Cal Memorial Stadium under construction recently. No football in 2011, clearly. Photo: Tracey Taylor

When the Cal Golden Bears open their home season against Fresno State on Saturday, the team won’t be at home.

Cal’s six home games this season will be played in San Francisco: on Saturday at Candlestick Park, and the remainder at AT&T Park (although if the Giants somehow turn their season around and get to the playoffs, the Bears will be even more nomadic than planned). The seismic retrofit and reconstruction of Cal Memorial Stadium, the team’s home since 1923, won’t be ready for the team until the 2012 season.

The six missed home games will mean no traffic snarls, no noisy hoopla for residents on Panoramic Way, no double-priced parking tickets, and no additional revenue for local schools that rake in the money for their valuable parking spaces on game days. But what does the loss of tens of thousands of visitors to Berkeley for the home dates this season mean for local businesses?

“We’re on uncharted ground with this,” said Barbara Hillman, Executive Director of the Berkeley Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We really went through a thorough thought process to see what we could do.”

Hillman said that hotels and restaurants are likely to be the most affected by the loss of home games. In response, she said Berkeley hotels have made a particular effort to attract other business, such as weddings and business meetings that they would normally turn away during football season.

Coach Jeff Tedford roams the sideline during last season's Big Game. Photo:

Some have created special packages to try to attract fans to Berkeley. “We’re trying to encourage fans to visit here and stay here, and play there,” said Scott Slocum, Director of Sales and Marketing at Hotel Shattuck Plaza. The hotel is including two roundtrip BART tickets to San Francisco with a room stay during some of the football weekends this season.

The visitor bureau did look into showing the games on large screens, or organizing buses to take fans to games. Hillman, however, said she concluded that most traveling fans will use the opportunity to stay in San Francisco rather than in Berkeley and travel across the Bay.  She hopes, however, that Cal’s absence will make hearts grow fonder in Berkeley.

“A normal city would be happy to get 60,000 or 70,000 people into town,” Hillman said. “I know that not everyone’s a football fan, but if you have a captive audience six times a year, take advantage of it!”

Hillman said that in the 1950s, Berkeley was “quite a football town”. That changed through the ’60s and ’70s, and, although the general improvement in the Bears’ performances in recent seasons has increased attendance, there is still considerable ambivalence about the benefits of football home games in the business community, she said.

The visitors bureau has set up booths at the downtown BART plaza to provide information and assistance to visiting fans in past seasons. Hillman said, however, that she regularly sees streams of fans at the end of games flowing dutifully into the BART station, rather than spending money in Berkeley restaurants and bars. She’s determined to change that.

“Maybe this season will be an eye opener for some businesses,” Hillman said. “We’re looking forward to welcoming everyone back in 2012.”

Even though the home games aren’t at home, some characteristic fun is being had this season. Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates yesterday agreed a bet with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin over Saturday’s opening game. If Cal wins, Swearengin will wear a Cal jersey for a day, and if the Bulldogs win (highly unlikely: Cal is the 10-point favorite), Bates will wear Fresno’s red and white for a day.

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...