What price football?

This week, two beloved 49ers' NFC championship tickets went, even up, for a brand new VCR. Two more were traded for two free passes on United Airlines, anywhere in the United States. Another pair went for six cases of Napa Valley wine.

When professional football and life play to a draw in Northern California, you know football is doing something right.

San Francisco has never had trouble feeling good about itself. The city rationalizes very well. The old line was that if the hated Los Angeles Rams beat the 49ers, it really didn't matter.

"You won. So what? We still have a better symphony."

They threw violins at you when their team threw interceptions. Chic? Yes. Satisfying? No.

For the longest time, the city was dying to brag on the 49ers, its only natural-born sports team. (The A's, Giants and Golden State Warriors are adopted.) Their teams weren't particularly bad, but they certainly weren't that good. They played the NFC championship game for the Super Bowl twice in a row in the early '70s, but they never made it.

Then, six years ago, cerebral Bill Walsh arrived. Two years later, the 49ers won the Super Bowl. Another year later, the loudmouth bullies, the Oakland Raiders, moved off the block.

And the mild-mannered 49ers finally had the town to themselves.

On the eve of the championship game with Chicago that may very well send them back to the Super Bowl, San Francisco has shed its evening jacket and joined the servants. This city has gone absolutely crazy over its football team.

Last weekend, for example, there was a higher percentage of TV sets in the Bay Area tuned in to the Chicago-Washington playoff game than there was in Chicago. San Francisco bettors have flooded the nearby Reno sports books with so much money that the point spread for the game is a point or so higher than it should be, oddsmakers say. And tickets, easy to come by a few years ago, are as tight here as they always are in Washington.

"The '62 Giants almost beat the Yankees in the World Series, but that wasn't nearly like this," said Sal Campagna, the owner of Salvatore's restaurant in suburban San Carlos and a 49ers' season-ticket holder since 1956. "This city is searching for heroes. We had Willie Mays there for awhile, but that was it. The 49ers have become the new heroes."

In January 1982, when the 49ers beat Cincinnati, 26-21, in Super Bowl XVI in Pontiac, Mich., the celebration was spontaneous.

"There had been an embedded feeling -- not resentment, but hope -- that you could someday walk through an airport in your team colors, going to a Super Bowl," said R.C. Owens, the team's executive assistant who was part of the 49ers' "Alphabet Backfield" with Y.A. Tittle in 1960.

"We had waited so long."

Now, however, the fans cheer with a purpose. Super Bowl XIX is just down Highway 101 in Palo Alto, and they will not be deterred. Charles Dickens could hardly have had greater expectations for Pip.

"The people are cheering and betting with their hearts, not their heads," all-pro offensive tackle Keith Fahnhorst said after practice this week. "The papers run 'Countdown to the Super Bowl' promos over all our articles. Everyone started thinking how great it would be to have a home team in the Super Bowl."

That's only happened once, when the Rams lost to Pittsburgh, 31-19, in 1980 in the Rose Bowl.

"It's really not fair to us," Fahnhorst added. "It puts a whole lot of extra pressure on."

Walsh denies the pressure and praises the fans. When he came here from Stanford, the 49ers were not selling out. They didn't have consistent sellouts until early in the Super Bowl year, when they came home from a 30-17 upset of the Redskins at RFK Stadium.

That game, more than any other, is treated as a watershed. Although the Redskins were only 8-8 that season, the 49ers figured they had arrived when they beat them on the road. What's more, they've played to sellouts ever since.

"To this day, we sing, 'Hail to the Redskins' as we travel to road games," Owens said, smiling. "It reminds us."

But whose team is this, anyway? The 49ers use the city's name, but more often than not, the fans who drop in on 61,000-seat Candlestick Park go back to the leafy, micro-chip communities of suburban Silicon Valley.

Only 20 percent of all season-ticket holders live in the city, the 49ers' research shows. Another 30 percent drive from the south, from San Jose and Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Fifteen percent are jilted Raiders fans from across the bay in Alameda County.

The rest fill in from the wine country; from Nevada, a 45-minute flight away; from picture-book Marin Country across the Golden Gate Bridge.

"We have a unique personality," said Ken Flower, vice president for marketing and community affairs. "We are a peninsula team."

Which means the football fans here are like football fans almost anywhere. Ignore the mixed-blend personality of San Francisco; the old flower children, the gays, the radicals -- they don't hang out at Candlestick. Not necessarily because they don't want to.

As Flower said, "If they haven't been here for a long time, they just can't get tickets. We don't have any available."

By and large, it's a shot-and-beer crowd. The best-dressed element of the population is expected at Stanford and Cal games, not at the 49ers'.

Even then, there is not much competition. If it were written, "Successful San Francisco-Area Sports Teams" would be a very short book, now that the Raiders are gone. College football and basketball are notoriously bad here; the Giants and A's aren't much better.

"This sports area is a drag," San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Lowell Cohn said. "Everything you write is negative, except for the 49ers. They're the only uplifting thing to write about."

Bettors obviously save their money for this time of the year. Chris Andrews, the race and sports book manager for Club Cal-Neva in Reno, inflates the betting line a point or so when the 49ers are playing.

In Reno this week, the 49ers are favored by 10 1/2. Around the rest of the country, it was at least a point less, he said.

"We try to anticipate the public betting on the 49ers. It's a strange situation to be so close to a big football area. People in New York and Philadelphia and Miami probably wonder what's going on, but if gambling was legal in Miami, the same thing would be happening with the Dolphins," Andrews said.

San Francisco has had its big events in the last year -- baseball's all-star game, the Democratic Convention -- but this is different.

Cohn was pondering an assignment this week. He was thinking of trying to write about someone in San Francisco who did not care about the 49ers-Bears game.

After awhile, though, he told his editors to forget the idea.

"I couldn't find anyone," he said, "unless they were under a rock."