In Super Bowl, its 49ers Against the World

by Randy Shaw, 2013-01-23

It's their sixth appearance, but the San Francisco 49ers face a unique challenge in the upcoming Super Bowl: nearly all pro football fans outside the Bay Area will be rooting against them. The Baltimore Ravens are the Cinderella Team with two poignant stories: Ray Lewis’ last game and the inspirational O.J. Brigance. Brigance was Lewis' teammate on the Ravens 2000 Super Bowl team, and is now a senior adviser on player development who speaks through a computer after contracting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). Baltimore is also the popular favorite because the city has not won a sport's title since 2000, while the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010 and 2012.

Despite both teams’ players coming from similar race and class backgrounds, the nation sees the match-up as The Wire v. Twitter, the hard streets of blue-collar Baltimore against San Francisco’s thriving high-tech economy. But the Ravens growing bandwagon could help the 49ers, as Jim Harbaugh motivates his team by instilling in them an "us against the world" attitude.

I’ve been around for all of the 49er Super Bowl victories, and particularly remember the first one in January 1982. I was living on 25th Street off of Capp and was kept up all night by honking horns and the general jubilation that occurred on Mission Street into the early morning hours. I attended the Super Bowl parade, which had nowhere near the attendance or lavish accoutrements that followed the Giants titles; San Francisco in 1982 had little experience with sports victory parades, and the 49ers winning a Super Bowl that year was hardly expected.

The 49ers did not have to be the underdogs to still win the average fan’s support. Fans across the world loved Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Steve Young and other 49er heroes, and rooted for them against all Super Bowl foes.

But 2013 is different.

The most popular player in the upcoming Super Bowl--- by a landslide--- is Ray Lewis. Most fans without a rooting interest in either team will back the Ravens because they want Lewis to go out a winner.

And let’s be honest. If the 49ers had somehow lost to Atlanta, wouldn’t San Francisco fans also be rooting for Lewis? Ray Lewis may not be the greatest defensive player in NFL history, but he is unquestionably the most charismatic. And after seeing him in tears before last Sunday’s Patriots game even started, the image of him celebrating a Super Bowl victory in his last game would be one for the ages.

And Lewis is only one reason the football world is with the Ravens.

Baltimore: A Blue-Collar Town

Football is seen as a blue-collar sport. Outside of their own teams, fans like “blue-collar” teams from rust belt cities.

Baltimore and the Ravens fit this bill perfectly. For all the images of its revived waterfront, many think of Baltimore as a declining manufacturing town with the tough neighborhoods and hard streets of The Wire.

The Ravens’ “blue collar” image helps explain why the team and its fans bring this sense of class grievance to every game. When the Ravens’ Terrell Suggs’ denigrated the Patriots after Sunday’s game, he described them as "arrogant."

San Francisco: Tech, Wine, Good Times

San Francisco’s national image could not be more different. Unlike Baltimore, it is one of the world’s great tourist destinations known for its high-tech, wine, and good times.

San Francisco also has one of the nation’s strongest economies.

A January 22, 2013 Sacramento Bee story cited a study concluding the greatest predictor of Super Bowl victories is the team whose city has the lowest unemployment rate. The study picked the Ravens, claiming that the Baltimore metro area’s unemployment rate of 7.2% was lower than the SF metro rate of 8.2%.

But the study has two flaws. First, San Francisco’s unemployment rate is current 6.5%, as Mayor Ed Lee has brought the jobless rate far below California’s 9.8%. This means that the 49ers home city does have lower unemployment and should win (49er fanatic Lee will be happy to know he played a role in the team’s Super Bowl victory).

Second, the unemployment rate in the city of Baltimore is actually 9.7%. That’s much higher than San Francisco’s.

So if you believe that there is a connection between unemployment and Super Bowl outcomes, time to bet heavily on the 49ers.

The larger point is that San Francisco is widely viewed as a prosperous city while Baltimore is seen as struggling. This adds to the Ravens image as the sympathetic underdog.

While the Ravens’ image as the blue-collar undergone actually made sense in their first three playoff games, no NFL team is more blue-collar than the 49ers. In fact, the Ravens and 49ers are almost mirror images of each other in their intensity and offensive and defensive game plans, San Francisco’s lack of a trusted field goal kicker notwithstanding.

The Harbaugh brothers followed the same track to get their teams to the Super Bowl. And anyone familiar with Jim Harbaugh knows that he will use the public support for his brother’s team to create his own sense of grievance, enabling the 49ers to take the field with his favorite “us against the world” attitude.

Considering the 49ers won their most pivotal games of the year on the road (Green Bay, New England and Atlanta), facing a pro-Ravens crowd in New Orleans could also help them win.