Super Bowl 50: The Big Game Becomes a Big Pain

Bay Area braces not just for the Broncos and Panthers but traffic closures, rampant whitewashing and a host of local headaches

Out of sight, out of mind: San Francisco hides its homeless for Super Bowl 50. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty

On February 7, 2015 – exactly one year before Super Bowl 50 was to descend upon San Francisco and its lower-peninsula region of San Mateo County, where I live – I found myself driving south on Highway 101 straight for Santa Clara. That's where you'll find Levi's Stadium, the $1.3 billion sensation that touts itself as "the most high-tech stadium in the world" albeit with only an oft-functioning football field on its best days.

But the biggest issue with the Super Bowl being at Levi's is that it's not in San Francisco at all. Candlestick Park wasn't exactly downtown and mass transit-accessible like, say, AT&T Park, but at least it was in the city limits. And the last time the Super Bowl was Bay Area-bound, the NFL famously held it at Stanford Stadium, when the 49ers came the closest any team has to playing a "home Super Bowl" and routed the Miami Dolphins and a 23-year-old, second-year quarterback named Dan Marino. Back then, a drive down to Palo Alto wasn't that bad. Now, with Silicon Valley's population boom, the commutes down 101 are always gnarling and soul-crushing, so all Super Bowl patrons better be prepared for the Santa Clara Slog.

And so as I drove south last February, I was thinking specifically about what the experience would be like one year later, how the traffic would be exponentially worse, how out-of-towners might feel flummoxed or outright deceived that the festivities were being held so far from the city that seems to provide all the promotional oomph that drives this game's hype machine. Those were the thoughts kicking around my head as my car slowed to a crawl under a pedestrian bridge spanning the freeway. There was water gushing from the ground and puddles three or four inches deep were pooling along the shoulder. On any day, it's a nightmare of a drive. If it happens on February 7, be it from a busted water main or bad drainage from the El Niño storms that are so frequent this winter, have mercy on whoever's at the wheel.

But we're preparing for the heavy influx of new visitors this week, since that's to be expected as part of this deal. San Francisco, to that end, has been forced to deal with its decades-old homelessness problem. Kind of. Mayor Ed Lee and city leaders want to look good for the world, so the short-term fix, as they've been saying for months, is to get the homeless off the streets. But in truth, Lee just wants the homeless off those particular streets near the Super Bowl City along the scenic Embarcadero. So in lieu of a lasting solution that is built on increased services and resources, new tent cities of homeless people are popping up just a few blocks away from where the great majority of tourists will be converging. Normally anything resembling a helping hand to the homeless would seem noble, but this reeks of blatant whitewashing.

And even with two weeks before the game, San Francisco commuters felt the impact at the earliest possible opportunity, the very next day after the Broncos and Panthers won their conference championships. Starting just this past Monday, the aforementioned Super Bowl City started causing some of the most disruptive road closures San Francisco has seen in years. It takes days to construct this spectacle and it'll take five whole days to take it all down, so San Francisco drivers can expect a normal commute again sometime around February 15.

I'm sure businesses in San Francisco and Santa Clara and near the airports will see a noticeable uptick in business, but the idea of Super Bowl-driven economic booms are misleading at best. And as a Bay Area resident, I feel like simply sequestering myself indoors for the duration of the whole spectacle. Everything about the game coming here feels like a magnification of the daily inconveniences and annoyances that already pervade our lives. More traffic? Civic leaders kowtowing to corporate interests? I suppose the local Uber drivers have dreams of surge pricing dancing in their heads, but there are few others here jumping with joy.

When other large cities would talk about dreading, say, an Olympic bid getting approved, I didn't understand. And while the attention and crowds that come with a Super Bowl are maybe a twentieth of what an Olympics would entail, I now get it. And it's fine for cities that are sprawled enough to accommodate the crowds (Glendale, Arizona or Arlington, Texas) or just plain excellent at throwing a giant party (New Orleans, Miami). Neither San Francisco nor the larger Bay Area excels in either area, but there's a sparkling new stadium around and that's good enough for Roger Goodell.

For years now, the NFL has cemented its place as a sport most comfortably viewed from afar. The best seat, as always, is at home on your couch. When you're hosting a Super Bowl, I say that advice feels even sounder.