THE biggest game in football doesn't start until Sunday. But the show has been going on all week. As preparations for the Super Bowl XIX showdown between the San Francisco 49ers and the Miami Dolphins pick up steam at Stanford Stadium, the excitement is as thick as the morning fog. ABC television crews have been unloading tons of equipment and laying miles of electronic cable among the eucalyptus trees. Thousands of visitors have been strolling into the stadium to peek at empty wooden benches and watch workmen paint NFL logos on the natural grass turf.
But as the sideshows spill over onto the Stanford University campus and into Palo Alto, the mood is more subdued.
``The people in town are enthusiastic about the 49ers, but there's an equal amount of trepidation,'' says Palo Alto Mayor Larry Klein, who once likened having the Super Bowl at Stanford to having a party at the house next door without being invited. Although shop windows on Palo Alto's University Avenue sport 49er pennants, Super Bowl T-shirts, and chocolate-covered footballs, most passers-by seem slightly underwhelmed at the prospect of having the Super Bowl played in their own backyard.
Forty miles south of San Francisco, Palo Alto is a small, upscale city hemmed in by the urban sprawl of Silicon Valley. People here take such an active role in local politics that a decision to install a cable-TV system has dragged on for years. A major annoyance to the citizens is the crowd expected to overrun the area on Sunday.
``When you dump 100,000 wild people into a town of 50,000,'' says bookseller Bob Dickie, ``there's a crunch. I'm going into hiding.''
The problem, says assistant Palo Alto police chief Chris Durkin, who will manage the deluge, is that ``all roads to Stanford Stadium come through Palo Alto.'' Although the majority of ticketholders are expected to arrive by public transportation, an estimated 20,000 ``hangers-on'' may show up on game day just to be part of the action. The city will have 150 police officers on duty on game day -- compared with the usual 30. The city has even sent out fliers to locals, telling them how to avoid the inevitable gridlock. At last week's City Council meeting, Palo Alto Councilwoman Ellen Fletcher recommended that residents stay home, ride their bikes, or use public transportation on Sunday.
Handling the crowds -- and cleaning up after them -- is expected to cost the city $100,000. ``The Super Bowl is no bonanza for Palo Alto,'' says Mayor Klein. He expects that extra revenue brought in by sales and hotel-occupancy taxes will amount to $15,000 at most. ``Places like San Francisco, with lots of hotels and restaurants, will do well,'' he says. But because Palo Alto had less to gain and more to spend than most Bay Area cities, Klein refused to contribute to the Bay Area Super Bowl Task Force, set up to underwrite direct costs of the game.
Another aggravation is the souvenir stands that have mushroomed up on Palo Alto's tree-lined streets. Three weeks before the game, the city had received more than 200 requests for permits from out-of-town vendors. In an effort to reduce congestion, the City Council passed an emergency ordinance prohibiting vendors from the four main throughways to the stadium. Still, ``the stands on every corner are ridiculous,'' says Raymond Momet, a local worker, who otherwise likes the idea of a Stanford Super Bowl. ``They're turning a nice sport into a two-week television commercial,'' he says.
Stanford University president Donald Kennedy was asked to consider the stadium for a Super Bowl site in 1982 by Quentin Kopp, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Mr. Kopp was eager to bring the Super Bowl to the city but found that Stanford Stadium was the only one in the area that met NFL criteria. Although reluctant at first, Mr. Kennedy did not want to say no to Bay Area fans. Nor did Palo Alto.
The game is expected to create $100 million worth of trade for Bay Area businesses. Although most of that money will stay in San Francisco, Stanford University will reap its share. Alan Cummings, Stanford's associate athletic director, estimates that the university will make between $150,000 and $200,000 from its share of parking and concession profits.
There have been other benefits. Stanford recently made $2.3 million worth of improvements to the 60-year-old stadium -- financed mainly by private donations and NFL contributions. This never would have happened without the Super Bowl.
``The prestige and visibility can never hurt,'' says Mr. Cummings, who adds that as a result of hosting the game, the athletic department has made new friends in the community. The Apple computer company supplied 86,000 souvenir pillows to cushion the stadium's splintery wooden benches and agreed to host the Stanford Invitational Basketball Tournament in December.
``That connection wouldn't have happened without the Super Bowl,'' says Cummings.
But media attention has some people worried. ``I'm afraid there'll be a lot of complaints about the stadium,'' says Stanford alumna Andrea Porter. ``I've been going there for 20 years, so I know what it's like. I have to lean forward with someone's knees in my back to watch the game. I'm worried about the glitzy-type people who fly in for the Super Bowl and then say, what a rotten place.''
According to Michael Goff, an editor of the campus newspaper, the Stanford Daily, students are evenly divided in their reactions to the game. ``Half the students are going skiing,'' he says, ``while the other half are going to hobnob with the tailgaters.''
Some students saw dollar signs when they learned the Super Bowl was coming. Several planned to rent out their rooms for the weekend until the administration expressly forbade it. But other students are upset at the commercialism. ``I find it rather inappropriate,'' says John Abelson, an electrical engineering doctoral student. ``Having a major media event at a university seems beyond the bounds of why the university is here.''
Faculty members have also addressed the issue of whether they want Stanford to be so closely identified in the national conciousness with the Super Bowl. But, says Prof. Elie Abel, chairman of the communications department, ``Most faculty people have more than a passing interest in the game and its outcome. We're thought of as elitists, but we share a common allegiance to the 49ers.''
Much of the Super Bowl madness has centered on getting the $60 tickets, which have been in short supply. Eight hundred counterfeit tickets were seized, and it is said scalpers have been able to sell tickets at a 10-to-1 profit. Even the university president has been deluged with ticket requests. Referring to Queen Elizabeth's visit to Stanford two years back, Dr. Kennedy recently told his colleagues, ``I am now in a position to inform you that members of this academic community clearly have more interest in a professional football contest than in lunching with a reigning monarch.''