Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

The Super Bowl Is a Big Test for Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb on Their Home Turf

The young San Francisco tech companies hope to prove they can handle one of the country’s biggest events in their main market.

You can book a ride through Uber in more than 400 cities today, but nowhere is the company more established than in its hometown of San Francisco. With Super Bowl 50 taking place in its backyard on Sunday, Uber Technologies hopes to use the event to demonstrate how far it's come just six years since it started.

Uber is a Super Bowl Host Committee partner, along with Silicon Valley mainstays Google, Intel, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. The status earned Uber access to a parking lot near Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., where the game is being played. Uber drivers will be able to drop off and pick up customers there. "This is the first global sporting event where Uber has ever been engaged like this," said Keith Bruce, chief executive officer of the Super Bowl Host Committee.

About 70,000 people are expected to attend the game between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, and as many as a million more will flock to the area over the next week or so. The traffic should pose a major challenge, but Uber views the influx of tourists as an opportunity to promote its more experimental services that aren't offered in most other cities. For example, the company will deliver lunches on demand to those staying around San Francisco's Financial District, where a series of concerts and other attractions are taking place in a pop-up event known as Super Bowl City. Uber said it will deliver chicken wings anywhere in the city on Sunday afternoon.

But drivers are looking to use the Super Bowl as a way to draw attention to their own plight. Uber drivers in the area are attempting to organize protests over the company's reduction of fare prices last month. Uber faces pushback around the U.S. from workers who say they can no longer live on current wages and afford insurance or auto-loan payments. Hundreds of drivers went on strike outside Uber's New York City offices on Monday.

Uber hopes to attract more positive attention with marketing gimmicks, such as delivering puppies for a $30 fee or shuttling a few lucky riders to meet Joe Montana and other football stars. "Knowing that it was in our backyard this year certainly started our thinking about the different ways we would be able to celebrate our city," said Amy Friedlander Hoffman, Uber's head of business development and experiential marketing.

Several other young technology companies also hope to use the event to show off their home-field strengths to visitors from around the world. Airbnb and Lyft, each based in San Francisco, have made special preparations to accommodate tourists. Airbnb expects 15,000 people booking home rentals for Super Bowl 50, four times more than last year's game in Phoenix.

Airbnb is encouraging as many locals as it can to list their homes in the hope of keeping prices reasonable. The company said Super Bowl weekend rates are averaging $225 a night, but rentals in popular areas, particularly those near a train stop, can command higher rates. Robin Duryea, a yoga instructor, listed her apartment in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood on Airbnb. "I set it at $500," she said. "I definitely wanted to take advantage of what's going on."

While Lyft isn't a Super Bowl partner, the three-year-old ride-hailing service aims to steal some of the spotlight from its larger competitor. San Francisco is one of Lyft's most successful markets, with 40 percent market share, according to the company. For the Super Bowl, Lyft is trying to reduce gridlock by offering $5 off rides that start or end at Caltrain stations. It's also pushing to get more drivers on the road. "There are probably hundreds of parties and events happening," said Kira Wampler, Lyft's chief marketing officer. "We expect to be very busy across San Francisco."

Uber will promote its own carpooling service, called UberPool. While the feature is offered in only 20 or so cities today, Uber Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick has touted it as a technological solution to reduce congestion and make cities more efficient. If that wasn't enough, there's a gimmick to go along with it: Some UberPools this weekend will have video game systems with Madden NFL that customers can play during their rides.

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