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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.