The San Francisco 49ers’ first drag brunch at their home stadium was a smashing success and a watershed moment for 49ers PRIDE, the team’s official LGBTQ fan group that has been operating since 2019.
49ers PRIDE took the concept of Pride Days up a level. Instead of one game where LGBTQ fans are sprinkled throughout the stadium occasionally joining together to sing along to “Rain On Me,” the group built its own community centered around the team.
The 49ers had already established a history of working with local LGBTQ advocates when San Francisco Pride approached them to offer an activation space in 2018. The team eventually used it to launch a fan group the next next year.
The message that they wanted to send, 49ers Director of Fan Engagement Nick Clarke told Outsports, was: “You’re a 49ers fan, you’ve been a 49ers fan. Now we want to acknowledge you directly and say that we appreciate you as much as you’ve appreciated us through the years.”
Therein lies what made 49ers PRIDE so effective. It was more than just offering a special ticket package at the stadium with rainbow swag —i t was about the team proactively venturing into the LGBTQ community and looking to forge new bonds with them where they lived.
In the case of 49ers PRIDE, that meant going into the Castro to organize LGBTQ watch parties at local bars.
The 49ers soon discovered that these events had a profound impact. Clarke recalled a letter from a 20-year season ticket holder who wrote, “I never really had thought about that the Niners had never really addressed me directly because I just love the team and I’m part of the 49ers Faithful. But to see that the team is creating opportunities specifically for myself and others like me, I actually cried and I feel like the team is talking to me directly for the first time in my life.”
That kind of connection goes deeper than any win or loss and it’s a bond that every team should be striving to create with its fanbase. Sports fandom often feels irrational and tribal, but this response is what happens when an organization makes a fan feel like they chose the right team to cheer.
With the success of these watch parties came the realization that some LGBTQ transplants to San Francisco were also attending and getting hooked on football for the first time. Which meant that 49ers PRIDE was not only providing a social outlet for an existing community, it was creating brand new members of the 49er Faithful.
And watch parties were just the start. 49ers PRIDE also scheduled annual LGBTQ+ Activism in Sports panels featuring out athletes, front office employees and community allies.
Then last month, they hosted the Levi’s Stadium drag brunch and it was exactly what they hoped it would be.
“We wanted to make sure that the space that we occupied is also considered a safe place…to say ‘You’re welcome here. You should’ve already known that but in case you didn’t know, we’re going to make it as obvious as possible that you’re welcome here and we’d love to see you here every Sunday,’” Clarke said.
Perhaps the most amazing thing was it wasn’t just Niners fans who felt welcomed by 49ers PRIDE. A few LGBTQ Las Vegas Raiders fans told the Niners that they appreciated knowing that even their least favorite team valued their community that highly.
As anyone who witnessed the mass of rejected Rob Zombie film extras at the infamous Black Hole in Oakland when the Raiders played there can attest, getting Raiders fans to say anything about a rival team longer than four letters is a miracle.
The positivity of an LGBTQ fan group transcends even some of the deepest rivalries in football. It’s the kind of good vibes every team should want their own fans to feel.
To our knowledge, however, 49ers PRIDE and an LGBTQ chapter of Browns Backers Worldwide are the only such groups that exist in the NFL. While the opportunity to create that kind of positive atmosphere is there, the majority of teams in all of the major sports leagues aren’t taking it.
Not only are these leagues leaving a chance to build a bigger following on the table, they’re missing an important opportunity to hear marginalized voices. For example, if the NHL recognized LGBTQ fan groups, one of them might’ve suggested, “Hey…maybe DON’T ban Pride Tape…”
It turns out that the league where you’re most likely to find similar team-sanctioned fan groups is MLS. It features clubs like Atlanta United’s All Stripes, Seattle’s Pride of the Sound, LAFC’s Pride Republic, and league wide The Plastics. All Stripes board member Ryan Keesee has a theory for why that is.
“I think American football is the top sport [in this country] and so for me, soccer is my little hipster [sport] aside from the mainstream. And I think sometimes individuals who identify as queer fall into that subsection of culture and so soccer in America kind of falls into that,” Keesee said.
All Stripes has hosted watch parties, drag brunches and during Atlanta Pride, they organized a Pride tailgate at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with its own drag show. For these events, they focused on taking the preexisting social atmosphere within the LGBTQ community and adding a dash of sports.
“A lot of our membership came to us just looking for community and ended up loving soccer,” Keesee said.
That sums up the experience of clubs like 49ers PRIDE as well. As LGBTQ fan groups demonstrate an ability to connect with the community and grow a fanbase, other teams will hopefully notice their success and wonder, “Why don’t we have one?”