It pained Jed York not to have fans in Levi’s Stadium last season. There could be no overflow celebration as the reigning NFC champs, nor any foray for season-ticket holders into their unlimited world of food and drink.
York is now painting a fan-friendly picture of what’s ahead for the 49ers Faithful this coming season, as well as how past events have shaped the franchise.
Here are the highlights from York’s session on the London-based Leaders seminar, where he participated virtually with Buffalo Bills owner Kim Pegula and moderator Ted Leonsis, CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment:
RE-OPENING LEVI’S STADIUM
After fans were barred from Levi’s Stadium last season amid the coronavirus pandemic, York insisted that safety remains a top priority as they hope to fill the stands this season. “I clearly think that will be a big piece for at least what this football season looks like, because COVID is not going away, at least in our minds,” York said. “So we’re going to have to be doing a lot of things and a lot of hand-holding with our fans and just know it’s going to be a little different than the 2019 season and all the seasons pre-COVID.”
That could include masks, temperature checks, COVID tests and vaccine passports. The 49ers will host exhibitions against the Chiefs (Aug. 14) and the Raiders (Aug. 29) before a regular-season home opener against the Packers (Sept. 26).
“Our fans are anxious to get back,” York added. “… When you’re the NFC champions and you don’t get to celebrate that with fans at all, that was one of the really hard things for us in 2020, because our fans were such a huge part to what that 2019 season was.
“To not be able to share some moment of raising the NFC Championship banner with your fans there, it was difficult. That’s where you continue to find ways creative ways socially to connect with your fans that we probably didn’t do pre-COVID.” Reminder to Jed: Don’t raise NFC banners, only Super Bowl titles.
Super League and NFL Draft
Fan revolt led to a quick death of the proposed Super League among European soccer titans, and even though York’s 49ers own part of Premier League upstart Leeds United, he channeled last month’s NFL Draft hype for how fans can impact moves.
“If fans want to draft somebody at (No.) 3, you can’t just draft the person that your fans want because you want to appease people on social media,” York said. “But you do have to listen to your fans’ underlying concerns about … this is their passion, something they put their hearts into, they put a big chunk of their wallets into, and it means something to them.”
The 49ers’ fans roared on social media in April, more so in how they feared the potential selection of Mac Jones than the eventual drafting of Trey Lance.
“If you misread your fan base in that egregious of a manner, there’s something wrong. It’s more than a business,” York said. “This is not selling widgets and you’re trying to maximize your profit. You have to understand you are a steward of a community treasure and if you don’t understand that, things can turn on you very, very fast and your business is going to be in a very, very bad situation. You have to connect with your fan base and do what it is appropriate for the entire community.”
KAEPERNICK’S 2016 LESSONS
Five years since Colin Kaepernick began protesting against social inequality and police misconduct, York reflected on how that put the 49ers at the forefront of a continuing movement.
“A lot of the social justice movement in sports started with Colin Kaepernick in, I can’t remember what season, the 2016 season,” York said. “We’ve had great conversations with our locker room, starting at that point. It’s been sort of fascinating for me to see people, as we’ve seen George Floyd and other heinous incidents that have taken place in our country, where folks are having the same conversations in that moment that we’ve had for multiple years here.
“As consciousness grows, you’re not ending racism in a day but you’re taking a step forward. People that maybe don’t see racism the same way or didn’t grow up in a way that some of our players did, when you get a chance to walk in their shoes a little bit and share their experiences, you see how important it is.
“Guys aren’t looking for a handout. They want to be treated as everyone else is treated. They want you to understand what their experiences have been. If you don’t see that and don’t understand that things are different for a young African-American male than they were for me growing up, then you don’t really have a seat at the table of taking our country from where we’ve been to a much, much better place.”
(Pegula added: “When Kaepernick took a knee, it seemed like such a political issue. At that time, we were very much of the opinion, ‘Let’s stay neutral. We don’t want to turn football into politics.’ I give the 49ers a lot of credit because even though it was such, if you want to call it, a distraction at the time, you guys really took a stance in saying there’s nothing wrong with this, when a lot of the country was opposed and against Kaepernick.”
PERILS OF SOCIAL MEDIA
York has had fun this offseason toying with 49ers’ fans via Twitter. Social media, however, also presents dangers to younger players, he acknowledged.
“I have seen with our players and others that they get too engaged in social media and it can lead to detrimental mental health effects,” York said. “Just because I think that’s a negative aspect of social, it doesn’t mean social media is going away. Social media is here, it’s a way we’re going to communicate with our friends, with our fans, that’s just plain fact.
“And you have to understand that was part of my draft day (tweets), letting people know you can have fun with it but you can’t make how many people follow you or “likes” and “retweets” define you as a person. That’s hard with a young guy coming in. when you’re 23 or 24 years old, you’re an adult but a young adult and you have to be mindful of your mental health. It can affect people. That is my only negative about social media. We can all do a better job helping our guys emerge in that space.”
MORE ALL-ACCESS SHOWS
Asked what changes could be coming to the NFL, York is pushing for “much more diverse leadership” in the front office, coaching and scouting ranks at the league office and team level. As for the fans …
“You’re going to see more connectivity between fans and players and teams, because technology is taking us that way,” York said, noting the draft’s opening night attracted 12.5 million viewers. “It shows how integral the NFL is to our lives.
“It’s going to get deeper. Instead of an all-access show that ends of the year, you’re going to see more of that, to the dismay of some of our coaches. At 2030, when you have the millenial, social media generation, that’s just what they’re going to be used to. The people aren’t comfortable with that are going to be on the outside looking in.”
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