In the beginning, there was just an empty parking lot. Now, the fourth-smallest city to ever play host to the nation’s largest party will be center stage when Super Bowl 50 kicks off on Sunday. But how did it all start?
That parking lot, the one which Levi’s Stadium now lay, was a pile of asphalt. Used to house the cars of adrenaline seekers to the stadiums’ neighboring Great America theme park; during one particular afternoon, Kevin Moore, a Santa Clara City Council member, stared at the lot, with the visions of an NFL team playing on it—the 49ers had already been in the area for as long as any Bay Area resident could remember. Like the theme park, the Red and Gold housed their front offices and training facility next door to the vacant lot.
Moore got on his phone, to the 49ers.
Once the stadium broke ground, and construction began, San Francisco philanthropist Daniel Lurie and other astute members of the city’s community began picturing something larger. Much larger. Super, even. Lurie, and his friends, envisioned a Super Bowl being played in the new football palace.
The NFL agreed.
“At the start, we were told that bringing the NFL and the Super Bowl to little Santa Clara was impossible,” Councilman Moore said. “It was like throwing a football through the eye of a needle. We had to put our egos on the sideline and we had to outthink, outwork and out-pray our competition.”
Lurie ended up chairing the efforts to bring Super Bowl 50 to the Bay Area, and now sits on the advisory board for the game. He went for a drive last week, past the stadium, to have a look at the league’s transformation of the stadium, and the massive structures its installed in the surrounding parking lot.
“The transformation is remarkable,” Lurie said. “I think this is going to be unlike anything this region has seen, just the scale of it. That’s why we needed two and a half years of preparations to make it happen.”
But the true timeframe ventures back far longer than 2013, the year Lurie and his pals pitched the idea to return the NFL’s golden Super Bowl to the region which hosted the same game 31 years ago. And you’d have to, again, turn your focus towards Councilman Moore, who at the time, was serving his native Santa Clara as a realtor. He’d lobbied viciously for years to bring a professional sports team to the city, when his efforts failed with the MLB’s San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics, he took a walk to the aforementioned 49ers’ front office, and hand-delivered a letter to the security desk.
His letter was addressed to John York, who at the time was serving as the team’s operating owner.
York sent the letter to then-49ers CFO Larry McNeil, who later rang Moore on the telephone. Three years later, in 2006, the team announced it had abandoned talks with the San Francisco city officials, and fully intended to move to the South Bay. John’s son, Jed York, current owner and CEO of the 49ers, spearheaded the new stadium project, which began construction six years later in 2012.
While the 49ers faced off against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII in 2013, Levi’s was still under construction, but the official pitch to host Super Bowl 50 had already begun. Lurie, the philanthropist, attended the game with the hopes of comprehending the infrastructure of the event required to play host. He brought with him former San Francisco Giants executive Pat Gallagher, and Joe D’Alessandro, president of San Francisco Travel. The three knew the clock was ticking, and the next two Super Bowl bids on the horizon were for 2016 and 2017—they were faced with several deadlines, the most important being an upcoming May 21 NFL owners meeting, which would select the site of the most prestigious Super Bowl yet, No. 50.
The competition? Miami, an area which shares the title of the most Super Bowls hosted in history at 10, and Houston.
“Looking back, we felt pretty good through the process,” Lurie said. “But in the moment, you just don’t know. We did believe we were putting our best foot forward.”
The genius of Lurie once again came into play—he drafted the services of former Apple Computer vice president Bill Campbell, and advertiser Rich Silverstein, who amongst other campaigns, is credited with the imagery and development of the “Got Milk” campaign.
Silverstein packaged the time’s latest edition of the Apple iPad Mini and loaded it with Adobe software, so that when it was turned on, a Super Bowl pitch was given with images and backdrops from Pebble Beach to Napa Valley to the San Francisco Skyline. They sent this iPad package to all 32 team owners. Uniquely Bay Area, or uniquely Silicon Valley? You decide.
While all this was in the works, Campbell was courting his NFL contacts, gathered during his time as a coach. Aside from his Apple tenure, he spent six years as the head football coach at Columbia University. This, coupled with his Silicon Valley contacts, made for a lethal one-two punch, Lurie later said.
“He was our secret weapon,” Lurie opined.
This was all done in time to send a clear message before the aforementioned May 21 meeting, which was being held in Boston: Houston was in the running for Super Bowl 51, the Bay Area wanted, and was determined to get 50. Lurie and his delegates remained confident of their chances, but he was still nervous of the outcome.
“It was a pretty intimidating room,” Lurie recalled. “When you’re standing there talking to people like Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones — people I’d only seen on television — it was kind of daunting.”
Nervous as Lurie was, the decision took only about an hour—NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made the announcement from his usual podium, which was broadcast live on the NFL Network: Super Bowl 50 was headed to the Bay Area.
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