Much-maligned field at Levi’s Stadium gets Super Bowl makeover

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.|

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.

The beauty of the new system is that sod doesn’t need time to take root. You lay it down, and it’s ready to withstand punishment that day.

Dunn said West Coast Turf has grown grass over plastic before, but only when it wanted an extremely quick turnaround. This time the company planted its Super Bowl Bermuda in February 2015 and has been painstakingly nurturing it ever since, allowing the root system to proliferate for about a year.

“We adapted our facilities,” Dunn said. “We took a space that was a quarter-mile, half-mile long, and we created essentially three large football fields, pitched or crowned in the middle with surface drainage. Literally, myself or my farm manager has been on the grass seven days a week since we put it in, even on holidays.”

And of course the NFL has been involved. Highly involved. The 32 teams are responsible for maintaining their own fields in 31 stadiums (with the Jets and Giants sharing the Meadowlands). When it comes to the Super Bowl, the league takes command.

Mangan said the NFL began consulting with the 49ers from the moment Levi’s was announced as the Super Bowl 50 venue in May 2013, and has been in regular contact ever since.

“We’re already looking at Houston’s field for next year, and Minnesota the year after that,” Mangan said.

The NFL turf operation is predictably massive. Mangan, who also handles the field for the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field, assembled a team of 30 to get the grass ready for Super Bowl 50, working with a six-person 49ers crew. He brought three tractor-trailers full of equipment with him.

The 49ers ripped out the old sod on Jan. 4 and installed the new between Jan. 11 and12. It went down in 42-inch-wide strips, which were squeezed to 41 inches to create a tight surface. That process also has been altered by the new Bermuda.

“The install of this type of grass is awesome,” Dunn said. “It goes in, and we have new equipment to make the seams almost disappear. The seams are no longer the weak point. … The way we grow it, it’s much less flexible. There’s really no way for sand or soil to slough off. The guys in the field say the edge looks like they cut a piece of cheese, it’s so uniform.”

The surface has to be durable, and not just to ensure an even playing field on Sunday. Before then, Levi’s Stadium will have seen numerous rehearsals of the pregame and halftime entertainment.

“Really, the challenging aspect is the rehearsals,” Dunn said. “You’ve got 500 people pushing halftime (sets) on the field, and I think over 700 people in the show. It happens time and time again this week. That’s immensely demanding.”

And it isn’t just Levi’s Stadium that is getting the NFL’s attention. The league oversees a total of six practice fields at Stanford University and San Jose State.

One crisis seems to have been averted, though. All along, the NFL’s greatest concern when it came to the playing surface was the weather. Even the best field will retain water if it’s raining too hard, and this has been a delightfully wet winter. So Mangan and his staff have been obsessively checking weather websites, consulting with local meteorologists and gathering information from the rudimentary weather station within Levi’s Stadium.

Now, it looks like everything will stay dry until kickoff. The forecast for game day is 73 degrees and sunny.

What would a perfect Super Sunday be like for Ed Mangan?

“When they’re not talking about the field,” he said. “If (the players) are able to do their job safely and efficiently, we’ve done our job.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.