WITH CHAMPIONSHIP WEEKEND, SAN JOSE TAKES A UNIQUE TURN IN THE NATIONAL SPORTS SPOTLIGHT

When the College Football Playoff title is decided at Levi’s Stadium in neighboring Santa Clara, the off-field activities will center in the Bay Area’s largest city, which is more used to high tech conferences.

By Mark Purdy/#MPWritesCFP  

 

The streets of downtown San Jose have waited 241 years for this.

Ever since 1777, when the pueblo was founded, San Jose has been more of a working city than a tourist city. As the Bay Area’s high-tech fulcrum with more than a million residents, San Jose has a larger population than San Francisco.  San Jose does not possess San Francisco’s pretty postcards.

But here is what San Jose does possess: a compact urban core that is perfect for an event such as the College Football Playoff championship weekend, a four-day celebration surrounding the CFP title game that will be played on Jan. 7 at nearby Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

Scott Knies, executive director of the Downtown San Jose Assn., sees the possibilities.

“We’re never going to be the leisure travel destination that some cities are,” Knies says. “But this gives us the opportunity for us to show off what we do have-- and do it in a way that brings people back here for more visits. The breadth of this event, I think, is going to take peoples’ breath away.”

Patricia Ernstrom, executive director of the Bay Area 2019 Host Committee, concurs.

“This will be a ‘happening’ like San Jose has never seen before,” Ernstrom says. “The passion, pageantry and tradition of college football . . . The energy and obsession of fans . . . The connection to their schools in a way that is just so different from pro sports.  It’s like no other experience or sport in the United States.”

It isn’t as if big sports events are a novelty to San Jose. The city had a significant role in Super Bowl 50 festivities in 2016 – with the Carolina Panthers headquartered downtown and practicing at San Jose State – and the city garnered positive reviews.  Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Jay Z partied after the game at a club on San Pedro Square. Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton found a favorite taqueria on Santa Clara St. and dropped in several times. The media day at SAP Center attracted thousands and ran smoothly.

Still, visitors unacquainted with Bay Area geography may wonder why the Championship Campus is not centered in San Francisco, a more recognizable location to out of towners.

But the CFP leaders knew exactly what they were doing. Levi’s Stadium, where college football’s national champion will be decided, is 7.5 miles from San Jose City Hall and 45 miles from San Francisco City Hall. There is light rail transportation from San Jose’s central city directly to the stadium.

And that central city, as it turns out, owns the ideal grid for the CFP’s game plan. Major concerts will be staged at Discovery Meadow. The ESPN anchor desk will be located at Chavez Plaza, which will be transformed into “The Quad.” McEnery Convention Center space will be filled up with a fan festival. Media Day will be open to the public at SAP Center. Major parties are booked for the City National Civic Auditorium.

All of these locations are within walking distance of each other. It is why so many high-tech companies choose San Jose for developers’ conferences or as a location to roll out new products. San Jose may not have traditional tourists, but it greets plenty of guests doing business with Fortune 500 companies.  In 2017, San Jose had 6 million overnight visitors, with more than 1.3 million of them attending downtown events.

Of course, the CFP championship weekend is unlike anything else. In Silicon Valley terminology, you could call it a unicorn. It is a fun and unique enterprise. It is a happening that can expand San Jose’s bandwidth by appealing to a different and broad demographic. This is why so many local officials are excited.

One of those officials is Rebecca Baer, vice-president of Team San Jose, the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau.

“What I’m looking forward to most,” Baer says, “is watching people who may not have been here before, people from other parts of the country coming here to experience that Silicon Valley vibe that those of us who live here know all about.”

“We don’t often get to market the city outside the high-tech realm,” agrees Ben Roschke, the Team San Jose director of research and strategic development.

He’s right. In an average week, San Jose’s hotels are chock full of tech-conference attendees and business travelers.However, the first two weeks of January are the slowest time of year for that dynamic. Championship weekend will arrive at a welcome time.

The city plans to be ready. Team San Jose will set up a “war room” in its offices to monitor social media traffic through the four days of activities, being poised to answer questions and address concerns in real time.  Baer says the organization will draw up “specialized itineraries” for visitors who may be interested in specific areas such as shopping or tech-related sights or music hot spots. Shuttle buses will run from downtown to the Santana Row retail complex. Fresh flowers and landscaping will be planted in downtown parks.

“One of the things we’re focused on,” Baer says, “is what this will look like and feel like for our visitors.”

Not just visitors. Another outreach effort is aimed at local folk, especially the 77,000 people who live in San Jose’s downtown. According to the Wallet Hub website, the city has America’s third-highest percentage of residents with four-year college degrees, behind only Ann Arbor and Washington D.C.  Logic would suggest that many are college football fans who will be interested in visiting “The Quad.”

You could also make the case that San Jose has become the Bay Area’s go-too sports city. Since 2014 when the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers opened Levi’s Stadium, the building has hosted Wrestlemania, soccer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup Final and the NHL’s outdoor hockey Stadium Series – with downtown San Jose serving as off-field headquarters for all three. The NHL San Jose Sharks’ arena, SAP Center, has also been a major-event magnet over the years. This winter alone, it will play host to the NHL All-Star Game and first-round NCAA Basketball tournament games.

Yet there’s a palpable sense that championship weekend could lift the city’s reputation to another level. Last season’s CFP championship drew a bigger television rating than the World Series or NBA Finals. The nightly ESPN telecasts will expose millions of viewers to the downtown area. The net effect could be transcendent for the city. That’s the belief of John Poch, executive director of the San Jose Sports Authority.

“Over the years, we have had many Silicon-Valley-I-was-there moments,” Poch says. “But they’ve often been in other areas, in high tech or art or music.  Now, we can have one of those moments for college football.”

That said, it is settled science that Bay Area visitors of any type are drawn to the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf. Which are, of course, in San Francisco.

Baer and her Team San Jose staff have a strategy for that, as well. It involves geographic education.

“Our message to those people,” Baer says, “is that there’s no better place to stay than San Jose because of its convenient access. You can go north to San Francisco--or south to Monterey--for half a day, then come back to San Jose and be close to the game and other big events. We’re getting some messaging together on that right now . . . We’re watching the top 10 teams in the CFP rankings and researching how those fans might travel to the Bay Area. When the last four teams are announced, we’ll launch a digital campaign to target them.”

The ultimate goal, of course, would be to impress championship weekend visitors enough to make them return for another San Jose visit to enjoy the city’s other attractions – or other sports events.

“We look forward to making sure that, when they leave the city, they want to come back to see more next time,” Baer says. “If we do well, it gives San Jose the opportunity to do other things like this.”

Knies, a solid sports fan, is also watching those CFP rankings.

“There are certain teams I’m pulling for,” Knies says. “But whoever our guests are, we’ll be ready.”