The College Football Playoff final will happen Monday in Santa Clara, California. The scene: The home of the San Francisco 49ers and site of several casually attended Pac-12 title games, Levi’s Stadium, a modern facility just a few miles from the headquarters of the most powerful tech companies in the world.
It has no friends, and everyone hates it. No one should feel bad about this, try to befriend it, or defend it.
Levi’s Stadium deserves to eat lunch by itself crying.
Getting there is bad.
Levi’s sits a full hour in traffic away from San Francisco, just at the southern point of the Bay that looks like the tapering business end of the lower intestine. The traffic is appropriately craptacular on a good day, and the parking around the stadium limited and expensive.
Playing there is bad.
This is mostly because of the cursed turf, a surface openly reviled by visiting teams.
In 2015, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker fell into a mini-sinkhole on a field goal attempt.
In 2016, after both the Broncos and Panthers struggled to find the right cleats for it during the Super Bowl, Denver cornerback Aqib Talib called it “terrible.”
Pete Carroll called it “lousy” last month, over four years after the stadium’s debut.
Watching football there is bad.
Atmosphere is non-existent, as the massive, Borg-like block of hermetically sealed luxury suites dominates one side of the stadium. In the afternoon, the glass fronts of the suites reflect sun into the cheap seats across the way.
When it isn’t a billion dollar microwave that slow-roasts half its patrons, Levi’s Stadium has all the character of a freshly built county prison.
For some reason, the National Championship will be played there. Why?
There are some solid guesses.
The Pac-12 title game venue is within leisurely driving distance of the Pac-12’s extremely expensive headquarters in downtown San Francisco. It’s reasonable to guess that conference commissioner Larry Scott’s lobbying — combined with the 49ers desperately trying to book events and offering a boatload of perks and incentives — landed the game.
In a rotation likely to be heavy on Southern/Eastern cities like Miami, Houston, New Orleans, and Atlanta, putting a title game in Pac-12 country seemed only seemed fair.
That only explains why the people in charge of the Playoff might have done it, not why a sane person concerned with actually putting on a good game might’ve.
There are two West Coast sites in the rotation up to 2025: Santa Clara in 2019 and Los Angeles in 2023. Los Angeles has a long, vibrant college football history, one of its top venues in the Rose Bowl, and it generally supports at least one of its teams. (USC. It’s mostly USC.) It’s hosted other big college football things before, and did so well.
Even with Stanford’s decade-long renaissance, the Bay Area doesn’t compare. The Pac-12 games in Levi’s have been wonderful places to hear what football sounds like once the pesky sounds of fans have been eliminated from the equation.
Six minutes until kickoff. A Rose Bowl berth on the line. pic.twitter.com/kE4Ps6itcm— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) December 1, 2018
It’s not a hotbed for the sport, so much so that during the mid-2000s when schools were jamming in seats to expand stadium capacity, Stanford downsized its stadium from 89,000 seats to 50,000. Cal did the same in 2010, eliminating almost 10,000 seats and reducing to a 63,000-seat stadium.
If locals won’t turn out to watch two teams from Alabama and South Carolina — and there is very little evidence to suggest they will — then that leaves fans to fly across the country and make this look something like an actual event.
After adding up flights that start around a thousand dollars apiece, hotels at a bare minimum of $150 a night, transportation, and food, a fan traveling to the game is looking at two grand easy ... before the ticket even enters the equation.
There is some good news: the ticket might end up being the cheapest part.
Prices have plunged as the game approaches, currently about a fourth of the previous year’s game in Atlanta between Alabama and Georgia. It might not even sell out, leaving a very real chance that someone could get into the game Monday night for face value.
The bad news: None of this will change the thinking of anyone in charge of college football, because no one is in charge of college football.
No one is really accountable for the quality of the Playoff. If no one’s accountable, then no one has to own up for the shitty surroundings. ESPN and the FBS conferences make their money regardless of the player and fan experience, and the committee’s job of matching up four teams was done a month earlier.
This happens for a couple of really stupid reasons.
The first: The waning but still disproportionate power of the Pac-12. For some reason or another, the nominal Power 5 conference gets big games on the West Coast despite winning only one Playoff game in the five years of the format, consistently racing the ACC to the bottom of the Power 5 in attendance, posting negligible television ratings in the regular season and conference championships, losing bowl games, and winning a grand total of three outright national titles in the last 50 years. (All held by USC.)
When asked why, Pac-12 commissioner Scott said:
“We do try to rotate this event,” said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who served on the College Football Playoff Site Selection committee. “Generally the West Coast location has some appeal.”
That’s true if we are talking about the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles.
It’s not true if we’re talking about Santa Clara or the Bay Area, where the Pac-12 for eleventeen EXTREMELY DISRUPTIVE reasons decided to put its network headquarters and offices. EXTREMELY DISRUPTIVE in this case should be heard with whooshing space sounds playing at the same time, and be interpreted as meaning “expensive for no reason besides the illusion of prestige.”
The second reason is worse: The people in charge of college football don’t really care and don’t have to pretend to care. When the time came to stage a title game for TV, they picked a nice spot for a corporate junket — we’ll go to wine country the weekend before! WINE COUNTRY! — but a terrible place for college football. They’ll have some of those patron-cooking skyboxes and shuttle service to the stadium and will blame fans for not showing up, if they have the energy to think about it at all.
They won’t have to think about how turning the National Championship into a minor league Super Bowl invites all of the sterile mediocrity of the NFL experience on purpose — by design, even. The idea, in the end, is to play a game in a biddable nowhere, accountable to neither community nor team, reminiscent of nothing and easily sold as ad space.
In that sense, Santa Clara is perfect.
It’s already a nowhere with nothing to remember it by, just unpleasant enough to make people want to forget anything they accidentally remembered.
College football already has a deep menu of impractical home and/or neutral site destinations. These are either small college towns short on capacity but long on personality — hello, Pullman and good morning, Starkville — or huge, usually warm sprawls. They’re all bad ideas in their own ways, but unlike bad idea Santa Clara, they’re distinctly college football bad ideas.
The game itself should be excellent, but even the Bay Area’s one asset, the weather, is cooperating with the plan to make the location as unmemorable as possible. It’s been in the low 50s and raining most of the week and will be around 55 degrees and overcast for kickoff Monday night.
In other words, it’s the perfect temperature for a Santa Clara football game: lukewarm.