A year ago, the 49ers got the cherry on top of their football stadium sundae, a highly sought-after LEED Gold certification. LEED Gold had never been designated upon a sports venue previously, so with that Levi’s Stadium was considered the environmental belle of the ball, as far as venues go.
Since then, much attention has been paid to the wonderful green roof, the plethora of solar panels, the wise use of gray water – all the buzz words you frequently read about when a building is touted for its environmental bonafides. Yet all of that has been overshadowed by the one thing that everyone sees on TV, the damaged and dangerous grass surface.
After a couple of sod changes, including a change in the type of Bermuda strain, blame was placed squarely on the gravel-sand subsurface used to get the grass to take root. Anyone who has laid out sod in the yard with their dad knows the typical issues: make sure the dirt isn’t rocky or full of clay. Water regularly and at the right times. Grass is not easy to grow, and even harder to maintain. You’d think the grass – just for the sake of the 49ers’ health – would be of paramount importance. But in ownership’s never-ending search for high profile non-football events, the grass has practically become a barrier to revenue generation.
The easy move, of course, would be to switch to artificial turf. It’s plastic and rubber, is a ton easier to maintain than grass, and is easily removed for concerts and other events. The 49ers already installed turf on the fringes of the field, where carts and other equipment are likely to travel. The field remains grass for now, and the fight to keep the grass in place will be fierce, as this is California, where fake turf is anathema (Cal’s Memorial Stadium being a notable exception).
Replenishing and regenerating grass is not exactly the most green of procedures. Besides the grass that is trucked in every spring for initial installation, a completely separate field is maintained at a Central Valley facility, for use when the stadium field is inevitably damaged. Roll upon roll of the replacement stuff is used to repair parts of the stadium field before giving way to a wholesale replacement. The damaged grass is trucked back to Livingston, where it is rehabilitated. And so there’s this constant cycling of grass throughout the football season. The Coliseum goes through its own version of this, with grass planted before the baseball season, the baseball outfield replaced shortly after the second Raiders’ preseason game, and the entire football field usually once more in November. That’s a reasonable schedule, especially compared to the frequent shuttling the 49ers have to do.
At some point the process will become untenable, maybe not for economic reasons, but for environmental reasons. The drought is the biggest player here. More than a dozen fires rage around the state, so it seems incredibly insensitive to use so much water and gas on a single two-acre grass field that is properly utilized fewer than 20 times per year. The Ravens and Patriots both had trouble maintaining grass, switching to turf early on in their respective stadia’s tenures. Unfortunately, turf is plenty of its own issues. It’s not an ideal surface for soccer. There are still concerns about injuries, though bad grass is arguably much worse. Now there are issues with athletes accidentally inhaling the crumb rubber “dirt” under the plastic turf blades, as those tiny pieces tend to go airborne on hard cuts on the surface. A class action lawsuit was filed this year, alleging that the rubber has carcinogens. Considering that much of that rubber comes from old tires, there may be an argument there. Maybe not. Either way it merits study. Plus artificial turf fields tend to run hotter than grass fields during the summer thanks to the rubber’s tendency to insulate.
What do you do, then, when trying to choose between thirsty but preferable grass and lower-maintenance but less desirable turf? Easy. Hold fewer events. It’s okay, 49ers. You won’t go broke. The grass will be allowed to flourish. If you’re going to run a dome-like schedule, give up on the grass. It’s not fair to the players or the grass to do otherwise.