next one. It is the biggest national media event of the year — sports or otherwise — and cities bend over backward to land it.

In fact, no sooner was a deal announced to move the Rams back to Los Angeles than the city floated the idea of hosting the 2020 Super Bowl. Talk about getting ahead of the curve — they don’t even have a stadium yet.

Now, are there problems and inconveniences? There are. And given San Francisco’s traditional grumpy provincialism, some complaining is to be expected.

Is it possible there will be “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations? Absolutely. And that’s fine if there’s no violence. In fact, a lot of the media, who are dying to use all their “left coast” cliches, will probably be disappointed if there’s isn’t some kind of civil action.

But the business engine of San Francisco is tourism, and the Super Bowl is the great white whale of vacation branding. The entire country, and countries across the sea, will direct their attention here for a week.

Traffic outlook

And what will they see? Traffic gridlock?

Well, maybe. The closing of the southbound lanes of the Embarcadero north of the Ferry Building will probably be the biggest problem. Howard Street is already blocked twice a year for Oracle and Salesforce conventions, and although that’s annoying, we’ve been through it before.

Some of the other concerns, like massive traffic jams on the Golden Gate Bridge, seem far-fetched. You realize that Santa Clara is in the other direction, right?

I’m more impressed that some 750,000 people attended last year’s three-day Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. And they were on their own for transportation — no special buses, no dedicated lanes. Throw in another 210,000 for Outside Lands, and you’ve got a successful traffic track record.

As for the financial concerns, they are definitely worth considering. However, I would say, as a veteran of eight Super Bowls, this is a familiar chorus.

The NFL used to hand out financial reports at the Super Bowl, showing hundreds of millions of dollars in economic windfall to the host city. Then people began running those numbers by economists, who noted that the numbers were wildly optimistic. So the league toned down the happy talk.

However, there are benefits. With all the events — 30 parties are scheduled for Friday night alone — people in the service industry are in demand. There are already complaints of staffing shortages, and overtime is nearly a given.

A tale of 2 cities

As for the city, the reported figure of $4 million for police and Muni services sounds about right. Politicians are worrying about losing money from the general fund, especially since word leaked out that Santa Clara is being reimbursed for its costs and the city is not.

Honestly, I don’t know how that deal was worked out. But as the Host Committee says, Santa Clara is the fourth-smallest city ever to host the actual Super Bowl game. (East Rutherford, N.J.; Palo Alto; and Pontiac, Mich. were smaller.) With only a few Super Bowl-size hotels, it is going to be hard for Santa Clara to pay off its expenses — for example, use of the Convention Center.

Meanwhile, San Francisco has the tourist infrastructure in place. A member of the Host Committee, speaking off the record, says they are convinced that revenue “from hotel tax and sales tax will exceed $5 million. And that money will go directly to the general fund.”

We should check back after the game and see if that is true, but that’s the prediction.

There’s also been an unexpected complaint. In outlying eighborhoods like the Castro and the Haight, merchants say: This is swell for the Ferry Building and Financial District, but how are we going to benefit?

And that’s where the new sharing economy comes in. Super Bowl travelers are using Airbnb and other rental services like crazy. Everyone is mentioning how prices have gone through the roof, but renters are also finding places all over the city. The tourist impact may be more spread out than we thought.

London’s experience

And finally, there’s this. When the America’s Cup was here, one of the staffers recalled her experience from the London Summer Olympics in 2012. She said there was controversy, debate and uproar in London, “right up until we handed out the first gold medal. Then everything settled down.”

That’s my prediction for Super Bowl 50. I’ll bet it turns out to be an event that San Francisco can get through, and maybe even enjoy.

Unless it rains all week.