Saturday, August 2, 6:54PM There’s a line of cars locking up traffic on Tasman Drive like this stretch of asphalt’s never seen. The pristine glass of suburban office complexes reflects lines of SUVs, sedans, traffic cones and small parties of pedestrians who, miles back, decided it was better to walk than ride. I creep forward and the jam’s culprit rises into view: Levi’s Stadium, a colosseum as cleanly crisp as the weekly washed windows that surround it. Three years ago, this was vacant concrete. $1.2 billion later, it’s a 1,850,000 square-foot engineering marvel for 68,500 human butts to sit in 68,500 seats.
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I’m late to the inaugural game, riding in on the wave of procrastinators who assume they can get somewhere quickly if they just trust their luck. My watch dial eclipses the speedometer, and I’m considering the ramifications of being late to the first and only opening of one of the most massive, technologically advanced sports structures on the globe. I look at the white-coated, red-bellied beast touted as “the smartest stadium in the world.” First thought: less traffic would be nice.
I come to a stop and reconsider that thought. For this match — a fútbol (not football) match between the San Jose Quakes and the Seattle Sounders — I’d like to halt my own skepticism in favor of a full-immersion experience. I’d like to allow myself to feel the cathartic wash of being a spectator at a big-time sporting event in a spanking-new stadium. I want to feel all the behind-the-scenes hours pull together into an inaugural experience that feels, to a Bay Area local, completely effortless and natural — an extension of my normal thoughts, feelings, and habits. I would like it to be as natural as turning to a smart phone. I would like to find that this heap of new steel doesn’t have a behemoth eco-footprint. I would like to eat food at a sporting event that doesn’t cause intestinal mutiny.
Billion dollars to build
Total square footage
Percentage of construction waste recycled and diverted from landfills
Miles of data cable
Sqare feet of scoreboard
Vegan food options
Vegetarian food options
Percentage of packaging and service ware that’s recyclable, compostable, biodegradable
Elsewhere in Stadiums…
One of the world’s smallest professional stadiums hosts southern English football team Eastleigh F.C. Silverlake Stadium — colloquially called “Ten Acres” — boasts an official capacity of 371 while a 2007 midsummer barnburner against Southampton saw a record crowd of 3,191.
It’s 7:10 p.m.; the game starts in twenty. I pull into the lot and do a quick trot towards the stadium. Inside, escalators covered in a blue LED glow rise to the Main Concourse level, stairs riding both sides. People pause and gaze. I skip around them and head to the press entrance, a quiet lobby bordered by three elevators. At the 800 level, press box, floor-to-ceiling windows frame the field below. Reporters and statisticians sit in freshly minted chairs and type into laptops that, in the shadow of the flat screens on the wall, look sadly out of date. An usher pops by and asks if anyone needs rosters. I shake my head, pull out my smartphone and look for wi-fi. Levi’s Stadium rises up, full arcing bars. I download the app — the first and most marketed “smart” element — and start poking around. It’s clean and responsive, and on first tap, intuitive enough to be immediately distracting.
I ask the app to direct me to the NRG Solar Terrace, a 27,000 square-foot “green roof” equipped with photovoltaic panels that can, along with three solar array-covered bridges, generate enough power to juice the stadium during all 10 49er home games. An arrow points me towards the stairs. It’s Maps in Stadium Mode; it knows my location by step. I’m to turn left when Bob, a white-haired guy who looks like he’s been around the usher block, stops me. “Terrace isn’t open,” he says. For some things, humans still rule.
Instead I go to Level 3, where the people are — the faithful fans of the Main Concourse. I want to be there for kick-off, in two minutes. The national anthem wraps up as I reach the unstained no-slip floors of a platform. People push their way to a railing overlooking the nearside lower level that descends to the corner of the field. Smartphones are out. Pictures are snapped. It’s a surprisingly close view.
At kickoff I wander toward a “Franks” concession stand, where a dozen runners stand at the ready. They’re the guys who, when you order food from the app, hurry to deliver it directly to your seat. Frankfurters, vegan dogs, Bavarian pretzels, nachos, popcorn, candy, chips, peanuts, Cracker Jacks, bottled soda, bottled water, Gatorade, bottled beer, and wine all come straight to you (for a $5 delivery charge). Sounds smart.
I continue to the Levi’s 501 Club, a posh spot on the east side that offers club-level amenities to people in expensive midfield seats. Greeters wear Levi’s 501s and denim shirts. Everything here is primo. The bathrooms are lined with white subway tiles and lit with low light. Chandeliers hang symmetrical. MCM seats lounge, unused, in the corner. A prosciutto sandwich comes with bread from Le Boulanger, a local bakery, and only sets you back $12. A glass of Woodford Reserve is $14. I comment on the relatively fair pricing. “We want you to enjoy yourself,” the barkeep says. “That’s what this is all about.”
Back on the Main Concourse there’s tortas, paninis, Rajisthani lamb, pork belly and peking duck boa.
Food all around is top notch and reflects a wide swath of culinary interests. Back on the Main Concourse there’s tortas, paninis, Rajisthani lamb, pork belly and peking duck boa. Black vinegar portobellos share space with free-range chickens. On the ultra-primo levels, like the BNY Mellon Club, fare elevates beyond: croque monsieur, oyster pan roast, and vegan selections marked with a small green leaf. Expected stadium fare is still ubiquitous throughout, and I opt for a nitrate-free beef frank. It’s tasty.
Waste goes to compost, recycling, and garbage bins, and it’s all sorted on site. Levi’s is aiming for net-zero waste, which, considering the damage 48,765 people are making tonight (still 20,000 shy of the stadium’s capacity) seems like something more like an ideal yearned for than a reality. I run into a sustainability consultant for the stadium on the field level (an outcropping of the BNY Mellon Club that’s spitting distance from the pitch) and express skepticism: that maybe the Gold LEED certification was just a box Levi’s wanted checked to keep the Bay Area’s environmentalists happy. He shakes his head. “They actually went the extra mile,” he says. Then he notes the recycled water system, which puts reclaimed water in low-flow toilets and into the landscaping irrigation. 85% of all water is recycled H2O. That, and the HVAC is smart, running only when needed and not when the doors are open. He’s still brimming with excitement, giddy at the new stadium’s cool.
At 42’ Djalo scores on an assist from Wondolowski (you remember, he’s this guy), and the stadium erupts. At 70% capacity, it’s not enormously loud. It’s a roar, but not something the Sounders, from CenturyLink Field, blink at. A breeze whips through, heading south. Two atrium-like areas on either side of the field create gaps through the stadium, outlets for noise and opportunities for this chill breeze — reminiscent of Candlestick. The Diablo Range, due east, catches the last of the day’s light. I head back to the press area for half.
I remember games at Wrigley sitting behind a steel pole, leaning into my neighbor to see the pitch.
For all the positives of a new place, let’s not say that everything in the smart stadium runs smoothly the first time around. Traffic was (and it’s hard to imagine it won’t continue to be) harrowing, ushers directed people in the wrong direction, and some stands ran out of hotdogs. Fans and staff are still figuring things out: one couple was stopped by security for having a wine glass, then released when they realized the near-perfect imitation was plastic; another girl asked her friend, “Should we get beers before we go to the bathroom?” — always an “after”). But staffers are constantly looking for areas of weakness. On the 501 level two ushers had an impromptu conversation: “It’s hard to cover both patio areas at once;” the guy said to his manager, “especially before the game, when I took like 70 pictures.” She nodded, jotted it down in her book.
Back on the pitch the second half kicks off and the game rolls on in the way that soccer can when you’re half distracted. I ride the elevator with Talia Malik, part of the 49ers Communications team. She guides me to the bowels of the stadium, the underbelly of the beast. It’s standard stadium fare, cinderblock walls and concrete floors, notable only for its zero scratches or dings. We walk up to the Home Locker Room, but the door’s locked by a fingerprint scanning device. I ask Malik if she can. She says she better not. Some things stay secret until the real show’s in town.
Rising back to the main concourse, the stadium’s gloss returns, clean and crisp. Drinking fountains shine like circular stainless steel art. The concession stands and ushers and security hum along at a slow loll. The inaugural game, so far, has been unremarkable. The smart stadium works — the app is functional, the connectivity’s ample (strong cell reception and fast wi-fi), good vibes come from the sustainable practices, and savory food satisfies. Levi’s also fits within its context: the squeaky clean, hyper-functional vibe of Santa Clara needs a stadium in kind. But I still wonder if this experience trumps the deeply ingrained character of an urban stadium — the likes of a Fenway, Wrigley: places where the stadium is beloved not because it works, but because it’s rich in character, carved out of a city’s prolonged use. I remember games at Wrigley sitting behind a steel pole, leaning into my neighbor to see the pitch. Or out in the bleachers where sweat, beer, and B.O. mingled with the Chicago heat. They’re memories that required me to invest in my own enjoyment, rather than have it served on a clean, new platter. There was less bombardment from sponsors. There was no separation of club-level privileges. I had to earn my good experience, and that created its own type of nostalgia. Then again, as I dip back into the BNY Mellon Club’s low-light and ample tables and clear flat screens, the way this stadium’s materialized also has its perks, and, in ordering a good whiskey from the bar, I think this new era of fan enjoyment is getting more than a decent start.
Toward the end of the game the seats begin to clear out. In stoppage time, premature fireworks erupt over the north scoreboard. It’s a small glitch, fitting the overenthusiastic vibe. They don’t stop the explosions, but slow the launching to a burst every few seconds, then as the whistle blows they let loose the finale. The stadium, half-empty, musters a wholehearted cheer.
I head into the Yahoo! Fantasy Sports Lounge, a place where stats run in realtime during the game. Post-game, things are more relaxed. Fans look admirably at flat screens for highlights and envy the glass cases of red wine. A group of five guys who’ve drunk too much start pounding on a table nearby. It’s not exactly suite-level behavior. I look to see if security’s nearby. No one seems bothered. The table rattles to the beat, then the chant starts, a little slurred, far off pitch: “Who’s got it better than us?” They repeat the question, “Who’s got it better than us?” then respond to their own call, “Noooo-body!” I look around. Everyone carries on their business and it’s evident that here, in the comforts of their new stadium, you won’t find anyone who’s apt to argue.