In 2014, the Santa Clara Youth Soccer League (SCYSL) made a cause célèbre out of its claim that the San Francisco 49ers reneged on a promise to refurbish soccer fields for the league’s use during stadium event days when Santa Clara’s Youth Soccer Park wasn’t accessible.
Almost exactly a year later, in April 2015, outraged young soccer players, their parents and fans again filled the Council Chambers, and on their heels came reporters from across the country–and around the world–ready to write a new chapter of their kids-vs.-billionaires narrative.
Then-Council Member Lisa Gillmor–whose political allies include current and former SCYSL officials, and whose husband Demitri Cacoyannis coaches SCYSL teams–became the torchbearer of an unfolding crusade against the 49ers.
The new outrage was over a 49ers proposal that seemed to have something for everyone. The team would give Santa Clara Unified School District (SCUSD) $3 million for upgrading athletic fields, and would give the City $15 million, paid in a lump sum in advance, to use the soccer park for event parking–and parking only–for the term of the stadium lease.
Seventy percent of money collected from parking–about $35 per car–would go to the City, which would also collect $5 per space for events with free parking.
Initially, only the soccer park’s parking lot would be used for parking. But the long-term plan was to use the entire soccer park for parking, and the $15 million lease would presumably enable the City to build new soccer fields and to refurbish SCUSD’s fields. At that time the City Council was planning to build a youth sports complex–as-yet un-built and un-funded–estimated to cost $13 million.
But the $15 million parking proposal was DOA.
A Story Served up on a Silver Platter
The 49ers issued a press statement on April 6, 2015. But three days earlier the Mercury News had already framed the proposal as a new chapter of the kids-vs.-plutocrats narrative by resurrecting the 2014 soccer league dispute.
On Apr. 3, 2015 the Mercury published “49ers v. kids’ soccer: Santa Clara City Council needs to hold team to written commitment,” by Tino Silva, Santa Clara Parks and Recreation Commissioner and former SCYSL president; Steve Robertson, SCYSL VP; and Vicki Field, a self-described community activist. Silva, Robertson and Field also claimed responsibility for launching and operating the political group, Stand Up for Santa Clara. *
On April 6, the Mercury published an editorial by then-Mayor Jamie Matthews endorsing the plan, “Santa Clara, 49ers working to solve youth sports fields issue.” That turned out to be all the ‘equal time’ that proponents of the fields-for-parking plan would get.
A week later, the newspaper published another editorial from Silva, Robertson and Field, “49ers new soccer plan: Santa Clara mayor’s latest proposal short-changes kids.” The 49ers, they said, wanted to “shut us down for … 80 percent of our weekend schedule. For destroying our season, they would pay a nominal fee. We rejected their offer.”
On Apr. 20, 2015, the Mercury published its own editorial against the proposal, “49ers, Santa Clara need to back youth sports.”
School District Enlisted in the Fight
The 49ers’ manager of government affairs approached SCUSD Superintendent Stan Rose with the $3 million offer, Rose told the board at the Apr. 9, 2015 meeting. “All I’m supposed to be concerned about is the benefit of our kids,” said Rose. “That’s all I’m interested in.”
Forty-Niners COO Al Guido came to the meeting intending to present the plan. But there was a procedural question of whether it could be discussed since it wasn’t on the agenda. Guido was given two minutes of public comment time to present the plan, although technically the board couldn’t take a vote on it.
Since 2010, SCUSD has received at least $10 million in 49ers Foundation grants and educational programs such as the STEM Zones, and its students participate in the 49ers Museum’s STEM education programs.
But at this point the $3 million offer was radioactive.
SCYSL representatives joined forces with long-standing stadium opponents, characterizing the offer as a bribe, while trying to persuade the district to refuse it to help pressure the 49ers to offer the City a better deal. As one speaker put it, “Reject it as it is and wait for them to come back with a real proposal. That soccer park is worth a lot of money.”
“What this is all about is the 49ers taking the soccer park for a parking lot,” said SCYSL VP Gabe Foo. “They want to close the soccer park and leave it to the City and the school district to figure out” how to replace it.
“I don’t feel there is fair equity for the City,” said future City Council Member Kathy Watanabe (she was appointed in 2016 when Lisa Gillmor was appointed Mayor).
Santa Clara Planning Commissioner Mike O’Halloran pointed out that the City–not the school district–was arguing with the 49ers. “The negative talk has to do with the soccer park,” he said. “That’s not the issue here. Make the decision as the school district. The soccer park is the City’s issue that they have to deal with.”
Trustee Andy Ratermann noted that critics hadn’t objected to other 49ers gifts. “If Bill Gates came in and said, ‘I want to give you $3 million’ we wouldn’t be saying this,” he said. “The 49ers have helped us with STEM Academy and everyone loves that.”
Nonetheless, the board ultimately decided not to consider the 49ers’ offer to refurbish SCUSD athletic fields.
Parking Plan Reaches Council, DOA
The plan came to City Council agenda nearly two weeks later. By then Stand Up’s anti-49er campaign had built up formidable steam.
Anti-stadium gadflies, soccer league supporters and Stand Up For Santa Clara rallied people via email and social media to come out come out and fight “the battle to protect youth soccer in Santa Clara … against the destructive plan authored by … crooked elected officials” and “the San Francisco 49ers,” calling it the “Mayor/49er Plan to Screw Youth Soccer.”
Stand Up for Santa Clara promoted a mocking YouTube video by some young soccer players and their parents about Jed York, which got about 10,000 views and was featured in a CBS TV local news report.
The April 21, 2015 Council meeting was packed to overflowing and TV cameras were rolling, as the parking plan was the first item taken up at the meeting.
“The staff received a term sheet, a proposal for the youth soccer park from the 49ers in early April,” then-City Manager Julio Fuentes explained. “It was scheduled for closed session because any time we receive a proposal to lease any type of City property that has terms and conditions for negotiation, that is usually presented to the Council for direction in closed session.
“However,” he continued, “some of the terms surfaced and appeared in the newspaper. Staff felt that we needed to share this information [at the study session]. After providing some basic information we strongly encourage you to continue … to closed session as we are negotiating terms and conditions as it relates to a lease.”
Forty-Niners’ Guido explained that the fields-for-parking plan was “developed in direct response to a meeting that I had with a subcommittee of the Council assigned to the soccer park: Council Members Gillmor and Marsalli and members of the soccer community.
“In that meeting I heard three distinct messages,” Guido continued. “The lack of quality fields in Santa Clara, the growing need for more fields, and the scheduling issues that arise due to these challenges. This proposal … provides fields for Santa Clara and assures long-term parking for Levi’s Stadium for all fans, which is critical to the success of the Santa Clara Stadium Authority.”
After thanking the young people who came out to the Council meeting for getting involved and telling Matthews that personal attacks via social media “was just the way the world is now,” Gillmor got down to business.
“We had one meeting, and we thought it was a proposal for a win-win,” she said. “And lo and behold, I open the newspaper and read this. You [Matthews] didn’t bring this to the City-school liaison committee, which was the day before.
“You never spoke to the soccer community about your-slash-49er proposal,” she said. “I don’t know why you’re surprised this happened. You didn’t connect with your colleagues up here about this proposal.” Gillmor also took the opportunity to remind the audience about the 2014 argument about whether or not 49ers owner Jed York had promised to finance new soccer fields for the league.
Gillmor said the proposal “left the park completely in the hands” of the 49ers, “left the children displaced,” with “no specific relocation plan for the soccer park.” It was, she said, “not a fair deal for that property,” “a gift of public funds,” and “a takeaway of the soccer park from our kids and a giveaway to the 49ers.”
Calling her cheering fans in City Hall that night “a movement” that was “growing and growing and growing, and getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Gillmor said, “It’s not just soccer people out here. It’s people fed up with giveaways from this City Council. It’s not going to happen again.”
This marked a full about-face for Gillmor, the chair of the campaign to approve building a 49ers stadium on City-owned land, and who had approved, without any public expression of reservation, every contract with the 49ers.
Moreover, moving the soccer park wasn’t a new idea. In 2013 the Council discussed moving it to Ulistac Natural Area, Montague Park or the BMX track. At that time Gillmor told the Weekly, “We have to be team players and look out for the greater good of the City.” The soccer park was “one of the most valuable pieces of land in the City and it’s underutilized. We can parlay that land into a revenue stream for the general fund.”
The Council unanimously decided not to hold the closed session and to reject the proposal.
This time the kids-vs.-billionaires story went across the Atlantic, with The Guardian in London publishing a headline that couldn’t have generated more sympathy for the soccer league had a SCYSL spokesman written it: “The 49ers Want To Turn Youth Soccer Fields Into Parking Lots.” Gillmor’s movement had its own hash tag, tee shirts, email lists and social media and stood ready for the next battle. The Super Bowl would provide the pretext.
Next: Super Bowl Countdown to Contention and an Uncontested Mayor’s Seat
*Stand Up for Santa Clara is not, as of this writing, registered with the California Secretary of State as a non-profit or corporate entity, registered as a political committee with the Fair Political Practices Commission, or listed as a federal 501 non-profit at IRS.gov. Stand Up was actively engaged in the 2016 City campaign, sending mass emails, organizing political rallies and disseminating misinformation. Its founders and operators are or have been SCYSL officials.