Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports



The blood that keeps a business alive is the customer experience. It's as true for a small non-profit as it is for a billion-dollar professional sports franchise. Over the last three seasons, the customer experience for San Francisco 49ers fans ranked just a few notches below a buying a used toilet mat on Craigslist.

With some fans paying more than $17,000 to buy a stadium builders license (SBL), season tickets and cover the 8.5% interest on a loan from the team, they expected more than juvenile tweets and scapegoat campaigns from the CEO. Toss in an on-the-field product that couldn't compete with Cleveland Browns, it's no surprise fans took Jed York up on his offer to hold him accountable; they quit showing up to games, sold their SBLs below market value and called for his termination as CEO.

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Through all the chaos, 49ers executives clung desperately to a 70-year-old successful brand with a vain hope the customer experience would rise anew from the shredded turf at Levi's Stadium.

The Yorks learned in an embarrassing way that a brand needs to be nurtured and sometimes reinvented. Along with it, the customer experience requires more than a glass tower and the ability to order shrimp ceviche nachos from Section 103.

As we entered this season, the team hadn't sold everyone on the new direction. We'd been sold these magic beans before, only to find out we brought home spray painted fishing weights.

But after four practices, we're seeing a franchise that is becoming the new example of how to make an overnight change.

"Fans are too far away, can we get them closer?"


Some fans may miss the days of almost limitless access to 49ers training camp, though I understand the benefit of holding camp in Santa Clara. Players get to spend each night in a familiar bed with the comforts of spouses, children or friends.

On July 30, I covered my first training camp for 49ers Webzone and watched the first 25 minutes via 49ers Live. The camera panned around the practice field, showing special teams or one-on-one match-ups. Off in the distance, I saw people sitting on a few small sets of bleachers covered by a black cloth. Some were standing where the linebackers were running drills.

"That's odd," I thought. "Wasn't this a closed practice?"

As it turns out, the team installed these bleachers for SBL and suite owners, VIPs or contest winners.

At some point during practice, head coach Kyle Shanahan sent a text to general manager John Lynch stating, "Fans are too far away, can we get them closer." (sic)

Lynch responded with two words: Why not?

And so, the general manager walked across the field to invite fans across the field to watch the rest of practice.

Any fan attending a single game is shelling out a large sum of money to see the action in-person. SBL owners made a significant investment in two seats, hoping the team succeeds and their plastic turns to gold.

Fans are not owed anything, but a touch of recognition is worth its weight in Super Bowl rings. A crisp high five from a player, an autograph for a kid or what Shanahan and Lynch did on Sunday are gestures that display the 49ers' gratitude toward their customers.

Player Gets Hurt, Player Gets Released


Football injuries are a year-round occurrence. A blown knee or Achilles' tendon can happen to any player during a game or while training in March.

Last year, when Eric Rogers signed with the 49ers, I was excited to see a fellow Cal Lutheran alum in the NFL. Indeed, he seemed like a good fit in Chip Kelly's offense. Unfortunately, Rogers tore his ACL in training camp, and the team put him on injured reserve.

Shortly after this year's draft, Lynch waived Rogers.

Looking back on last season, why would the 49ers keep an injured, unproven receiver on the roster all year? They knew he wasn't going to see the field in 2016, yet they kept him.

This year, we saw the 49ers waive two injured players and sign two healthy players. BJ Johnson hurt his hamstring on Monday, and Shanahan commented on it during the afternoon press conference.

"Johnson, we're still trying to decide on that because there was some partial stuff in his hamstring, so there's a couple ways to go about it which we haven't decided yet."

A few hours later, the 49ers waived Johnson and signed wide receiver Tim Patrick.

The team has gone from collecting players with missing primary knee ligaments to rejecting anyone with a sore hamstring. It's a savage shift in direction, but they don't have time to depend on 'hope' and 'maybe.' Teams must shed dead weight to be successful.

Can't Make Camp? We've Got You Covered


I have good memories of attending camp at Sierra College or up at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. It was a nice way to spend a day, particularly as a high school player. I could watch the receiving corps and learn new drills or find better ways to run routes.

After the team moved camp back to Santa Clara, fans relied upon beat reporters and post-practice press conferences for news. With advancements in technology, the beat writers provided excellent insight into particular moments behind the blackened chain link fence.

Once again, the 49ers are changing the way fans can access camp. Now, those of us living in Idaho can watch a live broadcast of each camp. We do not see anything earth-shattering; the first 10 minutes is stretching, and then we see a bit of punt/kick return or some one-on-one drills.

But I applaud the 49ers' public relations team for going the extra mile for fans far and wide. This access lets each fan craft his/her opinion of a player, and then compare it to post-practice stories from reporters.

Any good public relations consultant will tell his/her client a simple rule: Be bold. Tell your story, and don't rely on others to do it for you.

The 49ers have embraced a rebuild, telling the story through openness and transparency, rather than point to the rich history of the franchise hoping it carries them through this season and beyond.