MIAMI -- Two months after Hall of Fame 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice visited London, where he helped launch a workout facility at the NFL Academy, there's one memory he can't shake.
"Just working with those kids over there, there were so many fans that love the San Francisco 49ers in London," Rice said. "And you know to see someone walking around in my jersey and all that I was like 'Wow, this is really cool.'"
As San Francisco prepares for Super Bowl LIV Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs (6:30 p.m. ET, Fox), there's no denying the 49ers have officially returned. Returned to the top of the division, top of the conference and the forefront of football's collective consciousness, even internationally.
A season removed from 4-12, the Niners seem to have found something sustainable with coach Kyle Shanahan, general manager John Lynch and a roster loaded with young talent. And, at least to some prominent football voices, having the Niners back in the mix has helped make the league whole again.
"It makes people watch," Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young said. "You need these iconic franchises like Green Bay, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, because it brings in the whole country.
"We've been so many fits and starts that I've forgotten how important that really is. It anchors the league in some ways to the West Coast. ... I think having a West Coast presence in the NFL is important. We're unbalanced otherwise. I think because the 49ers have the most history, they're the ones who can have the biggest effect and have the strongest weight. It really does make a big difference."
In the glory days of the 49ers' dynasty, their popularity was undeniable. They were loaded with stars like Rice, Young, Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig, Deion Sanders and many more. Coach Bill Walsh brought an elegance to the passing game mostly unseen in the NFL.
From 1981 to 1998, they won five Super Bowl championships and missed the postseason just twice. As one would expect with so much star power, the Niners became a national brand that fans from all over the country loved to watch.
"They did it with multiple head coaches and quarterbacks, but they were always reloading with one thing in mind: win the Super Bowl," said Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC's "Sunday Night Football." "They were must-see television."
Gaudelli, who is in his 30th year producing prime-time NFL games, recalls the first regular-season game he ever produced: San Francisco vs. Dallas in 1990. He walked away impressed with the way the Niners carried themselves, noting a "quiet confidence" and high-energy practices in which the ball never touched the ground.
"The Niners were classy to watch play football and classy the way they ran it," longtime ESPN NFL broadcaster Chris Berman said. "It was the best. It was Camelot."
It's far too early to put these Niners in the same class, but the 49ers' resurgent popularity is evident in the ratings. Fox, which broadcast the majority of the Niners' 2019 schedule, had its highest viewership for regular-season broadcasts since 2016, averaging 19.2 million viewers per game, a 7% increase from 2018.
"Sunday Night Football" took a similar step forward, with its highest viewership since 2015 with an average of 20.5 million viewers, according to the company's numbers. That was a 5% increase from 2018 and a 12% bump from 2017.
How do Shanahan & Co. factor into the ratings mix? The 49ers-Seahawks "Sunday Night Football" game for the NFC West title Dec. 29 was the most-watched game between West Coast teams in the show's history and fourth highest-rated individual show in NBC's fall slate, with an average of 23.3 million viewers.
"Whenever you have a team rich in championships, there's an aura around them fans don't forget," Gaudelli said. "That aura reappears every time they climb back into contention. The names Walsh, Montana, Young, Rice and Lott still carry a lot of weight."
The cool factor
This year's Niners have carved out their own place with big personalities like tight end George Kittle and cornerback Richard Sherman. Beyond that, they've won in nearly every way imaginable, ranging from a 48-46 shootout in New Orleans to a 9-0 slopfest in Washington.
"There's a comfort factor and there's a cool factor and they're from a part of the country that a lot of people don't know," Berman said. "But it's representing another time. There's a lot that goes into it ... but everybody views San Francisco as a cool place. And it's cool that the Niners go right along with the city that they represent."
Any question about whether that cool factor has waned was wiped out this season. Every road game the Niners played included a large contingent of their fans in attendance.
According to Ticketmaster, the NFL's official ticketing partner, an average of 750 fans a game traveled an average of 1,345 miles to follow the 49ers on the road this season. That's a 39% increase from 2018 in the number of fans traveling and 11% increase in average distance traveled. The Niners' average resale price was $232 per ticket, up from $147 in 2018 and $189 in 2017.
The Minnesota game in the divisional round was the first playoff game the 49ers hosted at Levi's Stadium since it opened in 2014. The average resale price on Ticketmaster for the NFC Championship Game was $776, making it the highest-grossing, non-Super Bowl NFL event on the resale market in the company's history.
With the Niners facing the Chiefs and their rabid fan base, which hasn't been to a Super Bowl in 50 years, this year's game could break records. Through championship Sunday, the average ticket price for Super Bowl LIV was $9,175, with a get-in price just south of $5,000. For context, the average Super Bowl ticket price through championship Sunday last year was $6,239.
Along with all of that, the 49ers have reestablished a true home-field advantage.
"I'm appreciative of our fans, especially the 40-to-50 thousand who were here in not the best times, you can tell their passion, their spirit for the team," Niners CEO Jed York said. "I think it was awesome to really see that re-awoken this year. Especially, not just here but on the road. And for those who have traveled and seen our games on the road, it's been so awesome to see that. I am happy for our fans.
"Being in the Super Bowl seven years ago doesn't seem that long, except for the kind of deep valley that we went into between. But I'm so appreciative of them and happy for them that they get to see the team getting back to the Super Bowl."
The fans are not only in the seats but buying the gear. Fanatics, the Niners' official retail partner, said sales of 49ers merchandise during the playoffs have been greater than the team's sales for each of the past three full seasons and the Niners are the top-selling NFL team since the postseason began. San Francisco also had the largest year-over-year growth in merchandise sales during the regular season of all NFL teams, a whopping 220% increase.
During conference championship weekend, Kittle, Jimmy Garoppolo and Nick Bosa were responsible for three of the four top-selling NFL jerseys and each ranks in the top five since the postseason began. At the NFC Championship Game, the Niners broke a single-day record for sales among Fanatics' 50-plus partners across all sports.
Return of the rivalries?
Having the Niners back in the mix also opens the door for the return of some of the league's marquee rivalries. The two meetings between the Niners and Packers this season could be an appetizer for future high-stakes matchups should both teams remain competitive. Of course, getting the Niners-Cowboys games back on the big stage would be the ultimate step for old-school fans.
"You knew how big it was and that the entire world was going to be watching," Rice said. "I think if the Niners are in it, if the Cowboys are in it, yeah, it's a much better league. Because, back in the day, whoever went on to win that championship game went on to win a Super Bowl."
Finally, the 49ers have returned to football's biggest stage. It remains to be seen whether they'll be back in the near future, but for now, the sleeping giant is wide awake and, as Rice can attest, football fans all over the world have taken notice.
"It's refreshing because if you're a football fan, whether you're rooting for the Niners or not, they're like an old friend and they're back," Berman said. "They were down and now they're back. And it's good. It's comfortable."