You can see vintage art pieces celebrating Kerouac and Steinbeck inside Levi’s Stadium. You can swap out a diaper at a baby-changing station. You can drop four figures at a wine cooler a few yards from the 49ers sideline, in a glassed-in private club featuring a “Kinetic Theater.” You can hang out at an interactive zone, charge up your electric vehicle at one of 10 NRG stations, view life-size images of Ronnie Lott and Joe Montana in active poses at the 49ers Museum, order an $89 American Wagyu Rib Cap at a Michael Mina steakhouse.
But what does it matter if they can’t grow grass on the field?
A green stadium, the 49ers call it, an ode to sustainability from its very own LEED Gold certification to the 27,000-square-foot rooftop garden with minimal-water plants. They tout lower greenhouse gases, a roof deck and pedestrian bridges that are solar-paneled, reclaimed wood from a Mountain View airplane hangar, recycled building products, farm-to-table menus and — get this — reclaimed water used to irrigate the playing surface.
But what does it matter if they can’t grow grass on the field?
Just when the Niners were trying to bury every ghastly memory of 2014, up popped a reminder of their organizational incompetence: more divots. The idea was to conduct the first eight practices of training camp in Levi’s to help further familiarize the players with their second-year home, make them more comfortable in a venue that seemed to paralyze everyone — players, fans, media — accustomed to dank, archaic Candlestick Park and its swirling elements. But shortly into Jim Tomsula’s first practice as head coach, the same sod issues that haunted the team last season were revealed in clumps all over the field.
How can this franchise move forward when the players, those who still remain after a stunning mass exodus in the offseason, can’t be certain if their knees and ankles are safe in their own home?
“We’re not going to put them at risk,” Tomsula said intially, promising that the team’s field maintenance staff was “going to roll it, work it all night.”
By Sunday, Tomsula was explaining in his unique way why all was good with the field, saying, “In terms of the team periods, there were no issues at all. You will see the individual periods will be adjusted a little bit. We had the problem there with the wide receivers and the DBs with all the stopping and starting and planting and driving. So, we’ll get those moved and go from there.”
What changed? “Actually, we got a phone call this morning from the guys who went out to work the field and check the fields,” the head coach said. “Here’s our procedures on every day, the way everything works every day: on our practice fields every morning, [equipment manager] Steve Urbaniak meets with [sports turf manager/head groundskeeper Matthew] Greiner, our grounds guy, and we dictate where we’re going to be on the fields. So, we’re on the game field, they’re in the same meeting. So, the same meeting was there and we’re going out.”
By Monday, the session was moved to where it should have been all along: the practice fields behind the stadium. Whether Tomsula made the call himself or was overruled by bosses Jed York and Trent Baalke, this was not how anyone wanted to start the new season. While at Levi’s for a college football event, I examined the field. Sure enough, divots were nearly the size of possums, and a machine was rolling the field, back and forth.
It’s numbing enough, from a fan’s perspective, that the San Francisco 49ers are playing in Santa Clara, inside what amounts to a high-tech industrial park about 40 miles from where Candlestick is now a rubble pile. Know how awkward it is to turn onto Marie P. DeBartolo Way, by the Santa Clara Convention Center, and see a row of plants inside elevated pots adorned with the franchise’s iconic “SF” logo? What York has done is create his own Silicon Valley techie startup, which wouldn’t be bad if the 49ers already hadn’t spanned generations as a prestige sports brand. York and father John sacrificed tradition, prestige and a world-class address for a sweetheart deal, one that guarantees ample profits for the 49ers and saddles Santa Clara taxpayers with the financing burden for the $1.3 billion structure.
There is pressure, then, to maximize revenue streams with as many non-49ers events as possible. A majority cut from a 20-year, $220-million naming rights deal with Levi’s, coupled with the sale of lucrative seat licenses, isn’t nearly enough for the local Stadium Authority to recoup construction costs. So the 49ers have become, in essence, event promoters. They gave us WrestleMania 31. They gave us the Grateful Dead. They gave us Monster Energy Supercross. They gave us Kenny Chesney and Jason Aldean. They gave us college football, including the Pac-12 championship game and the Foster Farms Bowl. They gave us Barcelona vs. Manchester United.
And they’re about to give us two Taylor Swift shows, a Luke Bryan concert, a “Friday Night Lights” event featuring three high-school football games and a 4.9k Stadium Run and Obstacle Challenge, all in the next six weeks.
No wonder they can’t grow grass on the field.
California is experiencing an epic drought, of course, and the valley sun has a way of beating down into the stadium in ways they’ll never understand on the banks of McCovey Cove. Still, when so much money and brainpower was put into, ahem, “the most technologically advanced sports venue in North America,” why did they let the field become an embarrassment?
Tomsula used the word “phenomenal” to describe the stadium operations chief at Levi’s, Jim Mercurio. And maybe he is. But with so many events at the stadium, the nation’s greatest agronomists might not help this field. The 49ers will replace the sod as many as seven times if necessary, the next overhaul coming after Swift shakes off the divots next week. “The number of large-scale events has kind of put us into a planning stage where we have to decide and determine how we’re going to attack it,” Mercurio told the Associated Press. “Sometimes you don’t know if it’s going to be a full replacement … [or] a partial replacement.” Seven would be an increase from five sod changes last year, when the trouble supposedly involved a faulty soil mixture and forced Jim Harbaugh to move a practice.
I know what you’re thinking: Is Levi’s in for a debacle on a certain Sunday next February? Thankfully, the NFL installs its own turf before every Super Bowl.
As for the team that plays on the current surface, the only certainty is that the 49ers will be watching on Feb. 7, after a season destined to slip-slide away.