To Lawrence Lofts and his mates in London, their 49ers fandom is far less about the city of San Francisco, the franchise’s colors or its NFL history.
Lofts started the “Jimmy G-Unit London Niner Chapter” in the UK for one reason: “The drink.”
Lofts, a London native and the president of one of more than 100 local chapters stationed around the world as part of the Niner Empire fan club, had no intentions of becoming a 49ers supporter. In the 1980s and ‘90s, “the 49ers were winning everything,” he said, referring to the team’s five Super Bowl victories in 14 seasons from 1981-94. Lofts enjoyed cheering for an underdog, like his beloved Fulham Football Club, which was established in 1879 and is still seeking its first major championship.
But when he paid a visit to the Bay Area in 2017 and noticed there was a Thursday night game between the then-struggling 49ers and Rams, Lofts was curious.
In England, he said, tailgating isn’t a thing. Fans can go drinking in a pub designed to host fans of one team – and one team only. Mixing fans together just doesn’t happen. And the idea of driving into a half-empty “car park” on a Thursday afternoon “was crazy.”
But he got in touch with Joe Leonor, the founder of The Niners Empire, for the Thursday night game.
“They treated us like family from the second we got there,” Lofts said. “The drink was flowing. The game itself was crazy, but we lost, 41-39.
“The next day my friend said, ‘you know, you told Joe you’d open a chapter in London.’ I didn’t remember that. I make a lot of drunk promises. But I keep my promises.”
Over the next two years, as the 49ers went a combined 10-22 and ended up with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft, Lofts’ love of the struggling 49ers grew rapidly. He decided to book a ticket to Nashville for the 2019 NFL Draft.
“I went on my own, didn’t know a soul,” he said. “There were a lot of 49ers fans and I saw on the Facebook page that there was a party going on. I walked down to the bottom of a field and there were a load of 49ers fans in the corner. They couldn’t have welcomed me more, wouldn’t let me buy a drink, wouldn’t let me provide any food. It was just a pure family.”
When he got back to England, Lofts opened his 49ers chapter and named it after Jimmy Garoppolo, the team’s quarterback at the time.
Since then, Lofts has grown his chapter of the fan club to include 20 people, many who have no idea how American football works but appreciate the tendency to get liquored up while making new friends. They’ve made it across the pond for at least two games each season.
On most Sundays during the NFL season, they watch English football – soccer to most Americans – in the afternoon and catch the 49ers game in the evening.
“It’s an absolute obsession,” said Lofts, who has a 49ers flag draped over his living room window and named his dog Deebo after star wide receiver Deebo Samuel. He’s hoping Deebo will meet his namesake one day, if the Niners ever get to play in London.
Leonor said Lofts is one of his more passionate chapter presidents.
“That dude can drink,” Leonor said. “Lawrence was actually a professional boxer. He brings his son out here once in a while, too. He’s just a really nice guy.”
Leonor started The Niners Empire almost 20 years ago. He was trying to get a group of 49ers fans together by using MySpace because he wanted to have some buddies to watch the game with if he was traveling outside of the Bay Area and the 49ers were playing.
Joe Leonor, right, of Oakley, is joined in his garage with his wife Monica Leonor, and their children, Isaac, 14, and Dominic, 11, at their home in Oakley, Calif., on Sunday, July 23, 2023. The family is posing by football locker used by former San Francisco 49ers player Jesse Sapolu when they played at Candlestick Park. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
“Sports is the only thing that brings people from all different walks of life together,” said Leonor, who spent 25 years as part of the gang unit for the San Mateo Police Department but is now retired. “I’ve had people I sent to prison come and tailgate with me. I’ve had my gang unit, people from the task force, tailgate with me. There are never any issues. It’s just about football.”
Leonor now helps anybody from anywhere on the planet find their 49ers family.
Lisa Wertz is a Riverside native who left the Bay Area more than 30 years ago. She grew tired of rooting for the 49ers alone and got connected with Leonor on social media, then started her own chapter in Virginia Beach.
When she moved to Des Moines, Iowa, she brought the chapter with her.
“I moved to Chiefs and Packers territory,” Wertz said. “When I went anywhere with my 49ers gear they looked at me like I should not be there. I just figured there were more people out there feeling the same way, still supporting our Niners. I wanted to get everybody together.”
Wertz started the fan club with about 15 members, all of them close friends or relatives. It’s grown to 194 active members.
SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 3: San Francisco 49ers fans cheer for their team during the 49ers game against the Los Angeles Rams in the first quarter at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Each Sunday, about 30 or 40 of them will meet up at a bar or restaurant.
“Any place that has enough space for us,” Wertz said. “We usually call ahead and warn them. We’re a nice friendly bunch but we’re loud and proud. No matter where we’re at, any 49ers fan who walks in the door comes to us like one big family.”
Leonor said The Niner Empire has chapters in 11 countries, including Mexico, Canada, England, Germany, Switzerland and New Zealand. There are chapters in 40 states in the U.S., including 15 in Texas.
He’s also started linking up with fan clubs of other teams — even the Cowboys — to participate in the tailgate with them.
“We haven’t had one issue,” Leonor said. “All the Cowboys fans were on one side, the Niners fans were on the other side. We all walked in together.
“It’s all about camaraderie. That’s the ultimate thing, is bringing people together. You cater to whoever is from out of town, make sure they have a good time. Then you talk (smack) to each other before and after and have fun.”
On the 49ers official website, there’s a map of the world with pins in each city where a 49ers fan club exists. Most of them are part of The Niner Empire, although they aren’t officially affiliated.
Leonor said there’s been some disconnect since the opening of Levi’s Stadium in 2014. As many as 5,000 people often try to tailgate together on Sundays, he said, but security guards keep kicking them out of parking lots and have since moved them so far away from the stadium that they had to take Ubers to get to the game.
“Tailgating is an event, it’s part of football for the hardcore fans,” he said. “The Niners really seem like they don’t care about it.”
But to Leonor, it’s not just about the drinking.
“Ultimately, we will go there to watch our Niners,” he said. “It keeps growing and growing every year. It’s because we’re all about taking care of each other.”