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49ers Invasions are real and coming to an NFL stadium near you

Chris Wilson
Nov 22, 2022 at 7:19 AM--

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Every game is a home game for the 49ers, and it's both by design and 30 years in the making.

Late last month, the 3-win San Francisco 49ers headed south to face the 3-win Los Angeles Rams in a pivotal NFC West matchup. The Niners' fourth victory of the 2022 NFL regular season was abnormal on numerous fronts, highlighted by a "Trifecta" performance by San Francisco's new running back Christian McCaffrey, who threw a first-half touchdown pass before scoring on the ground and through the air in the second half.

The Rams had no answer for McCaffrey or quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who played his best game of the season, as he led the 49ers on three consecutive second-half touchdown drives. After a short first-half burst, quarterback Matt Stafford's Rams ran out of steam—and perhaps heart—by halftime, as the official home team ended all of their second-half drives with a punt.

Entering a game of this magnitude, the expectation was for boos, and not cheers, to emanate from the crowd each time the Rams' offense sputtered and submitted to their opponent, as their team's special teams unit replaced them on the field. However, the new normal in Los Angeles isn't just a string of regular-season losses to the 49ers; the Rams now have an extra "away game" on their schedule each season when the Niners come to town and turn Sofi Stadium into "Levi's South."

Predictions of a 60 percent 49ers crowd fell far short, as the Faithful from Southern California, the Bay Area, and across the country peacefully "invaded" Los Angeles for the weekend. Facing a loud sea of red in the stands, the Rams were again forced to use a silent count on offense in their own stadium. While it's difficult to calculate the impact the fans in the stands had on the players on the field, it's also hard to recall a time when these Rams appeared to simply fold and give up so easily.

Perhaps head coach Sean McVay said it best: "They travel well."


The "49ers Invasion," or "49ers Takeover," isn't a new concept; It began at the start of former Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh's tenure in San Francisco, which signaled the end of a decade of unwatchable football— and has only continued to grow in magnitude. One question many NFL fans have is whether the phenomenon is a grass-roots, spontaneous creation, or an effort promoted by the team itself.

The best answer to that question is, "Yes."

49ers Enterprises and Leeds United

Two weeks before the Faithful arrived at Levi's South, Niner fans piled into BOX Sports Bar in central Leeds, England, ​​for the San Francisco 49ers' first official international watch party. The organization's Fan Engagement department promised "an authentic NFL game day atmosphere," and they delivered, with special guests including former 49ers star kicker Joe Nedney and team mascot Sourdough Sam.

San Francisco 49ers

Why did the team choose Leeds City Centre for the first UK event of its kind? As recently reported, the organization's investment arm 49ers Enterprises is on the verge of their own "takeover" of the English Premier League's Leeds United, once their season ends in early 2023. 49ers Enterprises, which also includes investors and business leaders outside the York family, originally purchased a small but significant share of the storied "other football" club less than five years ago, before reportedly increasing their stake to nearly 50 percent, including a 2024 purchase option, late last year.

Since the 49ers' initial involvement, Leeds United has seen success on the pitch, and a significant increase in attendance and merchandise sales. In addition, the club has been featured prominently in the global media, thanks in part to the 49ers' partial ownership and their connections to some of the top names in business and sport. Along with providing Leeds United with the financial backing necessary to stay competitive in the expensive EPL, another obvious goal is to continue to develop the 49ers into a global brand, and the organization's ownership group has demonstrated a willingness to invest heavily to make that happen.

The Yorks aren't the first NFL owners to delve into the overseas football market, but 49ers Enterprises is perhaps the first group of individual business leaders, as opposed to billionaire families, to do so. The group's on-the-ground involvement with Leeds has helped create and maintain a favorable opinion of the 49ers among local fans, in sharp contrast with other EPL clubs purchased by American NFL billionaires in recent years.

San Francisco 49ers

Rams owner Stan Kroenke, one of the least-revered men in St. Louis, received similar feedback from the Arsenal fanbase, particularly after famously co-founding the short-lived "European Super League," in a two-day attempt to end the current European football system. The Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have also been widely protested by fans due to their financial handling of Manchester United throughout the tenure of their ownership. The billionaires found themselves back in the news this week when United's Cristiano Ronaldo claimed their interests in the team are purely financial, adding "they don't care about the club."

49ers Invade Leeds, England

Cognizant of potential backlash, the 49ers appear to be taking the opposite approach of their NFL counterparts. The team has stayed involved with their new partners in the UK, with boots on the ground and a presence in the boardroom. This also made Leeds the perfect location for the San Francisco 49ers to bring the NFL party to the people. And while breaking bread—and tapping kegs—with local Leeds fans certainly promotes a positive image, the primary purpose of this trip to the UK was to reach out to the 49er Faithful.

I sat down with Nick Clarke, 49ers Senior Manager of Fan Engagement, to discuss the event and the organization's overarching efforts to promote the 49ers on both the domestic and foreign stages. Clarke described his team's 7-day "49ers Invasion" of Leeds as a "great trip," which culminated in a watch party designed to connect with "displaced" Niner fans and develop a new group of international Faithful.

"While we'd love to host the Faithful at Levi's Stadium year-round, we are only guaranteed 10 home games per year. Plus, many of our diehard fans live outside the Bay Area and don't have the opportunity to attend a game in person," said Clark.

San Francisco 49ers

Without context, it might be surprising to learn the 49ers have one of the strongest NFL fanbases outside of the local Bay Area market, especially given the team has been far from a perennial powerhouse since its last Super Bowl victory nearly three decades ago. Although Super Bowl 29 remains a distant memory—if a memory at all — for many current fans, the victories from the Bill Walsh and George Seifert era are the primary reason behind the team's stronghold over so many "displaced" NFL fans today.

The Displaced Niner Fan

Before the dawn of NFL Sunday Ticket, the lone options for watching live NFL football in the United States were usually limited to the in-market team and high-profile, prime-time matchups, while those living internationally were lucky to even have access to the latter. Both the league and the television networks had a vested interest in maximizing viewership of the out-of-market games, and to get the most bang for their buck, the NFL's top teams were regularly featured.

In a bit of a perfect storm, as interest in the NFL continued to manifest, and options for watching live games remained limited, the San Francisco 49ers happened to be in the midst of a dynasty. And each year, as the NFL regular season turned the page to the televised playoffs, the Niners were there as well. In particular, this had a significant impact on the young fans of the era, who were more easily influenced by watching live televised action than reading about it in the newspaper the following morning.

At some point early on, nearly all NFL fans choose "their team," and for those without a strong pre-existing family allegiance, the Super Bowl Champion 49ers were an easy selection. Although one could argue the youth of the 80s and early 90s were filled with "bandwagon" Niner fans, when Walsh and Siefert turned the page to Mariucci and then Erickson, et al., their true fandom was tested. By the time Jim Harbaugh was hired as San Francisco's head coach in 2011, all bandwagon fans had long since abandoned ship.

Those who remained were battle-hardened by a decade of weekly losses, a constant longing for the past, and the failed leadership of men in empty Reebok suits (Mike Nolan) or pants around their ankles (the infamous pants-dropping Mike Singletary). But these fans stuck by their team; week after week, loss after loss, year after year. Still, they remained Faithful.

Their allegiance to a team they chose as a child—or arguably a team that along with fate, chose them—is complex, and a struggle to explain in any coherent fashion. Yet their connection to the organization only grew as they did—from children into adults. And along with their respective ages, their passion for 49ers football also grew—as did their disposable income—just in time for the franchise's recent renaissance.

Birth of the 49ers Invasion

Once the 49ers gave their fans something to cheer about, they cheered; and they didn't just cheer when the team played at home—in part because, for many fans, aside from their time inside Candlestick Park, San Francisco has never been home.

And so, the "49ers Invasion" or "49ers Takeover" was born—quite organically and somewhat accidentally, albeit thanks to a network of Niner booster clubs, affinity groups, regional clubs, and chapters affiliated with the Niner Empire, a global organization of 49er fans that is unaffiliated with the team. The first city officially invaded by Niner fans was Atlanta in January 2013, as the 49ers played their first road playoff game in a decade. A resounding success on all fronts, Falcons fans admittedly felt uncomfortable being outnumbered while tailgating in their stadium's parking lot, as the 49ers won their first of their next three road playoff games.

But when the team returned to the playoffs the following year, Niner Empire faced some stiff invasion competition—the San Francisco 49ers themselves. The organization was fully on-board with the recent 49ers Invasion phenomenon, and scheduled fan events throughout the weekend. Niner fans were able to jump from event to event, before joining together near the stadium for an epic tailgate takeover attended by Dr. John York himself:

The playoff trend quickly developed into a weekly regular-season occurrence, and before long, caught the eye of the national media during the 49ers' invasion of Dallas and the Cowboy's AT&T Stadium to open the 2014 season. Some were neither accepting of nor pleased with the takeover.

The Arrival of Shanahan and Lynch

Despite Harbaugh quickly wearing out his welcome shortly thereafter—as he is prone to do—followed by a short two-year stumble, the "Invasion" lived on, until faith was restored by a "surprising" duo comprised of a former Hall-of-Fame opponent and the ball boy from the 49ers' last Super Bowl victory.

And while the pairing did initially surprise, before long, it made perfect sense. And why would we be surprised? No matter the product on the field, over the years, the organization's front-office personnel have remained second to none. From the negotiation and contract work of Paraag Marathe to the team's move from South San Francisco to a new stadium in Santa Clara under the leadership of Al Guido, the 49ers have a deserved reputation for achieving success despite long odds.

This organizational success spans well beyond the team's C-level executives. From the initial creation to the public campaign, concepts-turned-battle-cries like "Brick by Brick" and "49ers Faithful" are the type of marketing genius likely to be studied and emulated for years to come.

Analyzing the team's new leadership through this "49er lens," General Manager John Lynch, violent and powerful on the field, yet widely adored as both a player and a person, made perfect sense. Instead of forced, Lynch looked at home in a suit, working the sideline as the Mayor of Levi's—fully engaged in the game, yet prepared for the next hand to shake or baby's head to kiss at a moment's notice.

Meanwhile, the 49ers' ball boy had become the most sought-after head coaching prospect in the NFL due to his widely perceived status as one of the top offensive minds in the game. The "Mad Scientist," as Kyle Shanahan had been dubbed years prior, was what the team had hoped the inventive Chip Kelly would be, but in a 37-year-old package with ties to the team's glory days and a history of offensive success at the professional level.

The former ball boy was all grown up, but the kid inside him was still evident. Shanahan, who named his son after rapper Lil Wayne, donned a red trucker hat on the sideline during games, and went out with the players at night during the offseason:

Like so many fans, Shanahan grew up during the 49ers' glory days. His prized possession as a teenager was his signed Deion Sanders jersey, and although the circumstances were different, he too chose the 49ers to be "his team." It wasn't difficult to picture Shanahan as a fellow 49er Invader, if not planning the next invasion himself. He could have easily been another red-jerseyed Faithful at the latest road tailgate—he just happened to coach the team.

Fans were prepared for a rebuild, which they received in full over the first 12 weeks of the 2017 season. But when rookie QB C.J. Beathard went down at the end of the team's tenth loss, recently acquired QB Jimmy Garoppolo, sans full playbook, happened. Three plays later, his last-second touchdown pass was the Niners' first of the day. Five games later, the 49ers had five more victories and a newfound hope for the future.

Within two seasons, they nearly brought the Niners' sixth Lombardi Trophy back to the Bay. Then, two years later, they barely missed out on another Super Bowl berth. The team's highs and lows have been extreme, and the accompanying emotions have been a rollercoaster. While the past five years have been a wild ride, a few constants—the passion of the Niners' fan base, and ongoing promotion efforts by the organization—have continued to increase the size and impact of the 49ers Invasions.

Organizational Efforts

"We are lucky to have ownership and leadership teams that prioritize fan engagement 365 days a year, leading to watch parties, 'Invasions,' and fan clubs," Clarke commented.

Last year, the organization founded a new fan group for fans around the country and the globe—the 49ers Supporters Club. The purpose of this endeavor is to provide "a new, unique opportunity for the Faithful from all over the world to connect with the team they love and receive unique, physical, virtual and in-person benefits," including access to the team's Supporters-only website, a set of limited-edition items, virtual events and Q&A sessions with alumni, and a plethora of exclusive digital content. The Supporters Clubs' first season was a success for the team, which has only grown in size during the program's sophomore season.

Although the San Francisco 49ers are taking significant steps to engage fans across the globe, that doesn't mean the organization has forgotten where it is from. The Niners are very active in the local community, sponsoring numerous impactful programs like 49ers EDU, which uses football to expose younger students to science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

49ers Community Relations partners with Bay Area nonprofit organizations to support mental health and cancer awareness, social justice efforts, poverty prevention, and education, while 49ers PREP develops and runs youth football, wellness, and health programs—and that's just the tip of the iceberg. In total, the 49ers Foundation—the organization's philanthropic non-profit arm—has invested over $50 million in the community, and remains heavily focused on their support of local youth.

When you add it all up, it's clear the San Francisco 49ers—an NFL football team at its core—is becoming something more. Whether developing and supporting local community programs or holding engagement events around the globe, the 49ers are always moving forward. Through extensive charitable efforts and the work of the team's Fan Engagement department, the San Francisco 49ers are successfully turning strangers into fans, and existing fans into family.

Profile of a Weekly Invader

Giving credit where it's due, the organization came to the table already having a full stack of chips in the form of groups of passionate fans embracing the team's work. "49ers road games are feeling more like extra home games because of how well the Faithful travel, and with the 49ers organization now involved, it makes it even better," said Marlon C. Allen, Captain of the Spartan Niner Empire booster club, which was instrumental in the first 49ers Invasion and still plans road game takeovers today. "Even the largest venues are quickly booked, so many Niner fans can't even get in the stadium because they're already at max capacity."

"It's a beautiful thing to see," Allen continued, "being that I grew up in Louisiana and Mississippi, surrounded by [New Orleans] Saints fans. Going to the SuperDome back in the day, 49er fans were just sprinkled throughout the stadium. Now, we invade it!" Allen stated, before adding his rendition of the team's first down chant—a hat tip to the Spartan Battle Cry from the movie 300, "AaahOooh, AaahOooh, AaahOooh!"

Allen—a current Bay Area resident and 49ers season ticket holder—is the type of fan whose dedication to the team is without question. But unlike most fans of other NFL franchises, he is one person among an international Empire of many. On your average fall Sunday, you'll find Allen in one of two places: his club seats at Levi's, or busy invading the 49ers' opponent's stadium.

The 49ers also have the benefit of external leaders among the fanbase, like Catherine Tate, founder of the non-profit women's booster club Ladies of the Empire, or LOTE. In addition to strengthening the connection between the team and female fans, LOTE's mission includes providing support and assistance to anyone who is trying to overcome adversity, no matter the individual's gender.

Tate's organization also focuses on making a positive impact on underserved communities, and grants scholarships to students dedicated to positive change—when she and her fellow LOTE members aren't attending home games or taking part in the latest takeover. "Ladies of the Empire isn't just a local organization. We have members who live all over the country," Tate explained. "And we've been active from the beginning; LOTE takes part in every 49ers Invasion." Tate is a mainstay at both home and away games, so LOTE's involvement includes the founder herself.

Bright Future for 49ers Invasions

Per Clarke, the San Francisco 49ers Fan Engagement department's goal is "to bring existing fans together while also forging relationships with new fans. All these fan engagement efforts help build passion for our team, which we can feel when playing at home and on the road."

Tonight, the San Francisco 49ers face the Arizona Cardinals in another important NFC West showdown. While the game is technically another divisional away game for the Niners, the matchup will be held in Mexico City rather than State Farm Stadium in Glendale, AZ.

The first 49ers Invasion was scheduled quickly, with event information distributed last-minute via email, social media, and 49ers forums, including here on Today, invaders can still obtain event information from various Niner Empire Facebook pages, but with the team now on board, the 49ers added a "49ers Invasions" page to their official website, and even issue press releases with details of the weekend schedule. In Mexico, 49ers Invasion events began Friday evening and continued throughout the weekend. With forces aligned, it almost seems unfair.

Third-party ticket websites predict a home game atmosphere for San Francisco, and a significant one at that, with an estimated crowd composed of roughly 82 percent Niner fans, if Arizona is lucky. With another city—in another country—successfully invaded, the team and its fans essentially netted the Niners yet another home game.

Consider the 49ers' fans fully engaged.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

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