SANTA CLARA — Excuse Andrew Robertson for not joining in the excitement building around his hometown hosting the biggest football game on the planet right next door to the youth soccer park where he grew up playing for the past 10 years.
In less than two weeks, when the NFL moves in to transform Levi’s Stadium and its surroundings for Super Bowl 50, Robertson and hundreds of youth soccer players must move out. The Santa Clara Youth Soccer Park will be turned into an enormous “media village,” as workers begin yanking out fences, tearing out dugouts and plopping down wooden platforms for about 6,000 members of the media to work in the shadow of the stadium.
The displacement has the Santa Clara Youth Soccer League scrambling to find enough fields for the 250 games on its schedule over the next two months — and has set off another bout of infighting on the City Council over just what the city promised when it agreed to turn over its coveted soccer park and other nearby property to the NFL to host to the big game.”The 49ers and NFL care more about the property than the kids,” said Robertson, 16, who’s been playing since he was 6 years old. “I think it’s pretty unfair because that park has been there even before the plans for the stadium. I just think we deserve to be there.”
The NFL will occupy the soccer park from Jan. 4 to March 2, with the three weeks after the Super Bowl to be spent on cleaning up and repairing the field. And while the city has offered the Twin Creeks sports complex to soccer players during those two months, youth soccer officials say it’s too small and can’t host tournaments or games.So they are looking into renting another park or asking the school district to use the high school fields, but with less than two weeks left, they’re worried neither option might pan out.
And even when the NFL returns the property in March, some are worried the fields will be unusable for months.”The greatest fear is that the city is giving the NFL carte blanche rights to do whatever they want to do,” said Gabe Foo, a longtime soccer coach who sits on the boards of Santa Clara Youth Soccer League, which caters to about 1,500 youth.
But 49ers officials said the team has gone above and beyond to cater to the community. The Niners voluntarily partnered with the NFL to replace two grass fields at the soccer park after the Super Bowl at no cost to the city. They said the use of the surrounding properties were part of the city’s 2013 bid to host the Super Bowl.
“Had those commitments not been made, the ability to bring the Super Bowl to the region would have been greatly compromised,” said Bob Lange, vice president of communications for the San Francisco 49ers.
Some council members say they were left in the dark about a last minute switch-up that allowed the NFL to transform the field into the media center. “This is a world-class soccer facility and they’re going to destroy it,” said Councilwoman Lisa Gillmor, who is also a soccer mom. “I’m appalled at this behavior. It reeks of stinky backroom deals and I’m sick of it.”
Santa Clara’s Youth Soccer Park, which the 49ers unsuccessfully tried to use for stadium parking, was originally slated to be a staging area for the Super Bowl half-time show — all part of an agreement signed years ago by the city that let the NFL use city-owned facilities near Levi’s Stadium for staffing, security and other preparations for the massive sporting event.
Gillmor says some city officials knew for months the soccer park would be used for a media center, but sprung the changes at the last minute.
She says the issue wasn’t publicly disclosed until a City Council meeting last week, where the city manager gave an update on the NFL agreements. But the city manager said a 1999 resolution gave him authority to signs the deals. Gillmor, along with Vice Mayor Debi Davis and Councilwoman Teresa O’Neill, voted against accepting the report. Gillmor said she wouldn’t have supported the NFL using the site if she knew it would be a media center.
But Mayor Jamie Matthews said the NFL has agreed to repair any damage left from the Super Bowl activities. The City Council in 2013 unanimously approved providing the soccer park, golf course and other city sites to the NFL, he added, and can’t control how the league uses the facilities.
“It’s drama for the sake of drama,” Matthews said. “The reality of it is the NFL has committed in writing to repair any damage. This will be a temporary inconvenience.”
Matthews said he doesn’t know how the soccer field will look after the Super Bowl leaves town. “I can’t anticipate what kind of damage there will be,” he said. “But they promised to leave it in as good or better shape than they found it.”
Others worry the temporary use by the NFL will lead to a longer-term deal for the 49ers to use the soccer fields for parking. The team earlier this year offered $15 million to rent the land but dropped its bid after public outcry. It was the third time the 49ers had tried to strike a deal to use that facility.
But Lange said the 49ers are “not interested” in the Youth Soccer Park for stadium parking anymore. Levi’s Stadium currently has 18,000 parking spots, but the soccer park would have added 140 existing stalls with the potential to build up to 1,000 new ones.
The political dispute has highlighted growing tensions on the Santa Clara City Council and a bitter divide between the three female council members and their male colleagues, who supported the NFL agreements.
Matthews says some council members are grandstanding to drum up attention in an election year. It’s taking away from what should have been a winning victory for Santa Clara, he added.
“This is a Cinderella story. This should be celebrated,” Matthews said. “The odds of us getting the 50th Super Bowl having not even completed our stadium is a rags-to-riches story.”