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.
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.
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.
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.