The San Francisco 49ers have created the ultimate un-Candlestick-like experience.
Levi's Stadium, the team's new $1.2 billion facility in Santa Clara is about as different from the team's former home as could be. Instead of the cavernous, claustrophobic and crumbling building at Candlestick Point they called home since 1971, the 49ers are entering an airy, luxurious and modern venue that brings them up to date with the rest of the NFL.
The team allowed the local media an informal tour of the stadium this week with newly promoted Team President Paraag Marathe and COO Al Guido answer questions and explain the building's nuances. Project executive Jack Hill guided the tour and offered details on the expansive facility.
According to the officials, Levi's Stadium's construction is about 80 percent complete. Nearly all of the structural components are in place. What's left is the installation of the expected 68,000 seats, the grass on the field, the electrical and plumbing systems, the various finishes on the inside and the creation of concrete walkways and bridges that surround the outside of the stadium.
Football Logistics in Question
The first thing we noticed on the tour is just how close the new stadium is to the team's current football headquarters in Santa Clara. The new stadium is exactly 13 feet west of the building. A number of the stadium's features will replace aspects that are currently in use at the team's facility. Most of those upgrades will be inconsequential to fans (new auditorium for press conferences during the week and after each game, along with a new media work room that replaces a double-wide trailer in the players' parking lot).
But up for discussion still is team's use of its spacious new locker room in the stadium. It's about twice the size of the team's old one at Candlestick and considerably bigger than the one at the team's practice facility. Marathe said he believes the current locker room at the facility will lose some of its function, becoming a changing room for players in between practices and meetings, meaning the new locker room will become the player's central home.
The new locker room inside Levi's will have updated hot and cold tubs, along with a state-of-the-art hydrotherapy pool that will feature an underwater treadmill that can be adjusted to allow players to use it completely submerged or have water up to their ankles. The trainers' area is also much bigger, making it seem as though there will be little use for the old area inside the team's practice facility. However, the new locker room will be a bit of a walk to the practice fields compared to the current one at the team's facility.
The stadium isn't set to be completed until the end of July - right around the start of training camp. It will be interesting to see how these logistical questions impact the day-to-day operations of the team at that point, if at all.
No Standing Room
Guido said there will be no "standing room only" tickets available, at least for the first season of the stadium's existence. Guido spent time on the development of the new Cowboy's Stadium (currently known as AT&T Stadium) that has a standard capacity of 80,000. But with standing room available, capacity can rise to 105,000.
With such expansive concourses and areas with views of the field outside of the general seating area, Levi's appears to be a venue that could handle 5,000 (or so) standing room attendees. With a current capacity of 68,000, the stadium is right in the middle of the pack as far as NFL venues go.
But Guido did indicate there's the possibility of adding standing room availability in the future once the stadium's operations crew has a year under its belt.
Marathe said the team's bid for Super Bowl L in 2016 included the stadium's expanded capacity to 73,000. To get there, temporary seating will be added to open plazas on both the north and southwest corners of the stadium. Those open plazas are currently flat slabs of concrete that provide great views of the stadium and field, while providing a large general gathering area just inside the two biggest entrances.
I asked Hill if permanent expansion was factored into the stadium's initial design. The answer was "yes."
Should the 49ers decide to build more suites or add more layers of seats, they have the ability with those corners currently open. Given the design, it would be easy to close off the stadium completely and connect the west-side suite tower with the north and south ends of the stadium bowl.
Levi's Stadium has 176 suites (108 in the west tower). MetLife Stadium in New Jersey - host of the most recent Super Bowl - has 218. AT&T Stadium has an astounding 342.
Given how lucrative luxury suites have become, there's a reasonable chance to the 49ers could elect to expand Levi's Stadium by adding 30-40 more luxury suites by closing off those corners of the end zone. And in doing so they could potentially raise the capacity to around 75,000 as well.
It's likely those plans have already been drawn up. For now, the stadium looks like a puzzle missing two large pieces in those corners. If there isn't demand for expansion, then they will sit tight. But it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect a Lambeau Field-like expansion within the stadium's first 20 years of use. The sale of suites for Super Bowl L will go a long way towards that determination as the 49ers hope Levi's becomes a regular host for the league's biggest game. And as long as there isn't a state-of-the-art football venue in Los Angeles, that will likely be the case.
Perhaps the most stark difference between the high-end tickets at Levi's Stadium compared to Candlestick is the abundance of club options. There are at least five premium clubs (not counting the green roof party area on top of the suite tower) offering unique experiences for fans. Two on both the west and east side of the field are field level and allow fans to get up close views of players leaving their respective locker rooms and entering the field.
These clubs are exclusive and fans only seated in certain areas are allowed access, hence the the personal seat licenses that cost up $80,000 in specific sections. There will be 9,000 club seats and more than 160,000 square feet of exclusive space for the high-paying patron.
The stadium was originally designed to house the 49ers' sideline on the east side, where the home locker room is along with the East Field Club. But the east sideline will be in the sun for much, if not all afternoon games. Jim Harbaugh reportedly requested the team be moved to the west sideline (in the shade) well after the design was already in place.
That means the 49ers' entrance to the field will be directly behind the visiting sideline which is both inconvenient and awkward. Officials indicated the starters introductions would likely come from the south field entrance, which would negate club patrons the ability to see the starters take the field for the last time before kick off. And at halftime, teams will have to cross paths in order to get to their locker room entrances on the opposite sidelines.
Hall of Fame
The 49ers are constructing what promises to be a cool fan experience in the team's Hall of Fame, which will be open year-round at the north end of the stadium. Marathe said fans have a lot to look forward to in terms of the visuals the team plans to unveil when it opens, including life-size statues of inductees - a detail which he regrettably let slip during the tour.
Otherwise, the team is hoping to create an interactive football experience for students to use for field trips and the like. Marathe said the team is hoping to help promote physical education with a number of different activities available. It sounds like the team's Hall of Fame will require a separate admission ticket.
The display of retired numbers and hall of fame members within the stadium is still to be determined. There was no "Ring of Honor"-type of display plugged into the initial design. But it's likely those numbers will find their way on to a facade somewhere on the stadiums many seating decks or even below the lighting standards on the east side.
Video Boards, Huge Video Boards
The team is saying its two new video boards in the stadium will be the largest outdoor LED video boards in any stadium in the country. They are massive at 200 feet wide and 48 feet tall. They are so big they have an odd effect of making the big stadium seem smaller and more intimate.
They might not be as big as the one in Dallas that hangs from the ceiling, but they certainly add a lot of value to the fan experience, especially considering the tiny screen (relative to these new LED boards) fans are used to at Candlestick. There will also be an LED ring on the facade of the second deck of seating encompassing the stadium.
The NFL's Biggest Press Box
Admittedly, this section might not need to be here because fans could really care less about the accommodations for the working press. But it's worth including because of the ramifications for Super Bowl L. There will be 258 seats available with a view of the field and 24 inches of horizontal desk space. Candlestick's press box had roughly 225 seats and maybe 18 inches of room. Many of those seats were occupied by scouts and team personnel - some of which were just stools with no desk space. The new press level at Levi's Stadium includes private viewing areas for team personnel, meaning scouts and executives won't be forced to watch the game in the same place as us meddling reporters.
As far as the Super Bowl goes, there is enough room in the back dinning area to house another 50 or so media members with a view of televisions. And team officials indicated there will be an outdoor seating section for auxiliary press as well. In big games, like the 2011 NFC Championship Game, media overflow was forced to watch in a tent (braving the elements) outside of the stadium on televisions. Now the press area will be far more accommodating which is a win for both reporters and fans. Or maybe just reporters. But either way, huge upgrade.
Concourses, For the Win
Levi's Stadium's concourses will be 63 feet wide in most areas, according to the stadium's website, compared to Candlestick's that were 19 feet wide. But that number doesn't really do them justice until you walk around. They are incredibly spacious making your local shopping mall seem cramped. For the claustrophobic fans that struggled to get to their seats through the crowds at Candlestick, your prayers have been answered.
Their other endearing quality they have is having a virtually un-obstructed view of the field. Fans will be able to walk around looking for their favorite concession or bathroom while still being able to keep tabs on the game. The only obstructions are stairways that lead up to the second deck of seating. But those stairways are absent underneath the loft club at the 50-yard line in the east stands, where only a few pillars are in the way of a great view of the field.
There are also separate walkways outside of the concession ring that will make foot traffic even less congested on game days. Those areas on the east side will also give fans a unique view of the team's practice facility. The stairways, elevators and escalators to the higher levels of seating are accessed by those walkways.
A note of interest about the concourses and the stadium as a whole: there is no wall that encloses the stadium on any level. Theoretically, wind could blow in from the outside of the stadium, through the concourse, to the field and out the other side of the stadium without being blocked in a significant way. The winds at the team's facility in Santa Clara can be gusty at times, which could cause for some interesting conditions at Levi's. It's unknown if the wind will be profoundly unique from any of the other stadium's throughout the league because of the lack of a barrier, but the team will likely monitor wind conditions closely going forward. If the stadium's open design allows for too much wind, the team could find ways to create blockades on the stadium's exterior.
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