The Marin man behind Super Bowl 50, the biggest in NFL history

A view of a mock field in Super Bowl City at Justin Herman in San Francisco. Events have kicked off leading to next Sunday’s Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.Jane Tyska — Bay Area News Group

If Super Bowl City, formerly known as San Francisco, had a mayor, it would be Keith Bruce, a 50-year-old sports marketing guru from Novato charged with organizing the most super of all Super Bowls.

As CEO and president of the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee, he has the daunting job of managing the 50th anniversary celebration of what was already the sports world’s biggest annual event, an unofficial national holiday.

“The Super Bowl is a cultural phenomenon in the United States that actually transcends sports,” Bruce said one morning last week in the host committee’s San Francisco offices. “It’s about the celebrity, it’s about the entertainment, it’s about the halftime show and the mystique and magic of the Super Bowl.”

Speaking of mystique and magic, this interview took place in a conference room with images of Levi’s Stadium’s skyscraping tiers of orange seats covering the back walls. Four actual stadium seats, two on each side of a conference table that looks 100 yards long, completed the illusion, making it feel like a game was going to break out at any moment.

A family man with a wife and two school age daughters, Bruce has been working on this project for more than two years, and he’s been putting in such long hours lately that he stays in the city during the week, getting by some nights on three hours sleep. But this isn’t his first rodeo, and he knows this kind of down-to-the-wire push comes with the territory.

He’s worked as an executive on the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, the NCAA Final Four and 14 previous Super Bowls, mostly as a liaison between the NFL and what the league calls “our family of corporate partners.” This is his first as head man, leading a staff of 45. And with his command presence and square-jawed good looks, he’s become something of a local celebrity himself, appearing in the media as the man behind a golden anniversary Super Bowl with a distinctly Bay Area personality and ethos.

“The size and scale of this, the enormity, is one thing,” he said. “The other is the presentation to the world, recognizing your stadium, your city, your region are on the world stage. The NFL has made it very clear that this is the most important event in its history. Things need to go right. Things need to be presented in an organized way so that fans say, ‘Oh, wow, how cool is that?’”

Marin County graphic artist Michael Schwab, best known for the distinctive images he created for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, designed the 50th anniversary logo, an image of a football and the Golden Gate Bridge against a circular golden background. In the spirit of Bay Area philanthropy, this milestone Super Bowl is being billed as the most giving ever, with more than $13 million donated by Bay Area corporations going to local nonprofits, including several in Marin County.

It’s the first Super Bowl that has emphasized sustainability, from the green roof and solar power of Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, all the way down to the recycled plastic in the uniforms of the event’s legions of volunteers.

And, because San Francisco and Silicon Valley are what Bruce describes as “the center of invention and innovation,” it’s the most technologically advanced Super Bowl. There’s never been one with its own app, called Road to 50, for example, where you can get event details, traffic information and news.

And there’s a ton of technology in Super Bowl City, a free-to-the-public Fan Village across from the Ferry Building in Justin Herman Plaza at the foot of Market Street. It opened on Saturday, kicking off “Hometown Weekend.”

“Our Fan Village is going to be highly interactive, very high tech, very digital,” explained Stephanie Martin, who lives in Mill Valley and is the host committee’s vice president of marketing and communications. “Previous fan villages have been much more tactile — throw the ball, kick the field goal, that type of thing. Ours is more about technology and how it can enhance your experience.”

This is the first time the Fan Village has opened this early, nine days before the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers face off for all the golden marbles on Feb. 7. It includes free concerts by Alicia Keys, Chris Isaak and OneRepublic, among other acts.

‘BE PART OF THIS’

With tickets to the game going for $5,000 and up, most people can’t afford to get near the place. So this is an opportunity for Bay Area fans to enjoy Super Bowl City before the rest of the country descends en masse next weekend. More than a million people, locals and out-of-towners alike, are expected during Super Bowl week.

“Whether you live in Novato or San Rafael or Santa Cruz, you can come down and be a part of this,” Bruce said. “We’re making this as much about Marin as Santa Clara.”

Some critics are upset over how much Super Bowl 50 will cost San Francisco taxpayers, estimated at $3.5 million, primarily for security and public transportation. They fear another money loser like the America’s Cup. Not to mention the traffic headaches it inflicts on commuters.

But as Super Bowl City took shape last week, Doug Zucker, an architect from Tiburon who works downtown, was happily snapping photos with his cellphone of the giant golden “50” that was being erected in Fan City, a hive that was buzzing with of activity and anticipation.

“People complain about the cost, but this will bring so much money into the city,” he said, beaming. “It’s a pain in the ass to drive around here, but I love events that make the city look great.”

STADIUM A KEY

The first Super Bowl was played in the Los Angeles Coliseum, so there’s a certain symmetry in having the 50th return to the Golden State. It’s been 31 years since the last Bay Area Super Bowl in 1985, when the 49ers beat the Miami Dolphins in Stanford Stadium. After that, the Bay Area couldn’t compete with cities like Miami or New Orleans, hosting 10 Super Bowls each.

But a lot has changed around here since then, most saliently the construction of the $1.2 billion Levi’s Stadium. So the Bay Area, with its world-class restaurants, natural beauty and cosmopolitan sophistication, may have to get used to hosting Super Bowls more often.

“The stadium was a big selling point,” said Pat Gallagher of Stinson Beach, the committee’s executive vice president of marketing, partnerships and communication. “At the end of the day, there are 32 people, the owners of the teams, who vote on where a Super Bowl goes. And the owners like to go to places where they can have fun.”

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