What do you U2, Monster Trucks, the U.S. Men’s national soccer team, the Foster Farms Bowl and Real Madrid have in common?
They’ve all had the liberty of gracing Levi’s Stadium in the last seven months, contributing to ongoing issues with a field surface meant for the 49ers.
Built in 2014 for the ability to host large events for the Bay Area, Levi’s Stadium has been unable to escape constant criticism for its grass. Stadiums four years old shouldn’t be having issues like this.
Wednesday night’s Gold Cup Final between the United States and Jamaica was the latest example. Divot-sized chunks of grass were shooting up from the turf. Players were slipping and sliding around like the game was being played in the rain. The television broadcast on FS1 brought attention to it and soccer pundits on Twitter called it an embarrassment to play such an important game in such lousy field conditions.
This is on top of of the Super Bowl in February of 2016, where both teams were scrambling in the locker room at halftime to find longer cleats for the uneven playing surface. In August of 2015, Jim Tomsula was planning on holding large portions of training camp inside of Levi’s Stadium, but was forced to scrap the idea when the field wasn’t deemed ready enough for football. That year, a valuable training camp practice was performed at half-speed inside the stadium because 20,000 season ticket holders were in attendance. There surprisingly weren’t many issues in 2016 until a Week 17 matchup last season against the Seahawks on Jan 1, where the field turf looked like it had been through a harsh winter and was chunky throughout.
“The footing on the field was terrible,” Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said after the Super Bowl. “San Fran has to play eight games on that field, so they better do something to get it fixed.”
It’s hard to imagine such a critical error with the grass can actually happen when building a $1.3 billion stadium, but four years into its lifespan, Levi’s is building a reputation akin to an ice rink.
Jed York has a business to run and it’s understandable why he chooses to rent his stadium out for cash considerations. You can’t lock away Levi’s Stadium entirely from the rest of the community. That would be considered greedy. And there are certainly NFL teams who hold more outside events (soccer matches, concerts, college football games) than York and his team.
But when grass has been an ongoing issue, and Levi’s Stadium has already lifted the 49ers to the No. 9 spot on Forbes’ most valuable franchises in all of sports, isn’t it time to take an offseason away from the music and soccer to solve this field surface issue?
It doesn’t sound like it. Events are more under team president Al Guido’s jurisdiction, and he joined Murph and Mac on KNBR Wednesday. Guido said the 49ers are actually working with USA, Mexico and Canada in trying to bring the 2026 World Cup to North America.
“It’s a huge night having USA Soccer in the building,” Guido said. “They won (the Gold Cup) back in 2013, we hope they take it home tonight.”
You wonder if this an area where John Lynch will get involved. York hired Lynch for his leadership, for his ability to have the tough conversations without upsetting and alienating a room. If the playing surface at Levi’s becomes a problem during the 2017 season, you can count on it.
But Lynch may still have the conversation. He should want the field surface to be widely respected around the NFL, not routinely ridiculed. The end game here should always be about winning a Super Bowl, not hosting a World Cup match. Whether that’s a talk of ending all this re-sodding nonsense, or installing some type of new grass, these are discussions worth having between a GM and owner.
The 49ers have done virtually everything right this offseason. But the grass at Levi’s Stadium is one consistent area they are falling short in. It was an issue in 2015. It’s an issue now. Save this one as a footnote in case it comes up later in the year — or even as soon as next Saturday, Aug. 5 for another open practice with fans. Hopefully that one won’t be at half-speed.