Whenever someone asked me what Levi’s Stadium is like, I couldn’t think of anything to say other than, “It’s nice.” The newness was all that stood out. The surrounding area is safer than Bayview-Hunters Point. Everything (besides the field) was shiny and fresh, gleaming white or deep red. The Wi-Fi was better. The concessions were better. The lines were shorter.
The 49ers struggled through eight home games that may as well have been at a neutral site. “Nice” turned into “sterile,” which turned into “here’s another photo of no one sitting in the seats facing the sun in the third quarter,” which turned into “it was a mutual parting.”
Unfortunately for those who live north of Burlingame, the 49ers aren’t going anywhere. And the idea that the move to Santa Clara was the root of all their problems is inaccurate. Besides, it’s not like Candlestick screamed San Francisco, since it’s separated from most of the city’s signature landmarks by hills and a neighborhood or three. Plus, it’s not like Santa Clara is some evil, godforsaken place. It’s a town in the Bay Area, and it’s not Santa Clara’s fault that Levi’s Stadium didn’t have a great debut season.
In thinking about the first season at Levi’s, I wondered what draws fans to football games. It’s not for the ability to brag afterwards that “I was there” (well, for most people it’s not about this). It’s not a better view of the action, because football is made for TV and scoreboards don’t show all the replays. It’s not Wi-Fi access — the idea that football fans buy tickets so they can sit and watch the action on their iPads is laughable.
At the risk of sounding like a local baseball team’s marketing department, tickets to football games are sold off the idea of togetherness. It’s the feeling of being surrounded by thousands of like-minded people, stretched out as far as the eye can see, creating a fortress and experiencing the visceral nature of professional football together. It’s not about every fan having his or her own individual experience, it’s about attending a party that’s a feast for every sense and sharing every moment with one’s friends and family. Otherwise, why not just camp out in your living room?
So what do the 49ers do to fix this thing (other than a decent grass field, an obvious fix that many readers have suggested)? I have five ideas, from most to least plausible.
1. Chill with the sound effects
By the end of the season, the amount of canned noise bordered on overwhelming. It seemed like not a minute would go by without hearing something designed to encourage the fans to get louder. It smacked of desperation. The crowd knows how to chant “DEFENSE” without hearing those same two beats from a “drum” again and again and again. Save the “drum” for important third down plays or the fourth quarter.
However, pumping in fake crowd noise from time to time wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world. It works for a certain team up north (allegedly).
2. Let everyone tailgate
You can tailgate with an open flame if you’re in VIP Red Lot 1 or VIP Red Lot 3. You can’t tailgate at all in Red Lot 4 or 5. You can tailgate in Red Lot 6, but not with an open flame. There are several more lots with different colors and names, and glass containers aren’t allowed in any of them.
There are already enough penalties on the field. The number of rules for tailgating at 49ers games is beyond ridiculous.
I don’t mean to get into the fan violence element, since we’ve already done that many times on this site. If the worry was alcohol consumption, they’d disallow drinking entirely. This is a cleanup problem, which is unacceptable. If fans are purchasing seat licenses and tickets, and paying exorbitant fees for parking passes, let them tailgate. Let them drink out of glass bottles. Let them throw the football around a little (that’s not allowed, either).
Many people buy tickets to football games as an excuse to tailgate. If some are allowed to do so, everyone should be. I understand that a lot of these spaces are rented for gameday use from businesses, and there are probably stipulations in these contracts which state that the 49ers are responsible for damage to said lots.
Welp, that means the 49ers should pony up for extra security, trash and recycling bins, and cleanup crews. Being a good host entails keeping everyone safe AND making sure they have a good time.
3. Start winning
Crazy suggestion, but it just might work …
49ers fans are a mix of two sets of people: those who remember the great times and judge everything in front of them against those amazing highs, and fans who are envious of those old enough to remember all those championship moments and players.
Oh, who am I kidding? Every fan gets sullen and despondent after spending a hundred bucks when they’re forced to sit through three hours of losing. Multiply that dollar amount by three, four, five or more, and you see why the fans got quieter with every penalty committed and touchdown allowed by the home team.
I attended five games at Levi’s, all in the hermetically sealed (or maybe it just seemed that way, since the glass is so thick) press box. The fans seemed to be enjoying themselves throughout the first half of the first regular season game in Santa Clara … then Snoop came out during halftime and ruined everything. Juuuuust kidding. In actuality, the 49ers took a 20-7 lead into the fourth quarter, then they made a zillion mistakes and allowed three short touchdown passes.
The went 4-4 in their new home, and the biggest leads they enjoyed came in games they lost (the aforementioned Bears game and the overtime defeat against the Chargers). When a team is playing sloppy, disjointed football, and the leads are never safe, expecting the fans to pick up the slack is like inviting friends to your house and expecting them to cook dinner.
4. Build a sun shade
The chances of this occurring are as slim as Shaun Livingston and Justin Holiday. But it’s not like the living roof is a great vantage point from which to watch the game (as one can see in the photo above). So make some use out of that space with a wall that can be raised to block the sun’s rays.
Yes, there are places where people watch games in the sun, heat, whatever. And no one’s calling for the folks at Lambeau to put in 80,000 heated seats. In American football, the elements are kind of part of the deal. But about two-thirds of the fans sit on the east side, and that side gets absolutely scorched almost every afternoon. Watching those poor fans was almost like watching ants get tortured by a kid holding a magnifying glass, except most of the fans didn’t stick around long enough to burst into flame.
People don’t like to spend hundreds of dollars and feel like they’re suffering through something, especially when the other side is in the shade and there are perfectly good clubs and concourses with dozens of televisions where one can get a reprieve from the headache-inducing conditions.
The idea of a wall going up might sound silly. OK, it is silly and probably expensive. But is it less realistic than asking the 49ers to turn off every TV one can currently find indoors, in hopes that doing so would entice fans to watch the game from their seats?
5. Fill in the gaps
Levi’s Stadium isn’t exactly gorgeous, since there’s an eight-floor office building-looking structure overlooking the west sideline that reminds everyone that they need to go back to work the next day. But it seems like the place was designed by architects who thought the stadium would sit next to the bay, a few blocks away from AT&T Park.
I know I mentioned how Santa Clara doesn’t deserve the scorn its received from bitter San Franciscans. As far as suburbs go, it’s fine. But let’s not pretend it’s the most beautiful city, either. Nevertheless, there are open sections in both end zones that allow fans to check out the view of … Great America. And if you really strain your eyes, you can see the glorious San Jose skyline in the distance.
Unlike house hunters on HGTV, football fans don’t walk into stadiums demanding “open concept.” In fact, the openness separates everyone.
Since I mentioned Lambeau earlier, let’s go into what makes that place super cool. Football stadiums aren’t like baseball ballparks, where bricks and ivy are attractions unto themselves. The field is the main attraction at a football game, along with the unforgiving wall of screaming fans. Lambeau is closer to a bowl than a fancy ballpark, built so you can turn around in a circle and see nothing but cheeseheads.
Levi’s contains a bunch of segmented sections. The end zones are disconnected from the sidelines, and the gaps between the suite towers (which may be practical, but provide absolutely nothing in the way of natural beauty) further split the patrons into groups. It’s like they wanted everyone to be keenly aware of how much each section paid to attend these games.
Also, the openness of the stadium allows sound to escape! Clearly the 49ers didn’t care a lick about creating the kind of homefield advantage the Seahawks enjoy, and there’s no way to recreate comparable acoustics at this point without leveling the stadium and starting over. But it wouldn’t be all that difficult to close up those corners. Yes, it would cost quite a bit (which is why this is the last, and by far the least likely, suggestion).
But here’s my crazy plan: filling in the sections in between the suite tower and scoreboards would add what, maybe 12,000 seats? Maybe more, maybe less (I’m even worse at architecture than I am at sportswriting). And they wouldn’t be great seats — upper corner locations, mostly.
Make those seats available on a walkup basis only, at semi-reasonable prices. On Saturdays before home games, create a new tradition in the parking lot. Invite fans to show up for a 49ers-themed party. Set up concessions, a band/DJ, and merchandise retailers. Charge $10 or $20 and every car that passes through gets a “swag bag” with a rally towel, a stadium keychain, a photo of Jim Tomsula and whatever else that wouldn’t cost a ton but fans would probably like. On the back of the Tomsula photo is a lottery number, and those who have the right lottery numbers can purchase tickets. In one fell swoop the 49ers would make some cash on Saturday, get a bunch of fans into the stadium who maybe don’t have the means to buy PSLs, and create a ton of goodwill. Even fans who didn’t win tickets through the lottery would buy food, merchandise, and maybe even buy a ticket to walk through the museum.
I know, I know … if I presented the last two suggestions (actually, all of my ideas other than “winning”) to Jed York and Paraag Marathe, they’d laugh me out of their boardroom. And the very idea of a “homefield advantage” probably only matters to players and fans. But instead of ripping the stadium and the city where it sits, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to suggest some improvements. Unless they’re sure that the on-field product (as well as the field itself) will be better in 2015, the 49ers might want to consider one or more of these crazy thoughts to make Levi’s a place where fans will want to go, not just a place they’re forced to go because they already bought the SBLs and can’t sell them on the secondary market.