Levi’s Stadium’s troubled turf Like a lot of people who move down here from the city, the San Francisco 49ers wanted to go big — McMansion Big — so with typical suburbanite-in-transition restraint, they built themselves a $1.3 billion house.
But they didn’t get the lawn right.
So on Sunday, when the 49ers kick off their second year at Levi’s Stadium with a preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys, instead of the scrutiny being focused entirely on new head coach Jim Tomsula or on quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s ability to read a defense, all eyes will be on the grass. Alas.
After 16 football games, one monster truck rally and last week’s two Taylor Swift concerts, Jim Mercurio, the 49ers’ beleaguered vice president of stadium operations, was having trouble keeping count of how often his grounds crew had fit the field for what amounted to a new toupee.
“Original, plus four resods. Right?” he asked another team official last week as workers rolled out yet another new field for the 2015 NFL season. “Total of five?”
Even the team conceded that it botched the initial installation of the field, and while a look around the NFL indicates no shortage of troubled turf, the 49ers appear to be replacing theirs more frequently than other stadiums.
There are nearly as many theories about what’s wrong with the 49ers’ field as there have been divots flying through the air since the team’s first game last season: from too many non-football events killing the grass to the turf not being properly prepared by the sodbusters who grow it. The team was so concerned that it started dispatching its own grounds crew to the Central Valley to better tend its turf.
“It’s never the grass’s fault,” said Henry Wilkinson, a renowned turf expert who has built the playing surfaces at Boston’s Fenway Park, Seattle’s Safeco Field and many other stadiums. “It’s the management.”
The 49ers acknowledge their eagerness to accommodate an ambitious schedule of no football events — all of which helps pay for the stadium — contributes to its frequent turf turnover. Yet even among the NFL’s other multiuse stadiums with natural turf, few allow as many events sure to beat up the playing surface.
The Tennessee Titans play in Nissan Stadium, which hosts the Country Music Awards every June, but the team usually does only one full resod per year. When the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Heinz Field was voted the worst playing surface in the NFL by players during the 2010 season, it was resodded twice. Last year, Soldier Field in Chicago, the home of the Bears, was resodded at least three times during the season — once after hosting an international rugby match.
Levi’s first field — installed at a cost of $1.4 million, using a Bermuda grass so state of the art that you couldn’t even find it growing in Bermuda — was considered such a hazard to Niners players that a public practice in front of 10,000 fans had to be halted during training camp last year. That grass was ripped out and replaced with a temporary fix. By the time that field was taken up and replaced with yet another acre and a half of pristine turf, news helicopters were hovering overhead to document the team’s futility.
That base was rebuilt with a new mixture that gave the field more structure, but every divot after that played into the storyline of a billion-dollar stadium with a two-bit field. “All of us felt like, ‘Oh, God, is this going to turn into Turfgate or Sodgate?’” Mercurio recalled.
The offseason didn’t improve matters. Two weeks ago, the Niners were forced to cancel another preseason practice — this one for 20,000 fans after more grass went airborne.
With the NFL ready to pull out all the stops for Super Bowl 50 — the league’s golden anniversary party, coming to Levi’s Stadium in February — the Niners are eager to prove that their new home isn’t cursed with a banana peel for a field.
Mercurio said the team is planning on performing at least six installations of fresh sod this year — Wilkinson estimates each one costs about $70,000 — probably only one of those during the NFL regular season. “It’s just lawn care on steroids,” Mercurio said.
And with that, he plopped two pieces of sod on a table in the stadium’s Brocade Club, like a decorator pulling out fabric swatches. One was from the field that workers were pulling up last week at that very moment, and the other was taken from sod just unloaded from flatbed trucks. Both were a strain dubbed Bandera Bermuda, and Mercurio would only say that the new field was not from the Niners’ original provider, West Coast Turf Farm, in Merced County.
The team now maintains more plots than a graveyard, and some of them continue to be grown at West Coast Turf, which declined to comment on the 49ers’ problems.
Mercurio didn’t say where the most recent batch of defective sod came from, but it lasted little more than a month, through two professional soccer games, a high-school football all-star game, the Swift concerts and a private event hosted by Cisco for 40,000 employees and friends. By the time the 49ers started practicing on it, the turf looked like the “before” picture in a Hair Club for Men commercial.
“What we started to see was that a cleat would tear the grass,” Mercurio said, “then scalp it off.”
This “scalping” didn’t seem to unsettle the 49ers players, who would only tacitly acknowledge it even existed.
“I don’t worry about it,” Kaepernick said at practice last week. “I’ve played on worse stuff than that growing up.”
Added safety Antoine Bethea: “As players, we just go with the flow. If we’re told to do something, that’s what we gotta do.”
The repeated failure of the 49ers’ grass raised another theory that NFL players have simply grown too big for natural turf to withstand the pounding. “When you get 300 pounds moving left to right, the ability to withstand the shear forces starts to push the limits of the numerous fragile components of a plant,” Wilkinson said. “The forces exerted on the turf plants are unbelievable.”
As one of those 300-pound loads, Niners offensive lineman Alex Boone thinks Levi’s Stadium has been unfairly singled out. “After you beat the crap out of a field, of course it’s going to be torn up,” he said. “It’s a field, it’s got white lines, and between those lines bad things happen. I don’t know why people outside the team are complaining about it. If we don’t have a problem, why do they mind?”
It was the very public failure of the team’s first field in its new home that made every new installation of sod appear to be part of an unrolling catastrophe. Mercurio believes the narrative of field failure was rooted there, and he points out that the first turf came apart because the 9-inch base of subsoil contained too much sand. “It was almost like putting a towel down at the beach and seeing the towel shift” when you stepped on it, he said. “That’s what it was doing to us on the field.”
When the grass began coming up again this month in training camp, the team met with consultants, studied sod samples, then concluded there was a problem with the stolons. Stolons are horizontal shoots of grass that live above the soil, between the roots and the blades of green stuff. Bermuda grass comes not from seeds, but stolons that are chopped up and spread like mulch.
Mercurio determined that the 49ers’ stolons were getting too “mature,” weakening the sod’s staying power. “That means that somebody wasn’t necessarily maintaining the field as much as we’d like at the sod farm,” he said. “That’s where we feel the failing was taking place in that particular plot. It wasn’t maintained, shall we say, to our standards.” So he began dispatching members of the stadium’s grounds crew to the sod farm to prune the grass through a method known as “verticutting.”
Wilkinson, who has never inspected Levi’s field, suspects the 49ers’ troubles are not over. “You don’t verticut before you harvest,” he said in a phone interview after hearing Mercurio’s diagnosis. “That makes it weak because you’re cutting its tensile strength. It’s stupid.”
He also was startled to learn that the team was still using West Coast Turf Farm as one of its growers. “Any time a customer tells a producer how to grow his grass,” Wilkinson said, “there’s something wrong with that. The fact that they’re still using the same grower tells me they’re not really upset with him.
“When people expect grass to do something it can’t do, or they don’t manage it properly, the grass is going to tell them in a heartbeat, ‘You screwed me over.’”