The College Football Playoff National Championship is at the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Among the many reservations college fans have had about putting the game there is that NFL teams have repeatedly had problems with the playing surface.
The natural-grass field at Levi’s Stadium has made lots of bad headlines.
When the stadium opened in 2014, it got re-sodded after a week, because field conditions weren’t up to snuff during the preseason.
In 2015, the Ravens’ Justin Tucker missed a field goal when his plant foot sank deep into the turf.
In November 2018, there was lots of slippage during a Niners-Giants game.
In December 2018, Pete Carroll said “there were guys slipping all over the place and you could see guys in pass protection, you could see guys on field-goal protection sticking their cleats in the ground and it was moving.” The Seahawks coach called the field “lousy.”
There is no empirical way to measure which NFL fields are good and which are bad. Anecdotally, the field here does get complained about a lot. Next to Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, it might get the most frequent public complaints of any NFL playing surface.
“Admittedly, in our first year, we had some field problems,” Jim Mercurio, the 49ers’ vice president and general for stadium operations, told SB Nation. “It had to do with the base of the field. That has since been corrected, but every time there’s a little glitch or a little something, somebody wants to harken back to what somebody else said or experienced.”
Part of the answer for the Championship: installing a brand-new field.
For about 14 months, the grass field for the title game grew on a farm operated by West Coast Turf, whom the 49ers contract for their playing surfaces. The sod grew atop a sheet of plastic, which is designed to give the field a firmer foundation than regular grass.
“When it goes down through 3, 3 and a half inches of dirt and hits that plastic,” Mercurio said, “it forces the root system to kind of go up in itself, creating a much more solid base for when you wanna take it and harvest it and put it down in situations where you’ve got a quick turnaround, for example, so that stuff is safe and the field plays well.”
Michigan State and Oregon played the Redbox Bowl at Levi’s on New Year’s Eve. That night, the 49ers’ grounds crew and a few companies it works with tore out the turf that had been on field. The same night, they laid down 85,000 square feet of new sod — 28 truckloads at about 20 rolls per truck, or 560 rolls of sod in total. The final paint touches were being put on the field by Friday, 72ish hours before Bama-Clemson kickoff.
Turnover finished! Less than 24 hrs after the @RedboxBowl @LevisStadium is ready with a fresh new field for the @CFBPlayoff National Championship game in 1 week! Our crews rock pic.twitter.com/Kgrvz99OA7— West Coast Turf (@WestCoastTurf) January 2, 2019
The crew put down 85,000 square feet, about a full field, of new grass last spring. They replaced all of it in October, then about 12,000 before the Pac-12 Championship Game in early December and another 22,000 after that. For the Championship, it’s another full swap.
Replacing the entire field isn’t uncommon. The Rose Bowl’s been doing it once or twice a year forever.
A new Levi’s field is not guaranteed to resolve everything.
They put in a new field before the February 2016 Super Bowl, and members of the Panthers and Broncos still weren’t satisfied. The field installation process for this game wasn’t drastically different than it is any time Levi’s Stadium gets a new field.
“Installing a football field for the championship game is no different than what you would do for a pro football game, using the sod that we’re using,” Mercurio said.
One point Mercurio makes: When it’s grass, and it’s outside, things can happen. The 49ers believe in their grounds crew.
“What you’ve gotta realize is this is grass, and weather conditions change field conditions,” he said. “If there’s gonna be rain or morning dew on a morning game, your grass may have a little slipperiness in it. Or if you tarp for a long, extended period of time, when you pull those off, you wanna do everything you can to get as much air to this living, breathing grass. So for somebody to think that there’s never going to be slips or falls on a sod surface or a natural turf, then you’re really not being fair to the elements, I think. Right? With all due respect to that, these guys have done a great job.”
So, yeah, there could be slippage in the Championship. But there also might not be, and if there is, it might be impossible to figure out why.
Possible sources of slippage abound: the turf, the weather, someone’s shoes, some cut by Travis Etienne or Jerry Jeudy, or a combination of all of those.
It might not come up at all, or it could be one of the game’s big subplots. The hope is that having a new field will make one of those a less likely factor.