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Candid conversation with Gavin Newsom on sports, politics and community

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

SAN FRANCISCO — Even now, nearly seven years after experiencing a sports-obsessed politician's worst football nightmare, Gavin Newsom can't bring himself to look at John York's Field of Dreams.

When Newsom, California's progressive, popular and sometimes polarizing lieutenant governor, drives past the San Francisco 49ers' future home in Santa Clara, he shields his eyes from a resplendent facility that is set to open next summer. The symbolic weight of Levi's Stadium is still too much to bear for the former San Francisco mayor, who lost both the team he loved and a chance to bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics when Niners owner John York set his sights on the Silicon Valley.

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California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom wanted the 49ers' new stadium in San Francisco. (Getty Images)

So, while Newsom is pragmatic enough to herald the NFL's announcement in May that Super Bowl L will be staged in the stadium in early 2016, he still gives the joint the invisibility treatment as he cruises up or down U.S. Highway 101.

"I can't [look at] it," Newsom said while having lunch at the Balboa Café, one of several businesses he owns in San Francisco's Cow Hollow district. "I won't. I literally drive by all the time. I swear to you I have not turned left as I'm driving by [heading south], or right when I'm driving north. I have not. I won't open up a website when I see the stadium displayed. I won't do it. Can't do it. Now, I should be above all this. But I'm not."

As the state's second-ranking elected official, Newsom now represents a much larger constituency, making him an interested party in sports-facility-related machinations from San Diego to Sacramento. Newsom, the man who helped force same-sex marriage into the national consciousness by defying California state law and staging weddings on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall nine years ago, acknowledged that the union between sports and politics is often quite strained.

Typically, one municipality's gain is another's loss: For instance, the Golden State Warriors' prospective move from Oakland to a waterfront arena in San Francisco. If that proposed deal is approved by the California legislature, it would then run through a commission chaired by the lieutenant governor, one of many topics on which Newsom expounded for Y! Sports between bites of a spinach salad.

"That deal's hardly done," Newsom said of the Warriors' plan to have an arena built in time for the 2017-18 season. "I'm chair of the state Lands Commission, so we'll have a thing or two [to consider]. Now, it's not a particularly healthy thing to have this ex-San Francisco mayor as chair of the commission that will determine [this] — I'm so biased, but I'm honest about it. But it has to be a good deal, and [if approved] it will be the right thing to do. We'll work overtime to see that that happens. But it's tough for Oakland. I get it."

Interestingly, a victory for San Francisco could also be a boon for San Diego. By approving the Warriors' deal at the dilapidated Pier 30-32 site, the Lands Commission could create a precedent that might allow the Chargers to remain in their current city, rather than possibly relocate to Los Angeles. One proposed San Diego stadium site, which sits on a former military base, could be considered a redevelopment project, enabling the franchise and city to make a similar case for a state-sanctioned facility. (The counterargument, however, is that unlike in San Francisco, the San Diego site is on an active marine terminal, and any change there would displace that activity.)

As Newsom knows from his dealings with the Niners, it's complicated. While he believes that L.A. is an "obvious" destination for one or two current NFL franchises — "At some point, they've got to move there," he says — the ex-mayor is highly sensitive to the perils of relocation, even when it pertains to a franchise (the 49ers) moving 30 miles to the south.

Back in 2005 and '06, while attempting to swing a new Niners stadium deal as the franchise looked to bolt from rundown Candlestick Park, Newsom clashed frequently with York, who has since ceded control of the franchise to his son, Jed. Newsom says he has a good relationship with the younger York, who would work tirelessly to make the Santa Clara stadium a reality, but admits that he has "animus" toward the way the team's spurning of San Francisco unfolded and characterized the NFL's awarding of Super Bowl L as "bittersweet."

Says Newsom: "For me, having been through it with the Yorks, going to the voters, getting voter approval, getting the private-sector money, doing all the environmental work, getting up close to a shovel-ready project, and then seeing them move — and knowing that they were working on that for a year-and-a-half during our negotiations — is difficult. As a fifth-generation San Franciscan and a fanatic when it comes to the 49ers ... it has been extraordinarily difficult."

Particularly jarring for Newsom was the timing of the deal's unraveling: In November of 2006, with San Francisco officials prepared to present the city's bid to U.S. Olympic Committee officials the following day at a Southern California seminar, John York called to inform the mayor that the proposed stadium at Candlestick Point was a non-starter.

Asked where that ranks on his list of political disappointments, Newsom replies, "At the end of the day, homelessness was more important to me. Crime rates were more important. And some people can say, 'Well your priorities are screwed up; the most important thing is sports.' And you read the newspaper and you sometimes think the only thing that matters in life is sports. It's stunning the amount of attention we place on it. And, by the way, I got a baseball scholarship [to Santa Clara University]. The reason I'm here, trust me, is sports. It built self-esteem, and I'm a fanatic with the best of them.

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Newsom, fourth from the right, had his bachelor party at AT&T Park. (Courtesy Gavin Newsom)

"But I was never gonna sell the soul of the city to subsidize extraordinarily wealthy people to build a stadium. I wasn't. And I never did. And I could have easily gone down that path and regretted successfully keeping them — but at a cost of public housing, and at a cost to the soul of a city … a cost that's more than just celebrating great athleticism, and the glory and triumph of sports and what it does to build the community. So, it's up there, but it's not on my top 10."

On an emotional level, however, it was a brutal moment for a self-described "religious" Niners fan — albeit one who has expanded his horizons as his profile has grown.

For instance, Newsom's friendship with prominent NFL agent Doug Hendrickson, which dates back to the mid-'90s (they were introduced by mutual friend Billy Getty), has exposed him to a variety of NFL luminaries.

"Gavin is an incredibly hip guy from the Bay Area who has a really good understanding of sports in general and is passionate about the success of his city's franchises," says Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, a Hendrickson client. "I've always been impressed with his overall knowledge of football and understanding of the fiscal side of sports.

"He and Doug are two of the most connected guys in their respective industries and beyond. There is something about a former mayor and lieutenant governor, and the guy I like to loosely refer to as the 'mayor' of San Francisco, Doug Hendrickson, navigating their way through social settings. You can hardly go a block or turn a corner without someone slowing one or both of them down."

While Newsom is enthusiastic about interacting with elite athletes, Hendrickson says his clients also benefit from the experiences.

"It's been a huge thing for them, to get to know a person of his intelligence and experience in business and politics," Hendrickson says. "All these athletes have a presence about them, and he's one of those guys who captivates a room, so they gravitate toward that. He's someone they can bounce things off, and there's not a player he doesn't want to meet or help out or be involved in their philanthropic efforts, or just talk about life."

Last year, when Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch was facing potential league discipline following a DUI arrest, Newsom called up NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — of whom the lieutenant governor is a "huge fan" — and served as a de facto character witness for the 2012 Pro Bowler.

"For him to take the time out to talk to the commissioner about me is something I will never forget," says Lynch, whose case is still unresolved. "For Gavin to be the second-most powerful person in California and [still] talk to a kid from Oakland and help me learn about business, it tells you what kind of character he has."

Newsom, who jokes that he began eating kale in homage to another NFL star with whom he is acquainted, Falcons tight end and health nut Tony Gonzalez, says he relishes getting to meet people who perform at the highest level of their profession.

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Newsom has maintained an active presence on the Bay Area's sports scene. (Getty Images)

"I love sports, and I admire the hell out of athletes, especially in their prime," Newsom says. "I love excellence. I love watching greatness. That's why I laugh when people hate on Tiger [Woods] or LeBron [James]. I love watching people at the peak of their performance. There's nothing more magical."

It's safe to assume that if Newsom ever becomes president, he'll eagerly follow in the footsteps of leaders such as Richard Nixon (who suggested to Redskins coach George Allen that the team run a flanker reverse before a 1971 playoff game against the 49ers) and Barack Obama and parlay his position into various sports-related perks.

Five years ago, before Newsom married former U.S. junior national soccer team standout Jennifer Siebel, he accepted an offer from then-San Francisco Giants president (and current CEO) Larry Baer to hold his bachelor party at AT&T Park. The mid-July event was held on the night of the marathon 2008 MLB All-Star game at Yankee Stadium, which was broadcast on the scoreboard as Newsom and his guests took turns trying to drive balls into McCovey Cove.

"We were going at it like we were at San Jose State and Santa Clara back in the day," says Hendrickson, a former Spartans pitcher who competed against Newsom in college.

Recalls Newsom: "It was a beautiful night. We were there for like seven hours, until the [grounds crew] finally kicked us out. That was one of the peak experiences in life. Truly. That's when you say, 'It is good to be mayor.' "

Newsom could apply the same words to former NBA All-Star and current Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, who is celebrating a downtown arena deal that will keep the Kings in the California capital under new ownership, after it appeared the franchise would relocate to Seattle. It represented an improbable triumph for Johnson, who in February of 2012 announced that he and the Maloofs had struck a $391-million deal for a downtown arena, only to have it collapse two months later in a setback that seemed to seal the franchise's impending departure.

"Kevin Johnson, I'm just saying — no one could've done what he did, except a former superstar who happens to be mayor, whose legacy is tied to this," Newsom says, laughing. "He just made it happen, through the force of will, with relationships he had with the entire league — not just [NBA commissioner David] Stern — and this remarkable group of Indo-Americans, and with some of the Qualcomm folks and others.

"It's an incredible story. I give him enormous credit. To be out there on center court [in 2012] and to announce the deal with the Maloofs, to put himself out there and to have that fall apart, I thought, 'Kevin, brother, you're dead.' And then to pull this out — man. He's on Cloud Nine and he deserves everything."

To Newsom, the potential economic benefit provided by an arena, or even an AT&T-sized baseball stadium, justifies the civic sacrifice required to swing a deal. Football stadiums, however, are trickier propositions — and direct taxpayer contributions to any big-time sports facility bother him as a matter of principle.

Regarding the possibility that the Oakland Raiders might leave the O.co Coliseum to become tenants at the Niners' new stadium, Newsom says, "I will say Jed [York], when he got involved, was amenable to that in ways that really surprised us early on. There could be a deal there. But it's crazy to build a stadium for one team in the 21st century. It's just crazy. All that money for 10 games a year? And there aren't enough Metallicas out there to fill a 100,000-seat stadium.

"By the way, there's no objective economic analysis — objective — that bears out any economic benefit or stimulus for the stadiums. It's a great gimmick. Except for a Super Bowl, and that's a nice thing to have, but you can't justify a taxpayer subsidy for an NFL stadium. You can make a more legitimate argument for 60-plus games or 100 events at arenas, or smaller ballparks. But NFL stadiums, there's a lot of mythology about that. You don't get great economic stimulus.

"You've gotta put up $100 million? I could find 50 things with that $100 million that could be invested that have a greater permanent, non-seasonal, non-part-time, career-based economic stimulus. You just can't justify taxpayer subsidies. And you're subsidizing, let's remember, some of the wealthiest people on the planet. I get it, they offer a great thing … spirit and pride, and you can't legislate that. And it's profoundly significant. I mean, it really matters. When you have strangers, from every socio-economic walk of life, hugging each other, giving high-fives, that's a special and important thing for a community.

"So even as mayor, I was thinking, 'Alright, we'll provide the land, we'll provide these tax credits, we'll get the private sector to put up this money [for the 49ers' stadium], but we're not gonna write a check.' But you justify everything else you do because of that intangible, which does matter to a city's soul. And that was what we lost a little bit on it, but we still get the San Francisco monogrammed brand, with the Niners just 30 miles away."

That Newsom now takes consolation in the fact that the team for which he grew up rooting will remain the "San Francisco" 49ers represents an evolution of sorts. When the proposed Candlestick Point deal collapsed, Newsom recalls, he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor herself, wanted the franchise renamed to reflect its new home.

"Senator Feinstein and I, we didn't feel that was right at first — abandon something and you're still gonna take the most important thing — the asset, which is the brand and our reputation — with you," Newsom says. "That created even more animus at first. Then you kind of step onto the balcony and look down, and you go, 'It's actually a great thing for the city.' You get the benefits without having to deal with any of the financial risks. And it's true when they win — not if, but when — another Super Bowl, the [parade] will be held in San Francisco."

He finds similar consolation in the franchise's successful bid to host Super Bowl L, for which he promises "San Francisco will be dominantly featured. And we'll indulge the rest of the region. Even though it's a Bay Area Super Bowl, we'll brand it as a San Francisco Super Bowl, because it's in the best interest of the NFL, and the best interest of the 49ers, to maintain the iconic, international branding of San Francisco."

As he looks ahead to that spectacle two years and seven months from now, Newsom makes one, last concession: Eventually, he will succumb and confront the onerous edifice he refuses even to glance at now.

When Super Bowl L comes to Levi's Stadium, so, too, will Newsom.

"I will," he says, placing his hand atop his water glass for emphasis. "I will. And it's going to be a great event. I like Jed, and I'm happy that he's incorporating San Francisco in his plans.

"In the end, I'm glad the 49ers are in the Bay Area. I'm glad they're in California. I'm glad they kept the name. I'm glad Jed's at the helm now. I'm glad they're winning. I'm glad their [next] Super Bowl [championship] will be celebrated in San Francisco. I'm glad the new mayor [Ed Lee] has taken the high road. I'm glad of all of these things. And I'm glad we're getting the Super Bowl. Amen."

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