Football: Friday night football will remain a rare sight in San Francisco

Some of the most important games of any year are played under the lights at Kezar Stadium, but no other field equipped for football has lights. (Photo by Doug Ko)

By Jeremy Balan

More than the overwhelming glow emanating from atop light stanchions, the culture created by Friday night football is a slice of Americana that has inspired books, television shows and movies.

But it’s a slice that is not served with regularity in San Francisco.

No school in the City has ever featured permanent lights for its on-campus football field and the presence of Friday night football is limited to games at Kezar Stadium, where Sacred Heart Cathedral plays home games and where Lowell and Washington face off in their annual Battle of the Birds rivalry game.

“It’s a selling point to our kids, that we’re the only school in San Francisco that plays on Friday nights, in the best venue in the Bay Area,” said Sacred Heart head coach John Lee. “There’s nothing better than walking out of that tunnel at 6:50 under those lights, because I never got to do that when I was a kid.”

Lee, who also attended and played football at Sacred Heart, didn’t get that experience as a player, because Friday night games have never been a significant part of the high school football culture in the City, a tradition that continues today.

Of the 54 high school football games scheduled to be played in San Francisco this season, only eight will be played at night. Five of those games are Sacred Heart home games, a tradition the school started when Kezar was reconstructed in the early 1990s. The other Kezar night dates are AAA matchups between Balboa and Lincoln, and Lowell and Washington, and a 8-man football game between Stuart Hall and Anderson Valley of Boonville.

“Once you cross that county line, Terra Nova plays night games, South City plays night games, Jefferson plays night games,” Lee said. “It bothers me that City kids don’t get that experience. That’s why it’s so important to us.”

Games played on Saturday afternoons are normally well attended, with families, fans and alumni in the stands, but Friday afternoon games, which happen regularly in the Academic Athletic Association, struggle to get attendance in the dozens.

At Kezar, where Mission plays some home games, there are often more seagulls in the stands than fans on Friday afternoons. With a 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. start, it is nearly impossible for students to get to the game via public transportation (school gets out at 3:15 p.m.) and parents are often still at work.

Mission head coach Joe Albano has made it a priority to schedule non-league night games and Saturday games at Kezar specifically to enhance the players’ experience and also to allow parents to see games.

“We try to get the night games, just because I know how much the kids love it, but I also want a good draw,” Albano said. “Just imagine if you were a parent at get off at 5 [p.m.].”

The Mission cheerleaders are a common sight at the school’s afternoon home games at Kezar Stadium, but so are the empty stands behind them. (Photo by Devin Chen)

Galileo head coach Mark Huynh also stresses the importance of Friday night and Saturday afternoon games in the non-league season. The Lions will play two Saturday home games in the non-league season and will play one Friday night game on the road against De Anza.

“The most important thing is for the kids to get support and to get people to watch the games,” Huynh said. “The biggest games in attendance are Friday night games at Kezar. My kids go and watch no matter who is playing. Everyone does.”

While nearly everyone associated with high school football in San Francisco agrees that more night games and more schools with lights would aid attendance numbers and interest in the sport, why they don’t exist is due to multiple factors.

The first roadblock, which is in play on so many public-school issues, is money and how it is most-effectively dispensed.

San Francisco Section commissioner Don Collins has made tremendous strides to improve fields City wide (Balboa, Burton, Galileo, Lowell and Washington all have new, multipurpose turf fields under his tenure), but has held off on adding lights.

“These [fields] were disaster zones and to turn them around is a monumental achievement,” Collins said. “The first priorities are to get as many facilities not to be deficient then the question is, can they be maintained first, and then built upon?”

Along with the cost of maintenance, Collins cites other glaring issues that need to be attended to before lights are even considered at fields like Lowell, where he admits adding them would be a viable option.

There are other problems with Lowell that need to be handled first, most notably a run-down track that surrounds the football field and the lack of bathrooms at the field. Also, gyms at Balboa and Galileo are begging for renovation. In a budget crunch, those renovations will take precedent over the addition of lights.

As for the reason why more night games aren’t played at Kezar, dollars and cents are again an issue.

When the San Francisco Section rents Kezar for games in the afternoon, the facility is essentially free, as long as the schools do not charge admission and/or close off the stadium to the public. This practice would also apply to night games, but the section does not approve of free admission for night games due to security concerns.

When charging admission, the cost for the stadium rental rockets from a $80 staffing fee to about $1,600, which may or may not be covered by paid attendance.

San Francisco Recreation and Park is also is very stringent on rules limiting Kezar’s field time to a certain amount of games per month and cancels games with regularity when there is even light precipitation, adding additional stress on the section to reschedule games, specifically late in the season.

“On Nov. 9,” Collins said of the regular-season finale between Mission and Washington scheduled for a Friday afternoon at Kezar, “I’m really running a gamble. We don’t want to have rain on that Friday and lose that game at Kezar.”

For the private schools, money may not be a tremendous hurdle, but neighborhood push-back certainly is.

St. Ignatius has brought in portable lights twice in the last five years to play Friday night games, and SI athletic director John Mulkerrins openly expressed a desire for adding lights to their on-campus turf field in the Sunset.

“Part of the reason why [we’ve tried portable lights] is to see if it would catch,” Mulkerrins said. “Both games have been very successful in their attendance. Part of that is because we have students that live beyond San Francisco borders. They get to stay here after school on Friday, as opposed to Saturday, where they may stay home.”

St. Ignatius brought in portable lights to host Riordan at home last season and the event saw increased attendance. (Photo by Aaron Perez)

The the importance of lights for St. Ignatius goes beyond one athletic team. It would enable the school to hold more on-campus practices due to an expanded field schedule and would cut costs of off-campus field rentals and busing students to those venues.

“We’re discussing the possibility of lights on the athletic stadium, not only to offer night games for football, but for other sports like soccer and lacrosse,” Mulkerrins said. “It also extends our use of the practice facility and that is one of the most important parts of a competitive athletic program.”

Although Mulkerrins doesn’t feel the surrounding neighborhood in the Sunset will hold back a lights project at St. Ignatius, the impact of residents around City football stadiums is often the elephant in the room when talking about adding lights and encouraging night football games.

Residents not only dislike the glow from the high-standing fixtures, but grumble about increased traffic, noise and parking issues.

“What we need to tell the neighborhoods is that they don’t have to be all 7 p.m. games,” Huyhn said. “They can have games at 5 [p.m.] and still allow parents and family to come.”

What may be more concerning is the resistance of administrators to night and Saturday football games. Due to a San Francisco Section rule, an administrator has to be present at football games.

Many associated with City football programs have indicated that Saturday and Friday night games are often held back because administrators are not willing to spend extra time at football games well outside of school hours.

“We’re lucky to have a pro-football principal,” Huynh said. “All the games we can control, we can have on Friday night or on Saturday.”

Ultimately, the most important factor that is holding back night football in San Francisco is perceived interest, specifically for the AAA.

Saturday and night football games do see a rise in attendance in comparison to Friday afternoon matchups, but it the uptick is far from overwhelming.

Even for the annual Turkey Day championship last season, albeit on a rainy day, approximately 500 fans showed up to see Mission’s first AAA championship in 57 years.

In the glory days of the AAA, a very-different Kezar Stadium held as many as 50,000 fans for the Thanksgiving tradition.

“Mission isn’t filling Kezar up for night games and that’s indicating that we don’t have an environment where Friday night games or the magnitude of a game played once a week drives an overwhelming interest,” Collins said. “Culturally, we are not in an environment where a ton of people have a burning desire to watch. Our Turkey Day numbers also illustrate that. It’s a wonderful day, but it’s not a 10,000-fan day or a 15,000-fan day, where we have to think about another venue. It used to be that.”

St. Ignatius’ and Sacred Heart’s annual Bruce-Mahoney game always brings in a substantial crowd at Kezar and when the two schools met for the Central Coast Section championship game at AT&T Park last season, an estimated 12,000 fans showed up, but that speaks more to the rivalry than football interest. Both schools’ home games against non-rivalry opponents feature far-from-capacity crowds.

But a cyclical question still begs to be answered. Does the lack of night football lead to low interest or does low interest take away the need for night football?

Many AAA basketball games have a higher attendance than football games in the same league, and while most basketball games start at 5:30 p.m., but maybe high school football just isn’t that important in San Francisco.

What isn’t up for debate is the feeling of City football players on the issue of lights. When they speak about it, often with a smile, it’s as if the experience is otherworldly.

“I’ve got an older brother who went to Novato High School,” said Washington senior Elijah Murray. “I was in eighth grade when he was a senior and every Friday, I’d get pulled out of school early and we’d ride out to Novato to see my brother play. It felt like something out of a movie. Everything was electric.”

Electricity does power those high-powered light stanchions, but Murray wasn’t speaking literally. He was speaking fondly of an atmosphere that largely doesn’t exist in San Francisco and likely won’t for some time.

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27 Comments

  1. WCAL Alum says:

    OK. Fine and dandy, but nobody is mentioning the elephant in the room. Security issues for AAA games. Not too much for teams, but the small percentage of attendees (non-students/hanger ons) that potential cause the problems.

    Before the investment in lights, I would first play a few night AAA basketball games at Kezar with 7:00 p.m. to gauge the interest and potential security issues.

    • JJ says:

      I agree with the security issues. About 8 years ago at the Bruce Mahoney game, a gang fight broke out with non-SI/SHC students on the grass near the bleachers of Kezar Stadium. Even at the AAA basketball championship game, there was metal detectors and at least 4 poilcemen at the game, which was probably a waste of taxpayer’s money, since the police station is just next door.

    • IC Stars says:

      That’s the main reason the AAA stopped night games in the first place.

  2. FBC101 says:

    Sad when Jefferson Unified School District spends for two new turf fields at Westmoor High, and Oceana High. Two schools without football teams for more than a decade, and Football in the city gets no support.
    City Football is a slowly dying pastime because of the lack of support. Educators not willing to stay for games, not supporting athletics, sad… Get a new occupation if your not in it for the kids….

    Unfortunately soccer rules San Francisco. Look at all the new turf playing fields, all for Soccer..

    • Alumni Ric says:

      I totally agree!

    • JJ says:

      The self-imposed 1 year death penalty by Burton football is icing on the cake. I’m pretty sure the 49ers donated that football field for Burton too. Asians make up a large portion of the student body in AAA schools, so perhaps the students are brain-washed by their parents that sports are a waste of time and good grades are the only way to be successful?

  3. number1 says:

    I would love to play in a city where the seats are filled every game. Just seeing all those people makes you want to play better.

  4. Ari Gold says:

    To sum it up, if you arent a parent of one of the players, or a student that REALLY loves high school sports, then no one is going to these games. Urban areas like SF, NY just arent that big with football. Maybe its because theres other things to do in the city than go to high school games. I dont have the exact answer but another reason is the lack of pop warner leagues in the city. Theres a ton in the east bay, south bay, even in daly city. Get the kids playing younger is the key to having really good football programs. But like FBC said above, soccer is really going to be the sport in the forefront in SF because of the facilities the city has laid out.

    • IC Stars says:

      Well for me, gearing-up and watching the games every weekend is my “other things to do”.

    • thecityplanner says:

      I 100% agree with Ari Gold’s point.

      It’s not about lights or no lights…it’s about creating a strong youth league to develop a culture and to develop talent.

      If the talent is limited and there is no preparation before high school then the game dwindles down to a free for all. That’s the worst kind of football.

      Who was the kids that went to BAL and then went to UCLA as a quarterback…did he play at UCLA? More importantly, what did he do before BAL that prepared him to eventually play D1. I would be surprised if he never played football before BAL?

      As far as soccer goes…SF is leagues behind the suburbs in soccer fields but I will say that the growing soccer activist movement behind the Beach Chalet fields is fantastic…we are a long way from anything like that happening for football.

      I personally strongly believe that the AAA football league should be disbanded and that there should be 2-3 SFUSD football teams that play in an informal league..which might inlcude each other and a few games a year against OAL, WCAL,and PENN teams.

      There is no way SF can produce enough athletes to fill teams on all the public high schools. Funnel the kids who want to play to 2-3 schools and create a pattern of success. When those teams are good and too competitive then add another school.

      The situation right now is that a lot of football money is getting spent on too many teams and they are all mostly bad. When the SFUSD AAA ever plays a team from the OAL it usually is pretty embarrassing. As much bad press as Oakland gets, they’re youth sports programs are 10 times better than SF. Oakland produces at least 10 times more college athletes than SFUSD and the WCAL schools.

      That’s pretty sad that a City like SF which dominates Bay Area, California, and National politics is not even in the same league as Oakland…let alone Danville.

      Like I said before…San Francisco City Hall doesn’t really care about kids.

      • JJ says:

        The QB that went to Balboa, and went to UCLA was MacLeod Bethel-Thompson. I remember him playing in 1 PAC-10 game and he didn’t do too well. He was 3rd string, but all the QB’s got injured, so the UCLA coach played him. He latered transferred to SAC State because he didn’t want to wear a headset for 5 years.

        • JJ says:

          The game he played in was against Notre Dame, which is obviously not a PAC-10 team. He also played in a Bowl game vs BYU in 2007.

        • CrusaderNation says:

          you make a huge point that the talent is spread way too thin. In the last 30 years the student population has dropped nearly 100,000 (k thru 12). That is part of the problem. The other part is there are now many more choices for athletes besides football, basketball, soccer, and baseball. With a reduced student population and more sports, its a perfect storm for the fall off to happen.

          As for the leagues, WCAL is one of the top leagues in N Calif. However, it is the penninsula and south bay schools really doing well. One of the City school’s wins every now and then. The talent pool is thin and this is what is difficult.

      • JJ says:

        I lived in Washington State and the middle schools there have football teams. Doubt the SFUSD would ever implement football programs in the middle schools here. I’m sure they would rather have the money go to teacher pensions or raises for the Chancellors.

        • Chris says:

          JJ this is a dumb question. For someone that went to SI you should know that answer since I am sure you see them on the honor roll at SI. Asians generally are not pushed to play sports for one by their parents, secondly, they are not always physcially gifted as some others. However, I am sure Asians are pushed to be good academically.

          • IC Stars says:

            Yes, that size, speed, strength business might have something to do with it. There was a Chinese player for Cal in 1916. I think he was the only Asian player in the country at a major university then.

          • Ari Gold says:

            Patrick Chung, (Oregon, drafted by NE Patriots) is asian. His dad is half Jamaican/Chinese. Also a tidbit, He enrolled into Oregon at age 16.

            JJ you better not be one of those stereotypical SI guys that think that asians cant play sports and should stick to the classroom. Like it or not, white guys arent the only ones that can achieve athletically.

            • JJ says:

              Tiger Woods is part asian too, but not 100% asian. Patrick Chung is 25% asian. Timmy Chang, a QB at Hawaii about 7 years ago, looks 100% asian, but his pro career never panned out. I’m pretty sure there is a offensive lineman playing for the Titans who is 100% asian. Trevor Dunbar of SI basketball fame is 50% asian. Asians are good athletes, look at China’s medal count, albeit most of the medals are from ping pong, badminton, and probably trampoline. Asians in the NFL is probably less than 1%. So if I was a college football scout, I would recruit in areas where there is more caucasian and black players like Oakland, the East Bay and South Bay, not at a HS district with alot of asian players.

              • Don L. says:

                JJ,

                I have no idea why you suddenly brought Asians into this discussion about football. I guess part of the blame can go with the media (not San Fran Preps but the Chron) which published an article years ago detailing the sad state of AAA sports. A part of the article indicated the “changing demographics” of San Francisco with Caucasian / African Americans moving away and Asians / Latinos moving in. The implication was that most of the Division 1 talent was White / Caucasian.

                However, your comment that a scout shouldn’t look at a league with a lot of Asian players is not something I agree with not do I think scouts ever say that. That would be incredibly stupid if not outright racist.

                Also, were you trying to be funny about China’s Olympic medals? If you weren’t trying to be funny, you come off uninformed and rather offensive in my opinion.

                Have you been paying attention to the Olympics? You know, the 16 year old female SWIMMER who had such a good performance that people accused her of doping? How about the 20 year old, 6’6″ guy that won three swimming medals. China (and other Asian countries) do play badminton and table tennis (not ping pong) well. But they do gymnastics, diving and other sports. If they only did well in certain sports, they would not be competing with the US in the medal count.

                Your attempt to name a bunch of Asian professional athletes was pretty poor. You failed to name:

                Jeremy Lin – You know, the local kid from Palo Alto who just signed the big contract that got New York (City and Knicks) into a fit?

                Ed Wang – perhaps the lineman you were referring to? He’s 6’5″ and was a good player in high school and college. Oh, he is on the Oakland Raiders roster. He was cut last year and trying to hang on.

                Yes, Asians are pushed to exceed in academics and sometimes athletics get pushed out. But this is an old school mentality from more immigrant Asian families. People who are not Asian don’t always see this from the outside but immigrant families are much different than Asian families that have been living in American for generations.

                The more Americanized Asians are generally more open to sports than immigrants (though both sides have parents who want their kids to succeed academically).

                The fact is that Asians are getting more accepting of sports especially in the cities were Asians have big populations. SF / LA / NY / Boston / Philly have large amounts of Asian American youth / sports clubs and teams. Heck, just in the Bay Area, you have tons of boys / girls Asian club basketball teams that play year around.

                Asians do like sports and having the Jeremy Lin / Ed Wang’s will do more to encourage it.

              • jbalan says:

                Well said, Don.

  5. SF_Mikey says:

    I grew up in the MidWest with very fond memories of Friday Night Football under the lights. It was a big high school event every Friday night home game with a lot of the student body, parents and town’s folks showing up to support the team. I wish they’d have night games at Riordan and SI which are the two closest WCAL schools to me.

  6. Roll Cats says:

    Friday Night Lights at Kezar Stadium is one of the most magical things our city has to offer for high school students. In my opinion, if you grew up in the City and attended SI or Sacred Heart, then you know the Bruce Mahoney game at Kezar is one of the most special nights in San Francisco for the communities of the Catholic institutions. There’s a reason over 12,000 people showed up to AT&T Park, albeit it was a Saturday night.

    If Friday Night Lights were to expand beyond Kezar, I do believe it would have a huge impact on the quality and interest in high school football in San Francisco. Say Riordan gets the go-ahead to host night games, kids who previously wanted to attend SI are drawn in because they know they’ll have a better opportunity to play at Riordan AND they’ll play in prime time at a school with great school spirit, an awesome campus atmosphere, and in a league with good media coverage.

    Likewise, if SI gets the go-ahead to host night games, they will instantly improve their status and attract even more athletes. Some of the lacrosse kids might even lend their athleticism to the football team. As Mulkerrins stated, SI has had great success with attendance at night games. I would expect that to continue because Friday nights, not foggy Saturday afternoons, are a time when kids like to socialize and that’s what the SI student section does anyway. I believe SI would turn into a top of the league contender year in and year out, especially with Regalia as coach.

    The biggest impact night football could have on the city would be in the AAA. There are plenty of very talented young athletes throughout the city who would be inspired by the chance to play in front of a big audience and gain local recognition. Right now, the AAA does not receive as much media coverage as the WCAL because of the obvious differences in quality of play, but also because there is much less public interest in the AAA. Correct me if I’m wrong JB but the majority of frequent commenters on this site are from WCAL schools while there are far more athletes in the AAA. AAA Basketball sees quite a few comments, but football does not see nearly as many. That’s because the games are played at odd times and the rosters are very small. With night football, rosters could grow from youth interest and public interest would certainly improve. All of a sudden, families of the players could attend, friends of the players would be drawn in by the social appeal of Friday night contests, and players would be inspired to work harder because they know more eyes are on them.

    In the end, Friday Night Lights just makes sense. Regardless of whether you prefer the WCAL or the AAA, regardless of whether you think there’s not enough athletes in the city, and regardless of whether you think the city has enough fields to play on, the youth of San Francisco deserve a chance. Let’s get some leaders together who want to help make San Francisco a more family-friendly place with a great atmosphere for youth athletics.

  7. Don L. says:

    Roll Cats,

    You make good points. Unfortunately, the AAA also has to deal with AAA competitive parity. Lowell and Washington have been playing night football games for the past few years. These two schools are the biggest in the AAA and usually the most stable. They may not always have the best teams but they can / will bring out the crowds. I see Lincoln and Balboa have a night game this year as well. The AAA also adopted a QUAD basketball night (ala the PAL with it’s rivalries games between SSF / El Camino, Jefferson / Westmoor, etc) with Lowell / Washington.

    However, I see the AAA only doing this to highlight marquee match ups. Scheduling this big Friday night game but only to have a top team crush a weaker team isn’t exactly going to bring more attention to the league. At this point, the AAA is not competitive throughout the league. The WCAL squads (all teams not just SF) can draw from everyone. The AAA only has city kids to pick from and there isn’t enough interest (or talent) around to go around.

    However, I could see the AAA use Friday night football games for rivalry match ups. Lowell / Washington for sure. Burton / Marshall would be another one. Lincoln / Washington have their bell game which could be set for a Friday night. Unfortunately, not sure if the other schools have long time rivalries against each other.

    Roll Cats brought up a though that I had thought of a long time ago. It’s funny that the AAA’s football games are in the afternoon of a weekday YET CYO kids (3rd to 8th grade) can play sports on Friday nights with basketball or volleyball. Ok, most of the CYO schools are in relatively safe areas and fights breaking out are not too likely.

  8. Jacob Wang says:

    The Bruce-Mahoney Game October 5th at 7PM at Kezar is listed as a SI home game

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