As far back as Tommy Nello can remember, he always lived and died alongside the San Francisco 49ers. His earliest memories date back to the San Diego Chargers’ iconic Super Bowl outburst in 1995, he stayed strong through the wild last-place years and celebrated the rejuvenated era of Colin Kaepernick. Now, after all these seasons of devoted fandom, Nello’s love for the Niners has become inextricably woven into everything he does. It’s a part of his family, his business and his music.
It wasn’t always the easiest trip, as Nello spent his formative years in West Los Angeles (and still lives in Southern California to this day). Angelenos’ taunts and side-eyes intended to question his allegiance to the Niners were a constant, but that didn’t stop Tommy from reuniting with his people. He is a longtime member of the Saloon Squad, a group that met religiously to watch Niners games at the aptly named San Francisco Saloon on Los Angeles’ Pico Boulevard. The Saloon was a meeting place where worshipers lined up to pack the house before each Football Sunday. (My only attempt to watch there ended because I only showed up two and a half hours before the 2019 Divisional Round kicked off and they had already reached maximum occupancy!)
The boisterous atmosphere of the Saloon has entered into legend. The bar vibrated with anticipation before every big play and exploded into cheers after every sack, touchdown or win. Some fans arrived wearing large gold chains with Flava Flav’s clock-sized 49er logo medallions, some wearing cartoon-sized 10-gallon hats, and virtually everyone sporting a jersey. of a current or classic player.
It was in this environment that Tommy planted the seeds that would change his life. In 2012, during Harbaugh’s heyday, as Tommy puts it, he was “broken as hell” and needed an income for his young son, Enzo. Enzo has autism and needs therapy which has begun to strain the family financially. Tommy had an idea. He had amassed a collection of Niners gear, memorabilia, and ephemera during his time as a fan. He also spent hours each Sunday with people who shared his love for the Niners and unique products.
Sensing an opportunity, Tommy began to hold a raffle at half-time or after the game, selling tickets for the chance to win a jersey. The experiment became an immediate and resounding success. He coordinated the midseason draw at the end of the playoffs against the New York Giants in a devastating league loss.
As the next season approached, Tommy wanted to increase interest and attendance, so he dug into his massive collection and put it on the block. “I started putting out all these old, vintage clothes, like keepsakes, just old stuff that you probably haven’t seen before.” The raffle became a tradition among the Saloon crowd, which continues to this day.
After many successful raffles at the Saloon, Tommy decided to take his vintage game to the next level. In 2018, he created the 49ers4Sale Instagram page, which served both to sell rare or interesting items and to promote next week’s prize. Over time, it gained traction and had over 1,000 followers all vying to land a one-of-a-kind pennant or a beloved figurine.
Nello continued to sell his wares at an impressive rate over the next few seasons. Then, at a time that most likely changed the course of the 2021 season, an inspiration struck that again changed the course of Tommy’s future.
“I went to see a match with my son. Went here for the Monday Night Football game against the Rams. It was her first time at Levi’s, and we had a great time together.
“That’s the game, I’m sure you remember, when Deebo [Samuel] scored the touchdown, and he had the chain with the ice, all those diamonds, and we saw it on the big screen. I watch him, and I watch my son, and the atmosphere. It was, like, the turning point of the season for us. It was like Candlestick Park. It was just everyone having fun and the energy was crazy. It was like that exact moment…it’s a pin I’m going to do.
Nello had previously collaborated with his friend, Fathead Tommy, on what’s called a “blip,” which is an enamel pin/hat combo you might see on the edge of golfers looking to mark their ball on a green. With these connections. established, he reached out with a photo of Deebo’s iconic moment and a plan. He wanted to buy 50 pins, on a trial basis. He wasn’t sure how much interest his followers would have, so he ran a poll to confirm if there was anything.
The answer soon turned out to be a resounding “yes”.
“I woke up the next morning, I had like a hundred DMs. I was like, ‘Oh fuck.’ So, I ran through the first 50 that I saw, and I was sold. And I was like, ‘OK, let me do another run.’ Then it sold out quickly. So I did 150 and at that point I was like, ‘Let’s release another one.’ “
From then on, the pin business was a non-stop journey for Tommy. He administered a poll to decide the next design: George Kittle or the YAC Bros. The YAC Bros won and hit the market, but people’s interest in Deebo never waned. His inbox was flooded with customers asking for another chance to buy it, so he obliged with another 100.
At this point, Tommy knew he had a hit on his hands. For the first few months, he sifted through every DM personally. As someone with self-diagnosed low-level OCD, he loved the process of watching the list come together. However, this past March, after months of strong sales, it was time to work smarter, not harder. Thereby, 49ers4Sale.com spear. The site allows customers to buy the most recently dropped pin every Sunday without Tommy having to write down addresses by hand. This does not mean that he is less involved in the process. In fact, it has become a real family business.
“… My son, I give him a quarter of a pin. He puts a little thing on the pin that says thank you for supporting a small business, and there’s a QR code to the website. So, we still have to do all that by hand… And then we print the slips and he sticks the stickers on the bag.
For those doing the math, Enzo clears around $25 for each shipment — not bad for a 12-year-old. It looks like he will also be busy. Tommy has plans to release a new pin every week until the end of the year. Currently, sales go live on Sunday mornings at 11:00 a.m. PT, and once the season begins, that will move to Saturday.
The other area that Tommy makes sure to stay intimately involved in is design. He explained that his most anticipated upcoming pin, which is set to release on opening weekend at home, took more than two months of editing to achieve exactly what he envisioned.
Luckily, Tommy still has the time and inventory to run his weekly raffles, and he’ll be taking on even more responsibility at watch parties this season. The San Francisco Saloon has closed permanently due to the pandemic, but the hired crew has found a new home. The team now gathers at Garage on Motor Ave (where they easily outnumbered a chapter of the Eagles last season) and you’ll also be able to catch bits of Tommy spinning from the DJ booth every game day in 2022. (This grew out of his work as rapper, which includes several Niners-themed songs, such as “I Love Bosa”.)
If you are in Los Angeles, drop by and try your luck. You never know what you might win and you’re sure to meet Tommy, who has described himself as “a Capricorn who loves long walks around Levi Stadium”. Oh, and he’ll rock the coolest collection of Niners swag you’ve ever seen.