York fan-friendly new breed of NFL owner

49ers CEO wants to take the live game experience to another level with new stadium

SAN FRANCISCO — Like many first-time parents, 49ers chief executive officer Jed York shares baby pictures on the Internet.

See Jaxon Edward York, welcomed into the world Oct. 27 by Jed and his wife Danielle, wearing 49ers baby booties or a onesie with football laces. See Jax, who already has a Twitter account, tweet Nov. 4 during another Dallas appearance on NBC's "Sunday Night Football:" "I have to watch the Cowboys again?''

Before Jax attended his first 49ers game last Sunday, Jed engaged dad's 35,000 Twitter followers by asking who else wanted to do something they never had done and experience a Sunday at Candlestick Park — free.

"You have to have fun with it,'' York said.

A son is every father's legacy. But long after Jax is old enough to tweet for himself and join the family business, his proud papa will have left another mark on the 49ers as the guy who had fun rebuilding a dynasty and constructing a new stadium befitting a classy organization.

"I am not stupid enough to think that I didn't have a lot of help in getting to this position and fortunate about my family but I also have to be respectful of that knowing that I had different opportunities than someone else and live up to that expectation,'' York said in a phone interview.

It was January 2011 and doubt around York had begun to mount like so many losses. York, the 2003 Notre Dame graduate who began running the 49ers five years later, had just fired the coach he had signed to a contract extension — Mike Singletary. Former GM Scot McCloughan preceded Singletary out the door by nine months.

As a proud 49ers franchise faced a crossroads, the team's inexperienced boss didn't cry uncle. He called him. The advice former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. gave his nephew empowered him to act without fear of making another mistake.

"I told Jed, 'Trust your gut, the guy you see every day in the mirror,''' said DeBartolo, whose 49ers teams won five Super Bowls. "I reminded him I once took a chance (in 1979) hiring Bill Walsh and John McVay, who was a fantastic GM for us.''

Armed with more confidence than experience, York embarked on a course that eventually landed 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke — his Walsh and McVay. Both Harbaugh and Baalke were honored last season as being the NFL's best at their jobs. As the 49ers await the Bears here Monday night, respect has been restored by the Bay due largely to York's belief in himself that once felt like a leap of faith off the Golden Gate bridge.

"The most important thing is you have to embrace a culture of failure,'' said York, 32. "In professional sports there's a tendency to stay too conservative and not do anything that's going to make you lose as opposed to trying to do something that will allow you to win. You have to be willing to take a risk and be willing to fail.''

Nothing illustrated that clearer than York's construction project in nearby Santa Clara adjacent to the team facility. A 68,000-seat, Silicon-Valley-enhanced, $1.1 billion stadium remains on schedule to open before the 2014 season. It was a vision of DeBartolo's back in 1997. When Eddie's sister Denise DeBartolo York, Jed's mom, assumed control of the team in 2000, the issue went on the back-burner. It stayed there until an ambitious, savvy thirtysomething executive found a way to finish the job his uncle started.

"The key is having a great public-private partnership,'' York said. "It's perseverance. We never wanted to be a team that left our home. I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. I watched the Cleveland Browns become the Baltimore Ravens. I never wanted that to happen with the San Francisco 49ers.''

To hear York explain it, the stadium's in-game experience promises to be revolutionary. Instead of going Cowboys owner Jerry Jones' route with a scoreboard that swallows the field, York envisions, "68,000 screens inside your building.''

"Most of our fans have smart phones or tablets so you want to enable those things to work to their potential,'' York said. "You want a software-driven stadium instead of a hardware-driven stadium. You might have your own sideline reporter or Patrick Willis-cam or look at the trenches, that inside view.''

York's view: NFL owners cannot get complacent even if football has become America's pastime.

"When you look at the future of professional sports, there's no question the level of enthusiasm is high but it's starting to wane in terms of the live experience,'' York said. "You want to make sure your fans can have a better experience than at home. The only way to solve that is through technology.''

York embraces it, using social-media to connect with fans in a way that humanizes an affable young millionaire.

He tweets about his favorite movies and Notre Dame football. He interacts with fans or gives away free tickets to strangers at grocery stores. He even dared to tease Harbaugh publicly about his infamous handshake last season with Lions coach Jim Schwartz.

How does a guy so young and new to the job seem so natural and comfortable doing it?

"I'd like to say it's in the genes,'' DeBartolo said with a chuckle.

Lucky Jax.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

CHICAGO

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