What to Know
- Brendan Clark first became a 49ers fan as part of a sibling rivalry, when his brother got a Dallas Cowboys Starter jacket — a staple item of early '90s fashion in New Zealand
- Clark's status as a superfan was cemented when he flew through San Francisco and attended a 49ers game at Candlestick Park
- With an extensive collection of signed memorabilia, Clark says he's a die-hard Niners fan now, and can't wait to visit Levi's Stadium
It all started because of an early 1990s fashion trend: Starter jackets.
Brendan Clark recalls they were huge in New Zealand, where he and his brother grew up.
"My brother got a Cowboys one, so I found out who the Cowboys' rival was at the time, and the 49ers and Cowboys had quite a big rivalry," he recalled. "That's how I became a 49ers fan. To basically go up against my brother."
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At the time, it was rare to find NFL football on TV in New Zealand. But once he moved to England in 2010, Clark remembered his interest in the 49ers. While flying through San Francisco with his family, he stopped to catch a game at Candlestick Park — just minutes from the airport. The Faithful tailgating crowd welcomed him with open arms.
"We were just treated so brilliantly, and it really cemented my love for the 49ers, and I'd say that's when I truly became faithful, is probably 2011," he said.
Clark's enthusiasm for the team has only grown. His home office is now lined with signed, limited-edition sports cards and other autographed memorabilia: game-used gloves and cleats, a helmet signed by Brandon Ayuk, and a custom-built display case to show it all off.
"For the last several years, I've not missed a game," he boasted.
Watching the Niners each week takes dedication, Clark pointed out. Though daytime games aren't much of a problem, Sunday night games that kick off at 5:20 p.m. Pacific Time begin after 1 a.m. in England. Still, the NFL is enjoying a steady rise in popularity across the Atlantic, with at least two games played in London each year.
"I just had the opportunity to be in London, and it was incredible to see so many people in 49ers gear," said 49ers VP Jenni Luke, who's in charge of community impact for the team. "They're very proudly wearing their jerseys — you saw some Jimmy Garoppolos, but you also saw (former 49ers greats) Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice. People know the Niners and have been fans for a very long time."
Luke and Clark both said they credit the rise in international interest to the way American football easily lends itself to television broadcasts. Though fans of soccer and rugby can find the stop-start nature of NFL football jarring at first, it allows more time for replays and analysis during the game than other sports.
"I actually quite like it, because it gives me a chance to understand what's just happened and why it happened the way it did," Clark said. "And it's quite good as well because you can go out and get a cup of tea and not miss anything."
The English have their tea and the Americans have their tailgate parties.
"One of the things that is not a tradition in English sports is tailgating," Luke said. "English fans, I think, are very curious about that kind of pregame ritual for American fans."
When NFL teams visit London to play games at Wembley Stadium, Luke said they close off streets around the venue to allow a tailgate-like atmosphere before the game starts.
But in 2020, even American fans weren't tailgating, as teams played games in quiet, empty stadiums with desolate parking lots. Luke said the 49ers launched a program called the "Tail-Crate," sending 49ers-themed tailgating supplies to fans for each game. In this case, it was English sports teams teaching the Americans how to connect with fans at a distance.
"Leeds United, one of our Premier League soccer team friends ... the majority of their fans across the globe, they will never ever come to a game at the stadium," Luke said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic throwing a wet blanket over the 2020 NFL season, the 49ers rethought their fan engagement strategy, and began to focus on what they could make digital: first, a virtual tour of the 49ers Museum, and now an official Supporters' Club, which gives devoted fans access to a library of exclusive online content.
"We've had over a thousand people sign up to date, and about 15 percent of those are international fans from all over the world," Luke said.
That includes Brendan Clark, who's now made 49ers fans out of his two oldest children. One, who just turned 10, is about to join an American football team in the town of Reading, England, where the family resides.
Clark said his kids can't wait until they're old enough to stay up late and watch the 49ers' nighttime games with him. Until then, he said he tries to keep the noise level down.
"I can't quite jump up and down and curse when things don't go right, because I don't want to wake my children up," he said. "I don't want to be dealing with that in the middle of the night — I've got football to watch!"