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.].”
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.”
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.