SF 49ers fanclub: The Sun Never Sets on the Niners Empire

Rabid 49ers fans ring the globe, forming a club more than 100 chapters strong

Lawrence Lofts and his London friends’ 49ers fandom is about far more than the city of San Francisco, the team’s colors, or its NFL history.

Lofts founded the “Jimmy G-Unit London Niner Chapter” in the United Kingdom for one reason: “the drink.”

Lofts, a London native and the president of one of the Niner Empire fan club’s more than 100 local chapters stationed around the world, had no plans to become a 49ers fan. “The 49ers were winning everything” in the 1980s and 1990s, he said, referring to the team’s five Super Bowl victories in 14 seasons from 1981 to 1994. Lofts enjoyed rooting for underdogs, such as his beloved Fulham Football Club, which was founded in 1879 and is still looking for its first major championship.

Lofts was intrigued when he visited the Bay Area in 2017 and noticed a Thursday night game between the then-struggling 49ers and Rams.

Tailgating isn’t a thing in England, he claims. Fans can drink in a pub designed specifically for fans of one team – and only one team. It is impossible to mix fans together. Driving into a half-empty “car park” on a Thursday afternoon “was crazy.”

But, for the Thursday night game, he contacted Joe Leonor, the founder of The Niners Empire.

“From the moment we arrived, they treated us like family,” Lofts said. “The drinks were pouring. The game was insane, but we lost 41-39.

“‘You know, you told Joe you’d open a chapter in London,’ my friend said the next day.” That wasn’t something I remembered. I make a lot of promises when I’m drunk. But I always keep my promises.”

Lofts’ affection for the struggling 49ers grew rapidly over the next two years, as the team went a combined 10-22 and ended up with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft. He decided to fly to Nashville for the 2019 NFL Draft.

“I went on my own, I didn’t know a soul,” he explained. “There were a lot of Niners fans there, and I saw on Facebook that there was a party going on.” When I got to the bottom of the field, there were a bunch of 49ers fans in the corner. They couldn’t have been nicer, but they wouldn’t let me buy a drink or provide any food. It was simply a family.”

Lofts opened his 49ers chapter when he returned to England and named it after Jimmy Garoppolo, the team’s quarterback at the time.

Lofts’ fan club chapter has grown to 20 people since then, many of whom have no idea how American football works but enjoy the opportunity to get drunk while meeting new people. Every season, they travel to Europe for at least two games.

During the NFL season, they watch English football – soccer to most Americans – in the afternoon and the 49ers game in the evening on most Sundays.

“It’s an absolute obsession,” Lofts said, who has a 49ers flag draped across his living room window and named his dog Deebo after star wide receiver Deebo Samuel. He hopes to meet Deebo one day, if the Niners ever get to play in London.

Lofts, according to Leonor, is one of his more passionate chapter presidents.

“That dude can drink,” Leonor pointed out. “Lawrence was a professional boxer.” He also brings his son here every now and then. He’s just an all-around nice guy.”

Leonor founded The Niners Empire nearly 20 years ago. He was attempting to gather a group of 49ers fans via MySpace in order to have some buddies to watch the game with if he was traveling outside of the Bay Area and the 49ers were playing.

“Sports are the only thing that brings people from all walks of life together,” said Leonor, who retired after 25 years as a member of the San Mateo Police Department’s gang unit. “I’ve had people I’ve incarcerated come tailgate with me.” I’ve had my gang unit, as well as members of the task force, tailgate with me. There are never any problems. It is all about football.”

Leonor now assists people from all over the world in locating their 49ers family.

Lisa Wertz is a Riverside native who moved away from the Bay Area over 30 years ago. She grew tired of rooting for the 49ers on her own and connected with Leonor on social media before launching her own chapter in Virginia Beach.

She brought the chapter with her when she moved to Des Moines, Iowa.

“I moved into Chiefs and Packers territory,” Wertz explained. “Whenever I wore my 49ers gear, people looked at me as if I shouldn’t be there.” I just assumed that there were more people out there who felt the same way and still supported our Niners. “I wanted to gather everyone.”

Wertz founded the fan club with about 15 other people, all of whom were close friends or relatives. It now has 194 active members.

Every Sunday, 30 or 40 of them will gather at a bar or restaurant.

“Any place that has enough space for us,” Wertz said. “Normally, we call ahead and warn them. We’re a friendly bunch, but we’re also loud and proud. No matter where we are, any 49ers fan who walks in the door is welcomed like a member of the family.”

The Niner Empire has chapters in 11 countries, according to Leonor, including Mexico, Canada, England, Germany, Switzerland, and New Zealand. In the United States, there are chapters in 40 states, including 15 in Texas.

He’s also started collaborating with fan clubs from other teams, including the Cowboys, to tailgate with them.

“We haven’t had one issue,” Leonor stated. “There were Cowboys fans on one side and Niners fans on the other.” We all entered together.

“It’s all about friendship.” Bringing people together is the ultimate goal. You cater to anyone who is visiting from out of town and make sure they have a good time. Then you have fun and talk (smack) to each other before and after.”

On the official website of the San Francisco 49ers, there is a map of the world with pins in each city where a 49ers fan club exists. Although they are not officially affiliated, the majority of them are members of The Niner Empire.

Leonor stated that there has been some disconnect since the 2014 opening of Levi’s Stadium. On Sundays, he said, up to 5,000 people try to tailgate together, but security guards keep kicking them out of parking lots and have since moved them so far away from the stadium that they have to take Ubers to the game.

“Tailgating is an event; it’s a part of football for the diehards,” he explained. “The Niners appear to be unconcerned about it.”

But it’s not just about the drinking for Leonor.

“Ultimately, we will go there to watch our Niners,” he said. “Every year, it grows and grows.” It’s because we’re all about looking out for one another.”

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