Much-maligned field at Levi’s Stadium gets Super Bowl makeover
SANTA CLARA - We’re in the midst of a lopsided battle, downtrodden underdog versus mighty favorite. And if you scan the 10-day forecast, you’ll see we may be in for a major upset. The field at Levi’s Stadium just might stand up to El Niño.
The grass surface at the 49ers’ home stadium has been criticized, scrutinized and analyzed as much as any horizontal surface in sports. Frequently, it has been found wanting. Some have called it dangerous. But thanks to a groundbreaking - if you can pardon the expression - growing method pioneered by the NFL and its contractors, Super Bowl 50 could go down as Levi’s greenest hour.
“It looks spectacular, and it is spectacular,” NFL field director Ed Mangan said last week as he allowed media members a glimpse of the field. “And with this week of weather, it’s turned out very well.”
It has rained a couple times since then, but the volume was modest. And the weather websites are now predicting dry skies through Sunday, when the Denver Broncos will take on the Carolina Panthers for the NFL championship.
The outlook wasn’t always so rosy for this field.
Levi’s was beset by turf problems from the outset. In the first game ever played in the stadium, a preseason tilt against the Broncos on Aug. 17, 2014, players slipped and chunks of sod came loose. Three days later, then-coach Jim Harbaugh cut short a public practice at the stadium, fearing one of his athletes would be injured.
The 49ers replaced the field twice in rapid succession that season, and did so again last August and September after more slippage occurred during training camp.
Yes, the NFL took notice.
“Well, obviously, it was concerning to the NFL just as it was concerning to the 49ers, being in a brand-new stadium,” Mangan said.
The issues got huge traction in the media and certainly were an embarrassment for the 49ers, but no one in the organization ever seemed to want to talk about it much. Greg Dunn would have loved to talk about it, but he knew he couldn’t do so without losing one of his biggest and oldest clients.
Dunn manages the Northern California operation of West Coast Turf, the company that has supplied the 49ers with grass fields for the past 33 years. As the Levi’s field was ripped to shreds - both literally and in the press - West Coast Turf became the butt of jokes. But the problem was never the sod, Dunn told The Press Democrat on Tuesday. It was the “root zone,” combined with the heavy foot traffic of a multi-use venue.
The NFL seemed to confirm the idea on a previous Super Bowl tour of the stadium, when veteran landscaping guru George Toma told KQED: “The sand was more like scrabble, so it never firmed up. You can see the sand now; you can drive over it with all these tractors. The earlier problems were because the roots had the wrong sand.”
The other issue was overuse. Levi’s isn’t just the home of the 49ers. It has hosted soccer matches, professional wrestling events, high school football games and numerous concerts.
“When you have a concert, the dynamics are totally different than a sport,” Dunn said. “You’re actually covering a field. You’re taking away irrigation and sunlight. The field looks like you put a piece of plywood on your yard for eight to 10 days, and you were driving across it 100 times in your car.”
Dunn admits that it was a difficult period for West Coast Turf, a company that has now grown fields for eight Super Bowls. It’s one of the biggest producers in the business, having supplied grass for almost every natural-?turf professional stadium in California and Arizona, as well as many colleges and golf courses. And now it was taking heavy fire.
But Dunn and the 49ers believe the problems are behind them. There were a few turf-related headlines during the 2015 season, such as when Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker slipped while attempting a field goal. Dunn, the NFL and even many of the 49ers players have insisted those were isolated incidents.
The improvement came with a change of greenery. The 49ers ditched the Bandera Bermuda grass they had installed when Levi’s Stadium opened and went with a strain called 419 Bermuda (both grown at West Coast Turf), overseeding it with ryegrass to give it some winter color.
But it wasn’t the type of grass that changed the game as much as the process of growing it. Traditionally, sod is grown with roots that reach down into the soil. You cut the roots when you harvest the grass. Over the past few years, the NFL has been asking its Super Bowl suppliers instead to grow the turf over a semipermeable plastic membrane. Instead of extending into the earth, the roots clump together to form a tight weave.