The first time Northern California hosted a Super Bowl, attendees watched from wooden bleachers with no seatbacks under temporary lighting and the glow of scoreboards brought in for the occasion.
When the nation’s biggest sporting event returns to the area Sunday, spectators at Levi’s Stadium, some having spent thousands of dollars for their seats, will be able to order a beer, watch Super Bowl commercials and pull up instant replays of the game from four camera angles – all on their smartphones.
The world is a different place, and the Super Bowl a different event, than when the 49ers and Miami Dolphins played on Jan. 20, 1985, at Stanford Stadium. Thirty-one years later, the NFL’s championship game is back in the Bay Area, yet Sunday’s game between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos is only the flourish on a weeklong spectacle that included an opening night and a temporary Super Bowl City and culminates in a national showcase of the 49ers’ state-of-the-art, $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium.
In 1985, the major innovation was seat cushions. With Candlestick Park – then the 49ers’ home – and the nearby Oakland Coliseum lacking the necessary seating capacity, Super Bowl XIX landed at Stanford Stadium, which could hold more than 84,000. But those people would sit on rows of wooden benches, not the plushest setup for a luminary-studded crowd of 84,059.
So Jim Steeg, then the NFL’s vice president of special events, scheduled a meeting with Steve Jobs, to ask the Apple Computer co-founder about supplying seat cushions. The result: Enough white cushions featuring the multicolored Apple logo to outfit the entire stadium.
“It was a very short meeting,” Steeg recalled. “(Jobs) got the value of it real quick.”
Steeg said Stanford’s dated facility required NFL officials to get creative in several ways that shaped how the Super Bowl is presented today. The NFL brought in extensive decorations to liven up the drab facade and renovated the press box and locker rooms. The league installed temporary Musco lighting for the field, a Super Bowl first that Steeg said later became common.
“Before that, nobody was really doing decoration plans around stadiums,” Steeg said. “That was the beginning of that, part out of necessity, part out of the changing of the times. You had wall banners, decoration around the two temporary Jumbotrons and on the outside of the stadium in a way that had a signature element to it.”
Some quirks couldn’t be helped, such as the network of public toilets. There were no luxury suites, so the league reserved a small block of seats for each team’s owner in the press box. Still, Steeg said, he’s pretty sure then-Dolphins owner Joe Robbie sat on the bleachers outside.
49ers helped make game even bigger
In San Francisco, there was a palpable excitement in the days leading to the game – especially with the hometown 49ers involved.
“The town was on fire,” said Joe Hamelin, then the lead sports columnist for The Sacramento Bee and now retired in Southern California. “Right now, you’re dealing with the love of the league and love of the sport. That Super Bowl also had the love of the team. The whole town was electric.”
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, events of Super Bowl week included a party at the Moscone Center showcasing the “sights, sounds and tastes” of the city, and a dinner party at the Fairmont Hotel that included entertainment by Bob Hope. Jim Lazarus, then deputy mayor of San Francisco, recalled a party for NFL owners during which the floor of the rotunda at City Hall was covered in real grass painted to look like a football field.
“The only trouble is they rolled the lawn down after work that day, painted the stripes and the paint didn’t dry,” said Lazarus, now senior vice president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. “So people were walking on the grass with white paint coming off on their shoes.”
For Roger Craig, the 49ers’ second-year running back, the main challenge was fending off ticket requests while trying to prepare for the game. Fittingly, last weekend, Craig again held what everybody wanted. Super Bowl week festivities kicked off with Craig carrying the Lombardi Trophy from the back of a delivery van into the Moscone Center, where it’s being displayed at the NFL Experience until the day before the game.
A block of Howard Street is closed to hold the NFL Experience, where fans can participate in punt, pass and kick activities, view championship rings from past Super Bowls and pose for pictures next to giant replicas of their favorite teams’ helmets. A separate Super Bowl City, showcasing the region and featuring a live-performance stage, hums at the foot of Market Street. Steeg estimated those extra activities help draw up to 70,000 people to the Super Bowl host city who have no intention of going to the game – about three times more than in 1985.
“The league is doing a lot of fun stuff; they’re doing a lot of great stuff,” Craig said. “They’re interacting with a lot of software companies, technology companies, and engaging the fans, making sure they have a great experience. And that’s what it’s all about, really, is the experience.”
Ticket prices, traffic, security were hot topics
Super Bowl XIX matched two of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. The Dolphins, led by Dan Marino, stayed that week in Oakland and practiced at the Coliseum. The 49ers and Joe Montana, essentially playing a home game, practiced at Candlestick Park.
“It was more (of) a media attraction,” said then-49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. “I think that was the first big media attraction that the Super Bowl got because of us being on the West Coast and us playing ‘at home.’ And the Dolphins had a great team, a great season coming out with high credentials.”
Hamelin arrived at Stanford Stadium on Jan. 20 carrying his Tandy Model 100, an early portable computer that could transmit his story back to The Bee’s sports desk by being plugged into a telephone via a series of wires. Steeg recalled that international media’s interest in broadcasting the Super Bowl was just beginning to grow. This year, an estimated 5,000 journalists are covering the game and surrounding events.
For those paying to get in, face-value tickets cost $60 in 1985. This year, they reportedly range from $500 to $1,600 – though early this week, the cheapest tickets found online were going for $2,800. As ticket prices soared, so did bonus shares for players. In 1985, shares were $36,000 for each player on the winning team and $18,000 for the losers, according to Athlon Sports; last year, those had increased to $97,000 and $49,000.
As now, one of the big concerns was Bay Area traffic. Yet even that led to another Super Bowl innovation: corporate hospitality tents around the stadium to encourage people to arrive early.
“The whole idea of corporate hospitality around an event had a lot to do with what took place there at Stanford,” Steeg said.
Lazarus said he couldn’t recall the extent of the security checks at Stanford Stadium as he made his way inside to watch the game. This time, the security presence at Levi’s likely will be too extensive to forget. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an email that more than 50 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are involved in security this year. The Associated Press reported that security measures will include bomb-detection experts, SWAT teams and undercover agents stationed around the stadium, while the FBI is staffing a multi-agency command post about six miles away.
“We have been working for more than a year with our law enforcement partners … in preparation for Super Bowl 50,” McCarthy wrote. “We have confidence in our law enforcement and public safety partners and have an effective and comprehensive plan in place to make Super Bowl 50 a safe and exciting event for our fans.”
With focus on Dolphins, 49ers showed world
The 1984 49ers, like this year’s Panthers, entered the Super Bowl after a 15-1 regular season. Still, much of the media attention before the game focused on Miami and its passing attack led by Marino. Linebacker Dan Bunz (Oakmont High School), then in his final season with the 49ers, said the attitude in the 49ers’ locker room ran along the lines of: “Yeah, we’ll show ’em.”
The 49ers won convincingly, taking a 28-10 lead in the second quarter and cruising to a 38-16 victory for the franchise’s second Super Bowl victory. Montana passed for 331 yards, and Craig scored three touchdowns. The 49ers’ defense, Bunz said, played most of the game in its nickel package – using five defensive backs – and had two interceptions off Marino, who threw for just one touchdown.
“Marino was really playing against a stacked deck,” Hamelin said. “That 49ers team was probably one of the best two or three ever.”
The 49ers returned to the Super Bowl four years later. But it took 31 years for the Super Bowl to return to the Bay Area. Sunday, with the nation watching, Levi’s Stadium should be ready for its close-up.
Super Bowl 50
Where to follow the game, which kicks off Sunday at 3:30 p.m.
▪ CBS will broadcast the Super Bowl for the 19th time, the most of any network.
▪ The CBS broadcast team will include play-by-play man Jim Nantz and analyst Phil Simms, the former New York Giants and Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Tracy Wolfson and Evan Washburn will report from the sidelines, with contributions from NFL officiating expert Mike Carey.
▪ CBS will broadcast feature content from 8 to 11 a.m. Its expanded pregame show, “The Super Bowl Today,” will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., when coverage from Levi’s Stadium will lead up to the 3:30 p.m. kickoff.
▪ The game will be broadcast on KHTK (1140 AM) in Sacramento. Other north state stations carrying the game include KNBR (680 AM) in San Francisco, KWSX (1280 AM) in Stockton, KFIV (1360 AM) in Modesto and KKXS (96.1 FM) in Redding.
▪ Kevin Harlan will handle the play-by-play, and former NFL quarterbacks Dan Fouts, a Hall of Famer, and Boomer Esiason will provide analysis. Two other ex-NFL players, Hall of Fame wide receiver James Lofton and Mark Malone, will report from the sidelines.
▪ A live blog , providing immediate Twitter posts from The Sacramento Bee coverage team along with other expert observers reporting from Levi’s Stadium, will provide updates, highlights, analysis and photos. The live blog will be launched at 2 p.m., offering coverage during the final run-up to the game.