Will 49ers’ corporate bullying turn Santa Clara into a company town?


The football field is not the only place where the 49ers are failing expectations, where they are breaking promises, both implicit and explicit.

They are also falling horribly short in their relationship with Santa Clara, their home city.

As a recent series of stories in The Chronicle has detailed, the relationship between the team and the relatively small city it calls home has devolved from strained to downright toxic.

There’s a lesson to be learned about the dangers of getting into bed with a professional sports team, one we hope that officials in Oakland will heed as they continue to explore options for a ballpark for the A’s baseball team.

Of course, a quarter century ago, Oakland itself provided a stark lesson about the perils of trying to partner with the NFL, when the civic financial disaster of the Raiders’ return unfolded. But that was a lesson Santa Clara chose to ignore.

Instead, back in 2010, the city was wooed by the 49ers, who were intent on turning their back on San Francisco. Santa Clara listened to the big promises, to the vows that millions would pour into city coffers, that the 49ers would be a wonderful community partner.

Um, not exactly.

The 49ers are instead a partner in name only, one that says it has no money to share with the city from Levi’s Stadium in recent years. One that the city says is refusing to open its books to the community that actually owns the stadium. One that blames these theoretical financial problems on a curfew the team knew about and agreed to, which was put in place because the enormous stadium was built in an area close to residential housing and where sound bounces all around the neighborhood. One that has filed lawsuits against its own city.

The 49ers are not behaving as a trusted cohort in the city-owned stadium, but instead as a corporate bully. As Stanford economics Professor Roger Noll, an expert on stadium financing, says, the team wants Santa Clara to be “a 19th century company town,” bought and owned by the 49ers.

To date:

• Jed York spent $2.9 million in last fall’s City Council election, or about $200 per vote, and successfully altered the makeup of the council.

• That remade City Council fired the city attorney, who had defended the city in lawsuits filed by the team over financial concerns.

• 49ers officials met with pro-49ers members of the remade City Council constantly — 57 times in eight months — but never with more than three City Council members; four would have made a quorum and required a public meeting.

The 49ers, through a spokesperson’s responses to The Chronicle, insist all of this ethically dubious behavior is aboveboard. The team has maintained that York poured an eye-popping amount of his own money into the City Council race purely out of concerns for diversity. The team spokesperson calls the 49ers’ political opponents things like “unstable” and “dysfunctional.”

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s likely a duck. If it looks ethically problematic and sounds ethically problematic, it likely is ethically problematic. Please don’t insult the public’s intelligence by saying that a team already embroiled in lawsuits totaling millions of dollars merely wanted to load the City Council with its personal choices for diversity’s sake.

Along the way, the disputes have included such third-rail issues as youth soccer fields and property tax revenues slated for the Santa Clara schools. The city’s case is that the team refuses to provide “essential revenue information,” even though the 49ers are contractually bound to split profits with the city. What’s 50% of nothing?

Yet, during the eight seasons the 49ers have called Levi’s home, the team’s value has swollen to $4.175 billion.

If only that growth could be seen on the field. The 49ers have had only one winning season since moving to Santa Clara, and are mired in a stretch with just one home win since the 2019 season. But the Yorks don’t much care because they are getting rich at Levi’s. That’s the “W” they care the most about.

Some saw this coming when the city set up a contract where it owned the stadium, but allowed the 49ers to run it. As though an NFL team would be a trustworthy business partner.

The city has sought to terminate that management contract and hire a professional, independent entity to manage the facility, which seems like an appropriate solution. But the 49ers sued to stop the move. That case is awaiting trial, one of 10 legal disputes between the city and the team.

One former City Council member, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, said the structure of the deal gave the city responsibility for the stadium but stripped it of decision-making ability.

“That set the stage for the conflict,” she told The Chronicle.

A conflict with no apparent end in sight. And no happy resolution for Santa Clara.

Oakland, you’ve been warned.

Ann Killion is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @annkillion