49ers sparkling new Levi's Stadium sees field fail, new grass goes in
SANTA CLARA -- When the 49ers were getting ready to open their $1.3 billion stadium, coach Jim Harbaugh compared the team's new field to the fairways at the famed golf course where the Masters tournament is played. The team and its partners billed the new grass as a super-resistant strain capable of withstanding the pounding of 300-pound linemen, saying divots would be "virtually nonexistent."
Among the unanswered questions: How the team will sod the field for its primetime regular-season opener on Sept. 14 against the Chicago Bears, whether the stadium's sand base contributed to the issues, and if the public Santa Clara Stadium Authority will be on the hook for the costs.
Grounds crews tried to patch some of the divots on Tuesday, filling in holes with 1-by-3-foot pieces of sod before the practice. Then on Wednesday, the third and final free Levi's Stadium practice was called off after 45 minutes when wide receivers Stevie Johnson and Bruce Ellington and several other players slipped and produced new divots, creating injury scares for players with multimillion-dollar contracts.
Fans took notice, too.
"Once we sat down in our seats, I kind of chuckled -- look at this great stadium, and the money spent, and look how crappy the field is," said Rick Randall, 48, of Manteca, who was at Wednesday's practice. "I was kind of expecting nice, green lush grass. It didn't look much better than Candlestick."
The team gave Wednesday's fans vouchers to the stadium museum and finished practice at its private training facility next door.
The conditions were in stark contrast to the portrait painted by officials when they installed the 2.5-acre field in April, by which time it had already been growing in the Central Valley for 18 months.
"You grab this grass and try to tear it -- it's tough stuff. It doesn't pull apart," Greg Dunn, a sales manager for turf grower West Coast Turf, said in April. "Divots should be almost non-existent in this stadium." The team's head groundskeeper, Matt Greiner, said at the time that the fast recovery rate was what prompted the team to choose the sod, called Bandera Bermuda.
Dunn said he was busy Thursday and referred calls to a colleague, who said the 49ers asked the firm not to comment.
The 49ers were set to become one of the first NFL teams to use the Bandera Bermuda strain for a full season, though the Oakland Raiders installed it after the A's season ended last year, and the Chargers have played on it. It's also used at one of the Stanford football practice fields, and in baseball at the San Diego Padres' Petco Park and Sacramento's minor-league baseball stadium.
The question now becomes whether the 49ers will be able to have the field ready for Sunday's preseason game, which the 49ers insist will be the case.
"It's kind of concerning that they spend $1.4 million on this field and it's already not good," said Allen Tang, 37, of Santa Clara, who was also at the practice. "To me it seems kind of hard to believe they can fix something so fast, but I'm not an expert on this."
Staff writer Cam Inman contributed to this report. Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.