Maybe the 49ers should’ve built a dome instead

Remember the famed groundbreaking for the 49ers stadium in 2012? It was a joyous regalia, with red carpet for VIPs and an artificial turf field where the grass field would eventually be placed. Little did the 49ers and Santa Clara know that the fake grass would end up being the best-looking field all the way through the stadium’s first year of existence.

If they only knew how it would work out 30 months later...

If they only knew how it would work out 30 months later…

Tonight, a crowd resembling an late-April A’s game at the Coliseum “filled” the seats at Levi’s Stadium for the Foster Farms Bowl. Despite being local, Stanford’s small student body and alumni base was not going to buy the team’s 9,000-ticket allotment. Maryland, having jumped from the ACC to the Big Ten (oops, B1G), is not a great football power whose fanbase travels well. Add to that the thoroughly abused field, plus blustery winds and a chill that were far more reminiscent of the ‘Stick than of sunny Santa Clara (remember how fans were frying in the seats in September?), and the optics more than a little disappointing. The only notable thing, other than the Cardinal’s offense actually looking cohesive, was Foster Farms’ sponsorship of the whole affair, punctuated by animatronic chickens singing 80’s karaoke favorites during the commercial breaks. The bowl’s executive director expressed hope for a Cal-Michigan matchup next year. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that Meeeesh-igan, for some reason, won’t end up as low as 6th (thereby qualifying for the game) in the B1G next season.

Somehow, nearly everything about Levi’s Stadium has ended up disappointing in 2014. The field has been bad enough to be planted five separate times. A stadium that loudly touts its LEED Gold certification can’t properly grow grass. That should change for 2015 with new dirt and sod, if not the roof deck may have heads on pikes as featured attractions. The late summer heat chased fans to the concourses, leading to empty seats. The 49ers were shut out in their first home preseason game. As the team continued to disappoint on the field, novelty and public curiosity wore off, leading to even more empty seats and a lot of head-scratching about the venue. The Pac-12 championship game was poorly attended. The Foster Farms Bowl was even worse.

Was Levi’s Stadium too luxurious? Yes. Did it lack character? Absolutely. Was it worse in ways you wouldn’t anticipate going in? Sure. Can it be fixed? Perhaps not to the degree everyone would like.

The irony of all this disappointment is that considering the >$1.2 billion spent on the stadium, they could’ve put a dome on the thing and fixed a good number of those problems. An enclosed stadium with a roof fixes the summer heat and tonight’s wind, and it could be done without needing climate control, a la Safeco Field. It probably fixes the grass problem, since the stadium would have either Field Turf or a grass tile system like in Houston, so no grass debacle. Yes, a retractable dome would kill the open feel of the stadium. The flip side to that argument is that the footprint would have to be more compact, with fans closer and a more intimate setting.

And like other domes, which attract Final Fours and multiple Super Bowls without weather worries, a domed Levi’s Stadium would be a more flexible venue overall. I recognize that a dome – retractable or fixed – is anathema to building in the Bay Area, where the very site on which Levi’s Stadium sits was once part of the incredibly fertile “Valley of Heart’s Delight.” If anything, we’ve found out that the environment, and human reaction to the environment, are much more fickle than we’re initially willing to admit. An add-on dome is not a realistic option for Levi’s Stadium, considering the limited space around the stadium to support it and the way it was built in the first place. Seat licenses make midfield ticket holders just as likely to retreat to the clubs or not show up at all if they don’t feel it’s worth it. There’s little the 49ers can do at the moment to fix it, though I expect them to experiment a lot on different types of service going into next season.

Levi’s Stadium inaugural season hasn’t gone the way Jed York would’ve wanted. Neither has the team’s collapse. Fixing the 49er fan experience means more than merely providing new amenities to escape to. It means providing value for every fan in every seat location, everywhere throughout the stadium. Providing solutions for that problem will require some Silicon Valley ingenuity, but more importantly it will require swallowing some pride and getting back to basics. That’s innovation that not many companies get right, whether in tech, sports, or hospitality. I’ll write more about what that could entail – for football and baseball – in the new year.

42 thoughts on “Maybe the 49ers should’ve built a dome instead

  1. Who cares for these stupid third tier bowls? Only three games count. As for the hot exhibitions games…who cares? All I heard for decades was how Candlestone sucked. Now this…Guess they really are the Whiners.

  2. Now, the stadium sits unused until the Sharks game on February 21, no?

  3. I’ll say that I actually enjoy Levi’s especially compared to Candlestick which, putting it nicely, was a dump that I pretty much hated going to.

    Amenities at Levi’s were severely oversold for average fan (best stuff is in the suite tower, creating a very real haves/have nots situation) but as a gameday experience there’s not much to complain about. Easy to get around, easy to get beer and food, quick trips to the restroom. Not to mention, as a Livermore resident, I can take the ACE Train from downtown L-Town straight to the stadium.

    The biggest issue for me is cost. For me and my wife to attend a game: standing room only tickets at $50 a pop ($100), $25 a piece to take ACE ($50), and another $50+ in food and drinks. $200 to stand for three hours and watch the 49ers lose 13-10 to the Rams.

    As good as advertised? Not really. Does a good portion of the crowd ruin the atmosphere by not being in their seats during a lot of the game? Absolutely. Can it grow on people? With more team success, some adjustments here and there and a more engaged crowd, yes.

    • I’m with you. I think it gets way more flack than it deserves, mostly from SF-based writers who were going to hate it no matter what if it wasn’t in SF. Half the crap wouldn’t have been reported ad nauseam if it were built in SF. For example, the heat issue. I baked on the sunny side of Candlestick many times, but that was never reported. Now, it’s suddenly a huge issue. I was no hotter at the game I went to this year at Levi’s. In fact, I was much more comfortable than I was at any game at Candlestick.

      The other half wouldn’t be reported if the local media didn’t hate the Yorks so much. Witness how they all suddenly love Harbaugh after criticizing his every word for the past 4 years. Why? Because it gives them a fresh angle to attack the organization. I wanted to keep Harbaugh and am no fan of that family — John was an unmitigated disaster as owner (even worse than that ass-hat in Dallas) but Jed has definitely been an improvement (hard not to) — however, you have to laugh at the hypocrisy of the local media on that topic. It figures since most of them are so poor at their craft (Matt Maiocco being one obvious exception).

      Also, domes are an abomination. That is a terrible idea. The grass issue is so overplayed. It is not uncommon for football stadiums to replant at least the middle of the field during the season. They did every year at Candlestick yet it was never reported as some problem with the stadium. Sure, they whiffed on the first grass, but since then everything has been pretty typical shake-out for a brand new field. I’ll take it any day over that field turf crap, which looks so cheap on TV. NFL football should be played on grass. Stadiums without grass automatically go to the bottom of my list.

  4. Those three games are a joke! This subjectively seeded tournament is a sham. How is it an improvement on the BCS Championship or the AP/UPI/Coaches Poll. The hype on this is absurd. Some people actually think this is legit?? For this they have to ruin the Rose and Sugar Bowls this year.

  5. Domes presumably get much louder than open-air stadiums too, right? Even in Seattle, with no done but the overhang above the fans…doesn’t that have the effect of funneling crowd noise toward the field?

    Levi’s is noticeably quiet.

  6. This relives the incident when Horace Stoneham had visited the proposed site for the new SF Giants ballpark at Candlestick Point. It occurred on a delightful sunny morning. Mr. Stoneham was undoubtedly very impressed with this site, to say the least. One never learns.

    • I’m not a Niners fan llpec, but what’s wrong with the Santa Clara site? Yeah, it can get hot down here in late Summer, and yesterday’s winds were a rarity. Santa Clara, and the South Bay as a whole, are great for outdoor venues; comparisons to Stoneham/Candlestick aren’t justified in this case (respectfully). Re the field, if I were the Niners org I’d consider going with field turf full time over natural grass (much like what happened at Spartan Stadium).

      Lessons of Levi’s Stadium should be applied to new Raiders stadium in Oakland and Cisco Field in sunny San Jose 😉

      Happy New Years all!!

  7. is it too late to install sunshades around the stadium to help reduce the sunlight?

  8. I went for the first time last night (Stanford fan, not an NFL fan) and it was better than I expected, amenities and architecture. The weather sucked, so much of the crowd was in the concourses and clubs, but it beats not having them. I was also surprised how the advertising was so S.F.-centric. A Macy’s commercial talked about the fifth floor as though the crowd would assume they meant Union Square, when there are several closer Macy’s. The first food bank PSA was for SF-Marin.
    Foster Farms is a ridiculous sponsor. Now Stanford needs to meet the winner of the Chik-Fil-A Bowl in the National Chicken Championship.

    • BC,
      At least for the Pac 12 Championship there were many a TV shot of downtown San Jose. But yes, SF continuing to steal the spot light from the South Bay is getting old. Will be interesting to see how the networks treat the Sharks/Kings game.

  9. not that i would think it would happen but how much would it cost to build a retractable roof stadium for levi’s stadium. has there ever been the case such a event has happened? a stadium that was built but then had a roof build over it?

    the amenities maybe were too good which makes fans rather stick in the concourses than in their seats at the beginning, during, and after the games/halftime. even when the weather wasn’t hot where the sun would beat down on those across the suite tower, like during the night games where the weather was relatively cool the same issues would be pointed out by the media there posting the pics of the empty seats across across the field from the suite tower.

    one thing a roof would fix though i doubt the niners put a roof over the stadium because of it is that the niners sideline was supposed to be on the opposite side of the stadium. in terms of tv viewing they were supposed to be facing the camera across from the suite tower instead of behind on the near sideline. reason why that was the case was harbaugh saw the sun beating down on that part of the field and rather have had his team in the shade during the 2nd halves of games than on the sun. now that’s smart football thinking but the niners were supposed to enter the field, similar to dal, from that “grandstand” tunnel and thru a fan area but the players now enter the stadium thru one of the end zone tunnels. i heard the past few days by the media that’s something the niners front office was disappointed about as that grand entrance again similar to how dal players enter the field was a big component of the new stadium and added to the fan experience.

    levi’s stadium debut was def uninspiring. but i’d guess the niners will learn from the mistakes made and try to improve on them which is pretty sad since they spent 1.2 billion on the venue and shouldn’t known the issues that would’ve taken place.

    sugggestions? ring of honor would be nice.

  10. A roof is a pointless idea. The NFL stadiums with the best weather on average are Qualcomm, Levi’s, and there’s no compelling reason whatsoever for any of them (or their possible replacements) to have roofs.

    And I am also of the opinion that the complaints about Levi’s are mostly just people looking for something to complain about (although not entirely). People bitched about Candlestick forever, and rightly so. It was a dump. And now that there is something new and objectively better, people will complain because it didn’t live up to impossibly high expectations.

  11. Isn’t this also an argument for the Bay Area not having two NFL stadiums? There’s only so many events that a stadium like this can hold and having two of them in the same metro area is just a massive waste of land.

    • No (see FEDEX Field DC and M&T Bank Stadium Baltimore). The existence of Levi’s Stadium has no bearing whatsoever on a new Raiders stadium at the Coli.

      • The Ravens stadium was paid for with 90% public financing and the Redskins stadium was built with 28% public financing. Even the relatively paltry 28% the Redskins got far exceeds the 0% public financing being offered to the Raiders. The 49ers got 12% public financing. Can the same market sustain two $1 billion+ football stadiums built almost entirely with private funds? Nobody seems to want to make this bet, since the Raiders are getting nowhere on a new stadium.

      • Pjk,

        Your talking financing, not whether there’s a need for two NFL stadiums in the Bay Area. Heck, this region has supported two stadiums since the 1960’s, although now one team has a new facility. Levi’s Stadium DOES NOT necessarily mean there’s no need for a new Raiders stadium at the Coli.

        Now, as for financing, that’s another story for another day…

        Last comment for this year. Liccardo + Mansfred = hope is alive for a San Jose ballpark. Once again, Happy New Years and see y’all on the other side..

      • The public financing aspect is completely relevant. The question is really whether or not two NFL stadiums in the same market is financially viable? Since there will likely be 0 public funding for a new stadium for the Raiders, is there enough private money for a second stadium? To make money, they need events.

        Also, the Bay Area has never supported two NFL only stadiums. The Stick was built as a baseball stadium and later converted to multi-purpose. The Coliseum was built as a true multi-purpose stadium. When the bulk of the funds were spent, the stadiums supported two teams and 90+ professional sporting events a year.

  12. Well, the Niners had no choice but to build in SC. Frisco rejected them
    It will take another year or so to fix the teething problems. Hey, even new cars and airplanes have problems. The York family is terrible at building anything . Oh they can break up good stuff though. Commercial buildings are just starting to be built around Levi’s

    • “Frisco rejected them.”

      They had the framework of a deal in place to build a stadium at Hunter’s Point, but there were concerns were about the site suitability, time needed to clean the site, and perhaps additional funding from the city. But what is the price of arguably losing your team’s soul by moving 40 miles away from your namesake city?

      “As it did for the San Francisco Giants’ waterfront ballpark, the city would contribute the land. Lennar says it would contribute $100 million in cash and help finance the stadium’s infrastructure, including parking, roads, electrical lines, sewer pipes and water service.

      The 49ers apparently don’t have anything like that in Santa Clara, and the team says the city will have to make some sort of “up-front public investment,” possibly in the form of land or access to the city’s utility funds. One source involved with the deal said the team wants between $150 million and $200 million.

      Team spokeswoman Lisa Lang said San Francisco’s latest proposal represents progress but doesn’t address all the team’s concerns. That includes the cleanup of the Hunters Point Superfund site, designated as one of the country’s most polluted areas.”

      • Happy 2015!! Loosing “teams soul” by moving out of Frisco? SF is a terrible sports town! I’d bet most Niners fans at either the Stick or Levi’s didn’t/don’t even reside in SF. Niners “Soul” (?) Most likely the same in SC as SF.

        Re the SFGate piece you referenced, should serve as a word of warning to those who think any stadium development is going to be easy (“81 games per year! Ballparks are cheaper than football stadiums!”) in Oakland…

  13. is the current schedule, plus the Quakes said they’ll have both Stanford and Levi’s games again in 2015. There’s the possibility of more events to come. You tell me when they’re going to have time to grow grass–the March events will trash it, the concerts will stress it, and back-to-back Taylor Swift shows in the football preseason is pure genius. Over/under on re-sodding in 2015 is 7.

  14. Went for the first time last night. Thoughts:

    – Pretty easy to get to
    – Nice, big concourses so you don’t feel crowded
    – Easy to get refreshments
    – Great scoreboards
    – Felt really close to the field, even though we were about 40 rows up
    – All of the stadium workers were very nice

    – Weather and wind felt arctic at times
    – There was no place besides the 49er team store that was shielded from the elements (since everything indoors is reserved for clubs/suites)
    – Would have liked to have a wrap-around concourse inside the stadium where you could walk all the way around the stadium to get a feel for various vantage points
    – PA system was sub par: could barely hear the announcers even though we were close to the field
    – General sense of income stratification: seems like the experience for the average fan is totally different than that for those with tickets for the Ivory Tower sections

    All in all, I would rather catch an afternoon A’s game at the Coli then spend 4 times as much for a meaningless football game

  15. Soldier Field should have been built with a roof too . . . and 7,000 more seats.

  16. HA! After decades of people complaining about how old Candlestick was, and how horrible the weather conditions were, and the fact that Candlestick was in an isolated, remote, predominately Black neighborhood, we’re seeing that Levi’s stadium isn’t exactly the model NFL stadium either. If the Raiders do end up building locally, hopefully they can learn from the mistakes of Levi’s.

  17. I went to my first Raider game this season. It was awesome! They won that game as well as all their subsequent home games. I’m a good luck charm.

    It was cool seeing the field in that configuration. Our seats under Mt Davis were luxurious. My buddy’s sister, they’re from St. Louis, she says (unprompted by me) how much she loves these old stadiums, where it’s all about the game, the fans, screw the foo-foo architecture.

    Whodathunkit? Our poor sole remaining dual-purpose stadium, a badge of honor.

    If you wanna jack up some stupid stadium out in the suburbs, shoot yourself in the foot, go ahead, see what we care. We got plenty other stuff to do.

  18. I for one as a SBL holder was impressed by the new stadium by the end and for these reasons:

    1. Getting out of the parking lots was far easier than Candlestick and the difference between opening night and the last game was light years better. The 49ers worked hard and made it happen. 20 min max leaving the lot, and this is leaving when the game was over not early.

    2. The app allowing you to order in seat was great! Except for one mishap I had all season it was very cool not having to get up to get a beer.

    3. The Concourses are so big you don’t feel like your a sardine in a can. Candlestick was so cramped it was horrible and the lines from the concessions would bleed into the walking area.

    4. Tailgating was a great experience, I was able to do this in 3 different parking lots with great success, teamed up with some friends with their friends and we did up right….TV with Red Zone with a BBQ and liquor…..People were stunned on how we were able to get Red Zone in HD.

    5. Was able to sit club for Quakes and Pac-12 title game, the club level is so nice it’s no wonder people don’t head back to their seats immediately after the halftime. It is just that nice and roomy, the 49ers made it almost too nice! The Pac-12 title game it was cold and rainy so being in the club level was clutch.

    6. Getting rights to Taylor Swift and Wrestlemania? I am going to make a killing selling those tix.

    People complain because they are just dumb and naturally unhappy. I for one love this place and 49ers needed to this to happen for years.

  19. Also, the weather is NEVER this cold as it was the past 2-3 weeks in Santa Clara.

    Today it will hit 70 during the day and for the next 10 days. That is more normal and once again people just complain for no reason.

  20. I have to say that the first time i saw it on television I thought it looked like an Erector Set. It didn’t look like much thought went into the overall aesthetics of the thing. And 1 BILLION dollars?!? AT&T Stadium in Dallas cost that much and it’s widely hailed as one of the new wonders of the sports world! Nice try, SF…

  21. A retractable roof would’ve been nice.

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