Election Aftermath 2014

A wise person would’ve turned off the lights and gone to sleep early, waiting to let the election news wash over them until the following morning. Not this guy. As the various county registrars were plagued by reporting delays traced back to a vendor in Florida (that’s your first clue right there), election observers sat at their computers, thumbs properly inserted.

Eventually we got our results. Though not certified, we have a pretty good sense where everything’s leading:

  1. Libby Schaaf is the apparent winner of the Oakland mayoral race.
  2. Sam Liccardo narrowly defeated Dave Cortese in San Jose’s mayoral race.
  3. Alameda County’s Measure BB passed with 69% of the vote, approving a 0.5% sales tax hike for 30 years.

Last week Schaaf did an interview with Athletics Nation in which she discussed current efforts to keep the A’s and other teams in town, as well as her own ideas on doing things differently. She said many of the right things about the City working with greater transparency. She criticized certain aspects of the Coliseum City plan, such as the fanciful replacement arena for the Warriors (who are working on their own arena in SF). Fans of the A’s and/or Raiders will definitely seize upon this:

AN: Do you see keeping the A’s and Raiders as mutually exclusive? What are some of the challenges that go along with keeping both teams in the city?

Schaaf: There is enough room for both teams, and my clear priority is keeping both teams. But from an economic point of view, the A’s have a larger economic benefit for Oakland that should always be kept in mind. They play more than 80 games a year, compared to 10. But I just want to be clear, I’m a very proud Oakland native; my parents were season-ticket holders for both the A’s and the Raiders throughout my life.

If Schaaf is going to work via a straight economic comparison of the two sports, there’s little doubt that the regular season of baseball is far more impactful than a football season. Football’s big payoff was to come via a Super Bowl, though that’s perhaps more of a pipe dream than Coliseum City itself. If Schaaf moves towards abandoning visions of a Super Bowl or retractable roof stadium, it would lead to much more productive discussions between the City and the Raiders. The team and the NFL don’t particularly care about Oakland’s Super Bowl fantasies, and the added cost ($200-300 million at today’s rates) makes an already difficult project even more prohibitive.

Schaaf also led off by saying there’s enough room for both teams, a common refrain from many candidates during the campaign. The problem is not a matter of physical room, it’s whether or not the assembled parcels and other resources can properly pay for the bulk of two stadia. Later on in the interview she emphasizes that the venue(s) will be built with someone else’s money, which is fine as long as someone else can figure out a way to make it pay for itself and turn a profit to boot.

For now Coliseum City remains lame duck mayor Jean Quan’s baby, one covered with the stench of desperation and imminent failure. Schaaf won’t be sworn in until January, which will leave probably one week for her to determine in concert with a new city council how to proceed. She can choose to carry on Quan’s work as Quan conceives the project, leave certain processes going (EIR) while regrouping to think up another strategy, or abandon the project altogether to come up with a completely different plan. How Schaaf proceeds will largely dictate how the A’s and Raiders act, since both teams are waiting for each other to vacate. Complicating matters is the NFL’s activity, which includes a special meeting of its stadium and finance committees to further plan potential Los Angeles relocation(s). In February the relocation window officially opens, which could allow the Rams and/or Raiders to apply to move. If that happens, it’s expected that the NFL will have the procedure in place for relocation candidates to move forward.

If the Raiders leave Oakland only one month into Schaaf’s tenure, her legacy won’t be defined by it. She has worked just about everywhere in Oakland government except as part of the JPA or with the JPA. She has been a sitting council member, sure, but that’s much different from working deals the way Rebecca Kaplan did recently or Schaaf’s old boss Ignacio De La Fuente did previously as members of both the City Council and the JPA. If Schaaf allows both the A’s and Raiders to leave with the Warriors already one foot out the door – now that could be terribly damaging to her. Quan has been scrambling to keep all three teams without a cohesive plan. Schaaf doesn’t want to repeat that. The Raiders leaving would allow Schaaf to devote resources to the A’s, an idea the JPA is already on board with. If the Raiders decide to stay in Oakland and partner with Coliseum City everything remains status quo, though Schaaf will also have the new task of negotiating a short-term lease with Mark Davis.

If the Raiders choose to nix LA and work on a new stadium in Oakland, Schaaf will have to decide if it makes sense to devote more resources towards an A’s ballpark. She expressed support for Howard Terminal, yet the A’s lease and stance leave the site out of the picture. Perhaps Schaaf could work with Doug Boxer and Don Knauss to better present a plan to pay for the ballpark at HT while smoothing over the bad relationship between Quan and Lew Wolff – it is a new regime, right? However, that may be a bridge too far for a site that neither Wolff nor MLB supports. Building a stadium in California is hard. If Schaaf can guide her city towards the realization that they’ll be more productive by putting more wood behind fewer arrows, they stand a better chance at turning that dream of a new stadium into a reality. Schaaf will have to remember one guiding principle: If she’s going to plan for a stadium with someone else’s money, chances are that someone else will have a lot more say about how that stadium gets built than a publicly-built stadium.

P.S. – One other thing. Without knowing that much about Schaaf’s work in her district, all the talk about her work ethic and positive attitude reminds me of fictional city bureaucrat Leslie Knope. Is that a reasonable comparison? Oakland could use Leslie Knope’s kind of determination. Maybe we’ll be able to see that now that the craziness of the campaign is over.

Kephart provides some brutal honesty about Coliseum City

New Coliseum City frontman Floyd Kephart provided a wide-ranging interview to the SF Business Times (main article/additional quotes). After 2+ years of the project lacking real details and general cageyness from its spokespeople and supporters, Kephart’s honesty is a breath of fresh air. He minces no words about the difficulties Coliseum City faces, and sets the table for what needs to follow.

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Coliseum City with two new venues plus the existing arena

The article, written by Ron Leuty, lays out Kephart’s previous experience, much of it in the horse-racing business, some of which is in financial crisis management. The latter’s probably the best why to describe his current ordeal, with 90 80 days left in the ENA. Kephart admits that CC is by far the biggest project he’s ever worked on. Among the things he says needs to be done:

  • Public benefit analysis
  • Disposition and development agreement
  • At least one signed team
  • Master developer

I put together a more extensive list last week when the ENA extension was signed. The public benefit analysis, while not a requirement, is an excellent idea since it could help garner public support if conducted honestly. That could be crucial if CC ends up going to the ballot box in the future. The DDA is a potential showstopper, since it can take up to a year after a team and developer sign on to hammer it out, as it did for the 49ers and Santa Clara. The DDA isn’t anything like a apartment rental agreement or even a mortgage, it’s hundreds of pages of details about financing, ownership, rights, timelines, and legal responsibilities. Maybe if the Raiders or A’s sign on prior to the end of the 90 days another extension could be granted for the DDA, but it goes to show how far behind the 8-ball this project is.

The big takeaway is that Kephart is meeting with Wolff in early November (perhaps next week?), which will give Kephart a chance to sell Wolff on having a more competent team in place or tailoring the vision for the A’s. Kephart’s aim appears to be lower than what the City was selling for the last two years, as the goal of having one team in place, maybe two is not nearly the same as bold (or pointless) as saying Everyone can stay here, there’s plenty of land.

Wolff could easily dismiss the plans just as he had done over the summer, but with the finish line drawing near, Wolff may be more likely to listen. The reason? Process. Having an active CEQA/EIR process underway is worth millions of dollars and at least a year’s worth of effort, so if Wolff were to sign on or bring in a master developer that will work in concert with the A’s, they’d already be ahead of the game. It’s a risk for Oakland, though, since the Mark Davis could view this as a sign that the Raiders are about to be marginalized. Since Davis hasn’t signed on himself, there isn’t much room for him to complain. As Kephart notes:

“Nothing says what the Raiders want. Is it a life-sized statue of Al Davis at the entrance of the stadium and then they’ll stay? … Maybe the teams have asked the city that — I don’t know.”

Another big piece of news is the timeline.

Yet even if Kephart’s group assembles all the agreements and documentation needed to win over a master developer for Coliseum City, the soonest the A’s would play in a new ballpark would be 2018 and the Oakland Raiders would land a new stadium in 2019 ‘at the earliest,’ Kephart said.

‘We want to cooperate,’ Wolff said. ‘We want to see what happens in whatever timeframe, 90 days or longer. Then we’ll know better what we have to do.’

2019 for the Raiders is a long ways away. It’s unclear whether that would be acceptable for Davis. If someone’s promising a new stadium in LA earlier, he may be willing to take it if the terms are right, even if he’s the second team in LA. 2018 for the A’s pretty much falls in line with reset expectations coming out of the lengthy Coliseum lease negotiations. We all want it sooner, I know.

For now Kephart is saying the right things – the truth – that can help get everyone on the same page. There’s no doubt that the effort at this point is a Hail Mary. Then again, Kephart probably knows a thing or two about long shots. If his work can help get the A’s in a ballpark in Oakland, he’ll have done his job magnificently.

Oakland Sports Forum, Wednesday October 29, 6-8 PM

Oakland has had a slew of mayoral candidate forums and debates, all leading up to the election on November 4. Surprisingly, there has been little coverage of the sports franchises and their impacts, save for the occasional easy-to-dodge question here and there. Thankfully, Zennie Abraham has seen fit to host his own forum. Named the Oakland Sports Forum, the event will be held this Wednesday, October 29, from 6 to 8 PM at Lakeshore Baptist Church in Oakland.

Abraham, who does a lot of video in addition to blogging, will be livestreaming the forum on YouTube as well. If there’s a Game 7, you may have to multitask.

A set of four questions will be posed to mayoral candidates who show up. So far 12 of the 15 have confirmed. Here are the questions:

  1. Wild card question from audience submitted beforehand, asked by that person. (1 min per candidate, then 10 minute conversation period with moderators.)
  2. The Golden State Warriors are working to build an arena in San Francisco. Some say the deal is done and its too late to stop it. But others say that the Warriors belong here in Oakland, still owe Oakland and Alameda County rent that would pay off the bond that was issued to pay for arena renovation in 1998, and should not be allowed to skip town. What is your take? (1 min per candidate, then 10 minute conversation period with moderators.)
  3. The Oakland Raiders and the Oakland A’s need new stadiums. As I speak, Coliseum City is in the early planning stages, but could progress better – financing has not been completely secured. Is Coliseum City the right approach, and if it’s not, then what would you push for as Mayor? The ballpark waterfront proposal? (1 min per candidate, then 10 minute conversation period with moderators.)
  4. The Oakland / Alameda County Joint Powers Authority was formed to provide a government issuing body for the Raider Bonds. Lately, the JPA has been the focus of strained City and County relationships, and I’m presenting that in an open-ended fashion. What, if anything, should be done with the JPA, and as Mayor what will you do to make that happen? (1 min per candidate, then 10 minute conversation period with moderators.)

It’s a good set of questions which should keep the candidates from being too vague in their responses. The responses will be scored – how very sports – and a winner will be announced at the end of the proceedings.

It’s been eight years sense the “Choose or Lose” forum prior to the 2006 election. This shapes up to be a more substantive event than the last one. Maybe there will even be an adult conversation.

Coliseum City ENA likely to be extended at closed session

Update 5:30 PM – Looks like this turned into a nice pre-election announcement for Mayor Quan.

@mayorquan announces #ColiseumCity development plans move forward

A photo posted by Pamela Drake (@bethpikegirl) on


Original post:

Today’s the “big” deadline day for Coliseum City. Or maybe not. Consider the following closed session agenda item, to be taken up this afternoon:

b) Property: Coliseum City properties (various properties bounded by San Leandro Street, 66th Avenue, Edgewater and Helgenberger)

City Negotiators: Fred Blackwell, Gregory Hunter, Larry Gallegos, Daniel Rossi

Negotiating Parties: Bay Investment Group, JRDV Architects Inc., HKS Architects, Inc.

Under Negotiation: Price and terms for disposition of the property

Not much to go on, is there? We know that the deadline is there thanks to previous documents about Coliseum City which specified 10/21:

ENA Timeframe: The Negotiation Period under the ENA is hereby extended to run until October 21, 2014, and may only be extended an additional six months with administrative approval.

October 21 also marks the 360-day point of consideration of the project, during which BayIG was supposed to provide a set of deliverables. A quick recap of some of the major deal points:

  • Tenant sign-on from one, two, or three current sports franchise tenants (Raiders, A’s, Warriors) – None so far
  • Market Data Analysis – The lengthier second part was supposed to have been released by now, has not been made publicly available
  • Infrastructure Study – Completed
  • Investor Business Case – Reportedly late, not publicly released

Last week there was news that a new, previously unknown investor may come in to save the project. Word was that it would be Perry Capital – a hedge fund with two recent executives who have a minority share of the Raiders – they and the City are going to great pains to keep their involvement under wraps until/unless the ENA is extended. Now Matier and Ross report something different:

Council members privately told us they were encouraged by the team’s 11th-hour addition of new deep-pocket investors being represented by San Diego asset manager adviser Floyd Kephart, chairman of the board of Renaissance Cos. Kephart is expected to take the lead role in the newly reconstituted group, New City Development LLC.

So goodbye BayIG, hello New City Development LLC? Okay.

Also last week, we saw a new website promoting the project, Coliseum City Now. I looked into it and found out that the domain was only acquired on September 26. A companion Facebook page started up during the summer. Assuming that both are under the purview of BayIG/JRDV, the timing seems a little suspect. Coliseum City never bothered to have an website outside of the City’s project page for a year. Why have one now? There’s also a Twitter feed, which has never made a post and has less than 20 followers. Chances of a post coming after 5 PM today? Excellent.

birdseye-view_north

Coliseum City in full buildout

In anticipation of the extension, some unnamed City officials reached out to Raiders fans to make a show of support at the open session at 5, during which the decision is expected to be announced. Keep in mind that it’s basically up to the City Administrator, not the City Council. Also understand that not extending the deadline would effectively kill the project, giving Mark Davis every excuse to go to Los Angeles. What other choice does Oakland have?

If the City announces the ENA extension and the new investor, the mountain to climb for them will be steeper that the Mt. Davis upper deck. They’ll need to wrap up the basic terms of the deal, have the Raiders sign on before they decide to move, and start work with the JPA and Alameda County to put together the DDA (Disposition and Development Agreement), which would allow the project to move forward in earnest, in whatever form it takes. In reality, Coliseum City has 4 months to work out the details, not 6.

On a related note, the comments period for the Draft EIR expired on Friday, October 17. The City will take all the comments and get questions answered from stakeholders and other groups that need to provide answers (Caltrans, PG&E, and the PUC for starters). The EIR runs on a separate track from the business side of the deal, though both need to be resolved/approved before any dirt can be turned.

As for the news impact on the A’s – as I’ve said for some time, the funding gap ($600 million) makes the inclusion of a ballpark extraordinarily difficult to pull off in a way that would satisfy both the baseball team, the public sector, and the private investors who are looking for a healthy return. Moving to more far-off forms of financing makes the likelihood of a ballpark even less.

I’ll be checking into the live stream of the open session while watching the World Series. The mix of tweets promises to be entertaining and at times quite confusing.

Levi’s Stadium: A nice place where football happens to be played

Friday’s high school doubleheader was an opportunity to showcase Levi’s Stadium to the public with a much cheaper cost of admission. Tickets were $20 for adults, $5 for students. Plus you got two games for the price of one, the first matchup kicking off at 5. I got to the stadium at 4. Temperature was 70 degrees in the stadium, with the sun ready to set behind the suite tower. Somehow the weekend avoided the “roasting” temperatures felt during earlier games, which is too bad. I was looking forward to experiencing it, seriously.

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The tour on Wednesday didn’t allow me to traverse the big seating bowl opposite the suite tower. The games on Friday did, though not without their own limitations. Seats were sold as General Admission, which meant that fans could sit in any section that was open. Initially, that meant sections 110-119 along the east sideline, which includes club section at midfield (although the clubs themselves weren’t open). Stairs to the second seating deck were roped off. The entire southern concourse after section 120 was barricaded, which meant that fans entered through Gates A & F on the north side. That’s not really a problem considering the expected turnout at the event, which was at most 12,000. Eventually additional sections were opened towards the north end zone.

Ironically, although the lower concourse is the widest and most open of any in the NFL, the stadium is not set up for fans to walk around completely around the concourse, since every public space on the west side suite tower is some sort of limited access or VIP area.

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Still, the lower concourse is enormous, as much as 150′ wide in some spots. It serves both “halves” of what the 49ers call the lower bowl, which is just a marketing gimmick. The 49ers call the first two decks the largest “lower bowl” in the NFL with over 45,000 seats. Only in the NFL can this go unchecked. I suppose they can get away with this because along the non-tower bowl, there is no publicly-accessible mezzanine concourse, only a level of suites. It’s a cheat, and only someone pedantic about such things (like me) will notice. It’s a cheat nonetheless.

The concourse is split in two, similar to the layout at Columbus’ AAA Huntington Park, except doubled in size. There’s the drink rail standing and wheelchair row area, then 60 feet of mostly unobstructed, walkable concourse, then another 60 feet of concessions and restroom facilities, and then another 30 feet of concourse on the exterior of the stadium. Concession stands are on both sides, while entrances to the restrooms are mostly in the alleys. It would all be a nightmare in terms of missing huge portions of the game, if it wasn’t for the 49ers placing great faith in the ability for fans to order food with their smartphones and pick them up in 5 minutes at an express lane. There’s even a $5 delivery charge if you don’t want to walk up to the concourse. The service was available during the doubleheader, but I wasn’t going to try it because the stadium was charging full priced concessions for a high school game. Come on, Santa Clara and the 49ers. Give fans a break. When I went to Dodger Stadium for the LA baseball championships two years ago, they sold hot dogs and popcorn at a cut rate, basically at cost. You’re already making bank off the NFL games and numerous other events guy, no need to gouge for this one. This is a CIF event, not a NFL event.

As I walked back and forth along the concourse several times, something about the paint and textures and fonts struck me. I couldn’t put a finger on it at first, then I understood immediately what it was. Take a look at the picture below for a few seconds, and figure out what’s missing.

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We see:

  • Bright red and stark white columns providing contrast
  • A well-lit, easy-to-read description of the stand’s offering with no branding
  • Wayfinding signs
  • A pleasant picture of a marina (South Beach?) on the upper wall
  • A small Verizon logo in the distance

What’s missing? A 49ers logo. The only thing in this picture that might lead someone to believe that this is the home of the 49ers is the gold in the way finding sign, itself distinctly labeled “Levi’s® Stadium.” There’s no SF or 49ers logo, no vinyl poster of a great past 49er, no electronic signage for the team or anything else. Sure, during the game some of the screens will show the game. Other signs along the concourse are emblazoned with the Levi’s Stadium logo. Some of the wayfinding signs point to the locations of the 49ers Team Store, but that’s it. It feels like the 49ers’ branding is being suppressed in favor of Levi’s, which is strange. It’s not like there’s a Levi’s Outlet store in the stadium. Levi’s and the 49ers aren’t competing for anything, they’re partners. Yet the naming rights sponsor is definitely getting the higher profile. Perhaps the idea is to separate the branding between on-field and off-field, but even then it’s somewhat skimpy. I counted five 49ers logos – two in opposite corners along the field walls, one flag each in the north and south ends above the stadium, and one large logo at midfield below the east bank of lights. That midfield logo is in line with the rest of the non-Levi’s founding sponsors for the stadium, including Brocade, Yahoo! and United Airlines. That’s it. That nice marina graphic is matched by pictures of redwoods, SF row houses, the signature Bay Area bridges, and the Lone Cypress along 17 Mile Drive. It’s all very nice and pan-NorCal, as if people really cared much about being pan-NorCal. Celebrating the team and its previous exploits is for those who visit the museum, a relative rarity among NFL stadia. While the museum can be appreciated, it’s not necessary to create this weird church-and-state separation. The vast majority of major events that will be held at Levi’s will be 49er games. No need to hide it.

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Seats on rails, padded seats for the more privileged

How’s the stadium as a football venue? Pretty darned good. I ended up sitting in Row 4 near the 25 yard line, thanks to the Santa Clara High School band vacating their bank of seats. With only one-sixth of the stadium open there was no opportunity to walk up to the upper deck and check out the very last row to see what it was like compared to Mt. Davis. From my calculations the highest seat up there is 295′ by line-of-sight to midfield at the near sideline, compared to 334′ at Mt. Davis. Either is much further than the top of 317 at the Coliseum. The seating bowl is extremely swept back, with little in the way of overhangs. That makes the bowl less vertical than some others, about 20 feet better than in Cincinnati, Baltimore, or Philadelphia, whose multiple suite levels contribute to a greater overall viewing distance. Sweeping the bowl back so far helps create the massive concourse area. The approach wouldn’t be practical in a domed stadium, where architects usually try to conserve on overall footprint to reduce construction cost and keep operating expenses like air conditioning in check.

I was right next to the midfield club seats, which were served by one of the two BNY Mellon clubs. The club seats were nicely padded and high backed, my seat was not. Like AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the seats were mounted on rails, which allows the team to add and remove seats at their discretion. The system was devised by Camatic of Australia, the seat surfaces built in Hayward.

The place doesn’t feel cheap. It feels very precise. As the sun set and the stadium lights took over, I was astonished at how bright the place was. Without having any measurements, it looked much brighter and intense than the ‘Stick, Coliseum, or Stanford. The reflections off the skyboxes lent the suite tower a shiny, jewel-like appearance. Few suite holders were on hand to watch the festivities. Only a handful of people sat near the field on that side, making the SAP Tower look like an exclusive mall that was closed to the poor plebes. Go to a 49er game or the upcoming Cal-Oregon matchup to experience that.

Every column is double and triple supported by I-beams and diagonal tubes, playing up the “erector set” look.

We get it, it's earthquake country

We get it, it’s earthquake country

The scoreboards are labeled Sony, but we know that they come from South Dakota’s Daktronics, as Sony has vacated the LED display and scoreboard market since pioneering the CRT-based Jumbotron decades ago. They work as advertised, providing live feeds and replays, a huge sponsor panel on the left (the event the sponsor was Black Bear Diner), and a minimalistic score panel on the right. That panel showed score and time, but not down and distance. If you wanted to see that you had to look at the ribbon board at midfield, a constantly frustrating routine. Thankfully there’s only one ribbon board along the fascia of the upper part of the lower bowl (see how that falls apart?). There’s certainly potential for another ribbon board about the suites if the 49ers wanted to install one there.

The lack of another along the upper fascia highlights yet another omission: there’s no Ring of Honor. At the ‘Stick the Ring of Honor was painted under the vestigial roof rimming the upper deck. It didn’t carry over. The old roof rim wasn’t the most ideal place to put such a feature, but they did it and it worked. Now there’s nothing. I expect that the team will introduce something over time, having a great ceremony for each unveiling over then next few years. Yet again it’s another example of the 49ers’ brand being strangely muted or suppressed. It makes little sense. As someone from another team once said, “We’re not selling jeans here.” Oh, I guess we are.

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With the crowd expected to be only a fraction of a pro football crowd, there were no special trains running to the stadium. Tasman Drive north of the stadium was not closed off. All in all it seemed like a typical Friday afternoon near Great America, with a good deal of the usual commute traffic but little gridlock except for the arteries leading away from the stadium before the game. The parking charge was $15 in only the nearest lots to the stadium. It would’ve been easy to scope out free parking if I was interested. I took light rail with a $4, 8-hour pass. Understandably, this is not comparable to the gameday problems many have experienced at games. However, the second game involved two teams from the Sacramento area – Jesuit of Carmichael and Elk Grove. I asked fans of both teams about their experiences coming driving to Santa Clara on a Friday night. All of them said that traffic was not an issue, the trip took about two hours, and for those who were also 49er fans, generally better than the area traffic for 49er games. I noticed that the same bag restrictions employed for NFL games were in effect for the doubleheader. That strikes me as a venue policy, not just an event policy. We weren’t allowed backpacks during the tour either.

In the effort to attract as many diverse types of events as possible, it feels that the image of the 49ers has been subsumed at Levi’s Stadium. It doesn’t need to be all rah-rah, gag-me-with-legacy tributes like many ballparks, but it shouldn’t be barely evident. The 49ers and Levi’s have time to achieve that better balance. Perhaps that will happen after Super Bowl 50, which isn’t scheduled for another 16 months. The NFL has a tendency to exercise tight control over potential Super Bowl venues. Personally, I’m much more a Levi’s fan than a 49ers fan and this is out of whack. Levi’s Stadium is the home of the 49ers, now and into the foreseeable future. It should act like it’s the home of the 49ers, not merely a place where 49er games are occasionally played.

Levi’s Stadium Tour

These days, there’s no such thing as a comprehensive stadium tour, at least not for Joe Public. Inevitably, some important feature is missed or glossed over. Most every stadium tour visits the luxury areas (clubs, suites) to show the public where their money went and to sell the occasional business owner on the merits of a package. Visits to a locker room/clubhouse and the press box are requisites. If the stadium has grass, you’ll get to see it. You won’t be able to step on it. Some operators allow fans to step on an artificial turf field, some don’t. If there’s a museum or historical monument, some time is usually spent there. The 49ers didn’t stray far from the formula at Levi’s Stadium, and in doing so the tour I took there felt like it came up a bit short.

At midfield

At midfield

The team provides two versions of the tour, a $35 ticket that includes a 49ers museum entry, and a $25 version sans museum. I took the latter. If you’re not aware, I’m not a 49ers fan, so while I have an appreciation for their history, I don’t feel the need to spend an extra $10 to see it. Besides, I already visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier in the summer. I’m good with the history stuff for now.

Tickets for the tour and other events can be bought at the main box office along Tasman Drive near the Toyota Gate F (northeast end). A small valet parking lot is provided there, otherwise you can park near the golf course across the street or on non-event days, the main lot to the west. The Tasman Drive side also has the entrance to Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak restaurant at Gate B. Move west towards Intel Gate A you’ll see doors to the museum and Comcast Sportsnet’s in-house studio. All the while you’ll be shaded by the bulk of the stadium, its huge angled steel columns reaching skyward and touching down close the street. The whole package takes up about 17 acres between the 49ers’ preexisting headquarters and San Tomas Aquino Creek, which was left undisturbed during construction. A set of 3 new pedestrian bridges link the stadium to the main lot.

Having worked in the tech industry for 15 years, I instantly recognized the tour guide’s initial talk as a sort of startup pitch, and I wasn’t surprised by that in the least. He made sure to use “technology” and “fan experience” several times in his spiel, emphasizing the excellence within. It makes sense, especially if the team is trying to get fans to spend money to buy such an experience instead of hanging out at home in front of their flatscreen TVs and with their much cheaper (and often better) junk food items.

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Instead of walking around the bowl, we took an escalator up to the Yahoo! Fantasy Football Lounge, an attempt to corral fans who need to get their extra juice by watching “their own” players on Sunday. It’s a good setup, with unassigned, get-there-early seats along the windows. Flatscreens are assembled into a seamless ribbon board to display stats per player and position. FFL has its own concession stands. If you’re a fantasy junkie it might be your kind of setup.

We weren’t able to visit the multi-level United Club as a private function was already underway there. Strangely, we didn’t visit any suites either. I suppose that’s just as well, since they’re all sold out for 10+ years. Usually there’s a community or city suite to visit. Then again, when you’ve visited as many stadia as I have, suites stop looking impressive and start looking like the same nice hotel hospitality suite with a view after a while.

The Club and Lounge are on different levels of the SAP Tower, the west stand that holds the those facilities, the press box, roof garden, and locker rooms at field level. It may not be inspirational in any aesthetic sense, but it is incredibly efficient. And yes, that’s the same SAP that has naming rights at San Jose’s arena.

Levi's Stadium has 9 levels within the SAP Tower

Levi’s Stadium has 9 levels within the SAP Tower

Our next stop was the Verizon Press Box on Level 8, which seems 10 times the size of its counterpart at the ‘Stick. There are multiple functioning elevators. The buffet area isn’t the size of a Manhattan studio. It’s wonderfully, blissfully air-conditioned. Now that might not sound like much, but the press box at the ‘Stick was terribly cramped, uncomfortable, and a death trap waiting to happen. A corridor behind special suites on the press level features old magazine covers with great 49ers of the past on them. The press box and its hermetically sealed environs are no place for cheering fans, which makes it great that the 49ers provided options that mimic press box-style views.

We walked up a few flights to reach the roof garden on Level 9. This area has gotten rave reviews for its flexible usage and its contribution to Levi’s Stadium’s LEED Gold rating, the first for a stadium in the US. Named the NRG Solar Terrace, the roof has a glass-fronted rails for those who want to watch the game, and hotel-like outdoor lounge areas towards the center. In the distance you can see the Bay to the north and the downtown San Jose skyline to the south. Various plant types are given reclaimed water, and in true California fashion there is an herb garden. The lounge uses reclaimed redwood from Moffett Field, a trick the San Jose Earthquakes are using at their stadium.

On the other side of the red rollup door is space for a 2nd home team locker room *cough* Raiders *cough*

On the other side of the red rollup door is space for a 2nd home team locker room *cough* Raiders *cough*

The last part of the tour was spent at field level. The grass looks ready to be torn up and resodded again, though it has gone through two games with few incidents compared to the first batch, which didn’t take. The 49ers’ next home game is on November 2, which will give 3 weeks for new sod to take hold if the work begins Sunday or Monday. Midseason resodding at least the areas between the hash marks is a common ritual for all NFL stadia with grass.

We entered one of two BNY Mellon clubs, which are located along either sideline at the 50 yard line. They’re swanky and feature the best food and drinks. The 49ers copied the Cowboys by incorporating the soccer-style midfield entrance from the locker rooms. The visiting locker room is on the north end, the 49ers to the south. Two auxiliary locker rooms are on the north end, as is the Gold Rush (cheerleaders) dressing room, a rarity among NFL stadia. The picture above shows a large rollup door that provides entry to a potential second home locker room, presumably for the Raiders if they every showed interest. I’ve heard the Raiders are interested in something else in the area temporarily, but that’s for another post. The locker room is not finished and would require a lease agreement between the 49ers, Raiders, the Santa Clara Stadium Authority, and the NFL before any substantive work could begin. That said, it shouldn’t take more than an offseason to get it ready.

Our tour group spent 90% of our time within the area defined by the SAP Tower, which is unfortunate. Every stadium tour should include a walk through at least half a concourse if not a whole loop. It makes it seem like there’s nothing to see in the other three-fourths of the stadium, when that obviously isn’t the case. I hope the 49ers incorporate that into future tours somehow. After all, they’re trying to sell seats and that’s where most of the seats are, right?

I’m headed back to Levi’s Stadium to take in the Friday Night Lights doubleheader. I’ll be roaming around, taking more pictures. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below or hit me up via Twitter.

University of Phoenix Stadium

I finally visited Levi’s Stadium on Wednesday. Took the tour and bought a ticket for Friday Night Lights, the rescheduled (and doubled) set of high school games. I’ll be roaming the stands this Friday, taking in both prep games. I’ll have thoughts on the tour and the stadium experience in posts to come.

Before that, I have some thoughts on the stadium of a 49ers divisional rival, the Arizona Cardinals’ University of Phoenix Stadium. Set to host the next Super Bowl in February, UoPS is a unique venue with both a retractable roof and retractable field. Despite the technological flourishes, in terms of amenities UoPS clearly belongs in the previous era of NFL stadia – modern and proficient but not as flashy and gilded as venues for the Cowboys, Giants/Jets, and 49ers became.

View of north end of stadium (via Flickr user MCSixth)

It’s not obvious from up close, but the façade is meant to evoke part of the desert environment, particularly a barrel cactus with a snake wrapped around it. It was designed by Peter Eisenman, with the stadium guts conceived by HOK Sport/Populous. On the north and east sides, the façade becomes two-tiered before abruptly ending with a gigantic Cardinals logo, itself meant to replace a snake’s head. It’s not uncommon to see this use of steel panels in airport architecture, and that’s what I expected when transitioning from outside to inside.

Walk in and the theme is clearly evident, though it’s most certainly not an airport. Lots of polished concrete, red signage, red and gray seats, and bits of white and yellow/gold throughout. The consistency of the theme is so thorough as to seem almost militaristic. The floors are clean enough to eat off, and the tour guide was very proud to brag about how every seat is cleaned off before and after every game. The biggest benefit of the retractable roof, besides climate control, is the prevention of desert dust buildup that would definitely occur if the stadium was not fully enclosed.

View from a corner luxury suite

View from a corner luxury suite

The seating bowl is as simple as a newer stadium gets. The lower deck has 40 rows of seats, followed by a 12-row club level, a suite level, and a split upper deck. Other than the lack of overhangs, it’s practically the same layout as a ballpark. It’s a layout that goes back some 20 years, since the rise of separate club and suite levels. Thankfully, the upper deck and roof don’t seem especially tall for a dome. All told there are 5 levels in the stadium, compared to 9 maximum at Levi’s Stadium.

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The grass field tray is a concrete tub on wheels filled with sand, dirt, pipes, and of course, grass. It stays outside most of the time to allow for its Bermuda grass surface to grow. Friday afternoon before a Sunday game a set of door on the south end opens and allows the 76 hp motors that control the field to ride on rails, smoothly and slowly into the stadium. The surface is 3 feet off the ground, so if any maintenance of the traction or irrigation systems has to occur, there are small passage built within for people to shimmy in and take care of any repairs. The seats are about 3 feet above the field, among the lowest seats in any new stadium. There are no field suites or clubs or other niceties down low, little public art on the concourses.

The roof uses BirdAir fabric, much like the inflatable domes of old. The use of the retractable field in conjunction with the roof allows for the roof opening to be smaller than other domes, since there’s no concern about growing grass inside the dome. The roof is supported by a pair of 700-foot long Brunel trusses, named after the great British civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who used the design to construct the Royal Albert Bridge in England. The trusses are anchored by four massive 17′ x 12′ concrete columns.

Industrial chic is one phrase that can be used to describe the aesthetic. The Cardinals and the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority, which owns and operates the stadium, call their suite level boxes “lofts.” While they aren’t multi-level, they have exposed piping and no drop ceilings. The suite I saw on the tour didn’t have leather armchairs or hardwood tables or cabinets. As long as this level of amenities is acceptable to Cards’ suite buyers, there’s little to change except for the installation of HDTVs throughout, a badly needed upgrade. The only major changes made recently were the installation of a very good (IMO) WiFi network and the replacement of the scoreboards, which happened over the summer. One thing to keep in mind, A’s fans: the scoreboards cost $10.8 million. The bigger board in the south end is 164′ x 54′, whereas the smaller north board is 97′ x 27′.

If you want to get an idea for how much control the NFL has over its Super Bowl venues, check out the picture of the unpainted walls in the slideshow. The Authority had wanted to paint the walls on the service level prior to SB XLII (in 2008), but the NFL told them to wait until a decision came from New York. The game was played anyway without a final decision, and when the Authority asked the NFL again, they were told to wait further. Eventually the league allowed the lower walls to be painted team colors. The upper drywall remains dry to this day.

Having been in all of the recent new NFL Stadia (UoPS, MetLife, AT&T/Cowboys, Lucas Oil, NRG/Reliant), it’s rather amazing to observe the way these venues have grown in size, space, and spec in less than a decade. Another tour goer and I were comparing this stadium to the JerryWorld in Arlington. I said at the time that if UoPS is a nice Marriott or Hilton, AT&T Stadium is a Four Seasons. Luxury and opulence is on display there in Texas-sized proportions. It somehow seems twice as large as UoPS (it’s 25% larger in terms of capacity). While team owners continue to furnish these palaces in order to chase greater corporate dollar commitments, the simple fact that there’s a game being played is getting lost. The barrel cactus in Glendale holds 63,000, can be expanded to 78,000 if necessary, and has pretty much everything a team needs if not everything a team wants. That marks University of Phoenix Stadium as the end of an era. It’s very good, loud, and should last 40 years or more. The crazy thing is that I can look at it and not find that much different from a stadium like the Georgia Dome, now considered outdated by its tenant with a bling-bling replacement on the way. If a franchise ends up in LA in a new stadium, will the NFL abandon UoPS for future Super Bowls knowing that a much fancier stadium in a bigger market is on the way? Or will the league pressure Arizona to keep up in the stadium space race? Sometimes good enough just isn’t.