Watching Monday Night Football the night before San Diegans decide whether to build Dean Spanos and the NFL a new downtown football stadium, I can’t help but reflect on my recent experience as a 49ers fan visiting their new stadium in Santa Clara.
I’d never watched a game at Levi’s since it opened two years ago, and I happened to be in town as disgruntled fans flooded the secondary market with cheap tickets for the game against the Buccaneers, so why not? Besides, I wanted to know why the 49ers have yet to post a winning record in that stadium, even before the team’s ongoing implosion. In other words, I felt like a fan on a reconnaissance mission, determined to figure out why the strong home-field advantage the 49ers always enjoyed at dumpy old Candlestick Park (R.I.P.) suddenly disappeared.
I guess I should begin by pointing out that minor controversy about the 49ers allegedly breaking the law by using the city’s general funds to subsidize stadium operations. The city demanded financial documents from the 49ers; the 49ers balked; the city threatened to take over stadium operations; and the 49ers released a statement attacking city officials and may have contributed around $50,000 in “dark money” toward defeating their political enemies. But, don’t worry—I’m sure something like that could never happen in San Diego.
Anyway, my first impression of Levi’s was positive; in fact, I was a bit awe-struck. It’s a highly impressive monument to football; an aesthetically pleasing nod to the team’s new home in ultra-modern Silicon Valley, with a corner opening revealing lush, green grass and a magnificent seating array. The stadium’s interior was well constructed and impressively monetized. They hocked 49ers merchandise throughout the stadium, and their primary team store felt had the size and scope of a department store on Black Friday, with enough apparel to clothe San Diego’s entire homeless population and a throng of cash-flush fans enduring an impressively long line to throw down for their favorite officially licensed NFL® gear.
The Levi’s smartphone app even allows fans to splurge on impulse buys from the palms of their hands. Want to hang out on the field for warmups and watch Colin Kaepernick figure out how to throw a football? Well, you can, for only $449. Hang out in the tunnel for about 30 seconds as the home team jogs onto the field? A modest $249. Meet Sourdough Sam or some of the Gold Rush Girls? Just $149 (and I sure hope they get a cut of it). Attend the post-game presser, with a hapless head coach and hapless QB? A relatively bargain price of $249. These are marketed as “Golden Opportunities,” and how could any caring Silicon Valley tech mogul deny their loved ones such a thing?
Fortunately, if Golden Opportunities aren’t your thing and you prefer to experience the best Levi’s has to offer from the comfort of your seat, then the Levi’s app has a place for you, too. You can order anything from merchandise to food and beverage, to be delivered directly to your seat. A $10 cup of cheap light beer delivered directly to my seat, for a low service charge of $5 plus tip—how can I lose? All of this is at our finger tips with a credit card, or Visa Checkout®.
The jumbotrons are also uniquely geared toward serving the fans. The NBC Bay Area news team even offers “Special Reports,” informing fans about how Microsoft Surface® tablets have revolutionized football, and the importance of only buying officially licensed NFL® apparel. Aren’t you glad we have a fair and objective news media speaking truth to power and watching out for our best interests?
The stadium had its downsides, of course. For example, the way it’s constructed, the side of the stadium containing the vast majority of the seats is located under direct sunlight, while the large wall of luxury boxes and a comparably small number of regular seats is in constant shade. A total oversight, I’m sure. And, I’m not sure if they ever figured out how to lay down sod that doesn’t trip up the players and go flying across the field, but that’s a relatively trivial matter.
In sum, I thought Levi’s Stadium was one of the gorgeous shopping malls I’d ever seen. I’m told there was a football game being played somewhere on the premises, but none of the 40,000 or so in attendance seemed to notice. The fans reacted to half-hearted rallying attempts with ambivalence, including the quietest goal-line stand I’d ever heard of. The amenities were there, but that feeling of camaraderie between the fan and the team just wasn’t there. I suppose that’s what happens when you price the die-hard season ticket holders out of the market, cater more to commercialism than football, and no longer care about winning champions after winning your stadium battle.
I suppose there might be a lesson somewhere in there for San Diegans who think building Dean Spanos a new stadium will cure all of the Chargers’ ills.
Ryan T. Darby practices free-speech law in San Diego and sports his vintage Steve Young jersey on game days.