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The Farce of the Super Bowl Deal 

Wednesday, Jan 27 2016
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San Francisco hosting the Su-per Bowl is apparently such a good deal that nobody in City Hall will take credit for it.

As an elected official, Mayor Ed Lee is beholden to the voters — but only every so often, such as the two times he's stood for election. On Tuesday, the mayor — reelected in November with 55 percent of the vote; the other 45 percent went to a collection of nobodies — answered to no one, and certainly not to Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

Twice a month, the mayor sits in the Board of Supervisors' chamber and fields questions from the city's 11 elected lawmakers. Molded in theory after the often-raucous "question time" in the U.K.'s Parliament, when the prime minister can expect to be grilled in a heated give-and-take, in practice this question-and-answer session is vapid and scripted.

It doesn't even need answers, as Lee demonstrated.

Peskin used his question time to confront Lee about who negotiated the host agreement for the Super Bowl — the document which, it was revealed in January, allowed the NFL to roll into San Francisco and rack up a $5.3 million (and, as of press time, growing) bill for city-provided police, transit, and cleanup services.

After all, for these same services, the city of Santa Clara — which is hosting the game at Levi's Stadium, the San Francisco 49ers' new $1.3 billion privately funded palace — managed to secure $3.6 million up front from the Super Bowl Host Committee, the collection of local civic and business leaders tasked with bringing the Big Game to the Bay Area.

With still-fresh memories of the 2013 America's Cup, when the so-called "Super Bowl of yachting" arrived with promises of a cash bonanza but set sail after sticking local taxpayers with a $11.5 million bill, they're fair questions: Why couldn't San Francisco do the same? And who's responsible for this particular fumble?

"I have been fielding a high number of complaints... that the city did not act as responsibly as it might have with regard to the negotiations with the NFL to host the Super Bowl 50 promotional events," Peskin said. "There have also been many complaints about a lack of transparency on the city's side — so I was interested in knowing, who in the administration was the lead negotiator in this deal?"

The mayor countered by launching into a five-minute explanation of how a Bay Area Super Bowl came about, noting, "I've heard a lot of inaccurate and misleading statements about the Super Bowl."

Like a parent patiently explaining the world to a fidgety child, the mayor recounted how San Francisco had to bid against other municipalities to secure America's most-watched television event, and how this very same Board of Supervisors approved the basic terms of hosting the game in late 2012. Lee patiently reminded doubters how the Host Committee promised to raise $50 million, 25 percent of which is going to be donated to charity, and how various charities like the LGBT Center in the Castro already have checks in hand.

As for the $5.3 million in police, transportation, and cleanup costs? "I'm very comfortable with these investments," said the mayor, who added the Super Bowl is not like the America's Cup at all, but more a "civic celebration" for the public betterment, like Fleet Week or Pride.

"Sadly, some people insist on finding the negative aspects of Super Bowl 50, but I don't think that helps our city," he continued, finishing with offering his sole regret that the 49ers aren't in the big game.

Lee exited the supervisors' chambers without ever answering Peskin, whose attempt to ask a follow-up — the same question as before, actually — was rebuffed by Board of Supervisors President London Breed.

"I don't think he answered the question," Peskin said later.

Although not illuminating, Lee has at least been consistent. What Peskin heard is the same response the mayor's office has issued to journalists or other members of the public seeking the same clarity: The Super Bowl is a good deal, never mind who crafted it. (A public records request filed by SF Weekly the week of Jan. 18, seeking the agreement between San Francisco and the Host Committee, had not been fulfilled as of press deadline).

The Super Bowl's backers have also stayed on message, as mayoral ally Supervisor Mark Farrell did on KQED's Forum on Monday. For San Francisco, always a "sports town," as city native Farrell called it, hosting the Super Bowl is a privilege.

Far from a "public subsidy" for the country's richest professional sports organization, as a budget analysts' report called it, being Super Bowl City comes with free concerts and free events, a gift for the public — who will eventually be made whole when Super Bowl tourists spend boatloads of money in hotels and restaurants.

And stop worrying anyway. It's only $5.3 million, out of a nearly $9 billion annual city budget. Never mind the $100 million budget deficit already identified for the coming year. (An emergency resolution asking the Host Committee to pay up, sponsored by Supervisor Jane Kim, was to be debated after press deadline.)

This intransigence is baffling. It's also telling. Public dodges and exhortations to shut up and enjoy the ride are not exactly how you'd market a "civic celebration" — yet there it is.

This is not how the Super Bowl is being marketed in Santa Clara — where, evidently, this kind of shit would never fly.

There, city leaders were sure to have the Host Committee agree to pay costs up front, according to a copy of the agreement signed in March 2013 provided to SF Weekly after a simple email exchange.

"That was something that the city manager and the city council made clear," says Jennifer Yamaguma, a spokeswoman for the city of Santa Clara. "They wanted the public safety cost to be covered — that was something that was discussed early on in the conversation" in late 2012.

But what about the tax money? Santa Clara is looking forward to that, too. "We'll be able to see the benefits go to the general fund, without having the public safety cost covered by the city," she added.

Whatever juice Santa Clara has with the NFL and with the Host Committee — which includes famous San Franciscans such as former Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr., also a big Super Bowl backer (whose old press secretary just happens to be handling PR for Super Bowl 50) — San Francisco don't got it.

Lee did make one clear statement on Tuesday: Super Bowls are not like America's Cups. "It's like comparing football to yachting," he told Peskin. "It just doesn't make sense."

But they are like Olympics, World Cups, and any other massive sporting event: they don't make the host city any money, according to every working economist who's ever studied the matter. Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist made that argument on KQED on Monday. Other economists tried to do the same during the America's Cup. They, like other Super Bowl scrutinizers, were derided as civic killjoys, although the final tally proved them right.

That could be why neither Lee nor anyone in his administration take credit for giving away the farm. So, San Francisco super fans: Sit back, relax, and enjoy the game. After all, you're paying for it.

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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