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Are You Looking Forward To That "New-Stadium-Smell"?

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After closing out the 49ers old haunt at Candlestick Park, the San Jose Earthquakes christened the field at Levi's stadium - a 1-0 victory over the MLS West leading Seattle Sounders. Nerdy Gales reviews the fan experience, defines "New-Stadium-Smell" and, with only five more games at Buck Shaw, looks forward to the Earthquakes new home next season. What can we all learn from the Levi's Stadium experience?

Levi's Stadium set up for real football. August 2nd, 2014.
Levi's Stadium set up for real football. August 2nd, 2014.
Joe Nuxoll | Center Line Soccer

There was a wonderful symmetry to the San Jose Earthquakes closing the old 49ers stadium and opening the new.  Within a week, sports fans bade farewell to Candlestick Park, with its faded red seats, slimy concrete and bitter wind, and welcomed the era of Levi's Stadium with its bright red seats and new-stadium-smell: an interesting mélange of new car smell, a hint of freshly painted house and a top note reminiscent of a crisp $100 bill.

The match itself took place on the fifth anniversary of Chris Wondolowski's first goal for the San Jose Earthquakes; Wondo paid it forward this game with an assist for Yannick ‘Djá' Djaló's goal to give the Quakes a 1-0 victory.  Obafemi Martens fell down a lot, Clint Dempsey complained a lot, and the Quakes looked to start a much more successful second half of the season as they close out their tenancy of Buck Shaw Stadium.

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Back to Levi's Stadium - or The Field of Jeans - the fans in attendance will forever remember how pristine the white edifice appeared before the first beer was spilled (section 223 - just before kickoff; you know who you are), the first cheese nachos dropped (section 108 - inadvertent, just after the Djaló goal), the first cookie crumbs were trodden into the carpet of the press box - yes people, there was CARPET in the Press Box where four star reviews of the half time peach cobbler were written. Peach. Frickin'. Cobbler.  The pristine playing surface was scuffed before the game when the ball was parachuted in, and the jumper landed heels first on the pitch, throwing up clods of grass - Levi's Stadium was well and truly broken in.

The Earthquakes are now set to play a rivalry game there each season for the next five years, so given their experience on August 2nd, why would the fans want to continue to come to Levi's Stadium?  And what can the Earthquakes front office learn from this great experiment with their fans? The fans thoughts are just in - bravo to the fans for sharing their thoughts on the Center Line Soccer Facebook page.

The stadium facilities.

From the outside, Levi's Stadium is a skeleton of white steel and glass, designed to seat 70,000 of the 49ers faithful on red plastic (for less than $20,000 per seat license) or embossed read leather ($20,000 - $80,000).  The Earthquakes Stadium (To Be Named Later) will seat about a quarter the number of fans (18,000) in blue seats situated much closer to the field, and with the open end of the stadium facing San Jose airport.

Levi's Stadium cost twenty times as much to build, but only caters to four times the number of fans.  It's those seat licenses and the premium ticket prices that will more than balance the new 49ers stadium's budget.  Each stadium has been designed to serve different markets and different leagues, and their price tags are a direct reflection of the difference in financial resources available to MLS and the NFL.

Earthquakes fan Philip Luna wondered where all the money was spent: "Levi's stadium was not billions of dollars outstanding... where did all the money go? My best guess is into the locker rooms and suites.  Just because it's new doesn't make it an amazing stadium".  So, the stadium's appearance earned a solid ‘meh' rating from Phil.  Meanwhile, many women were impressed by the lack of the usual lines in their bathrooms, while the toilets themselves were perhaps a little too efficient, when they started to flush continually.  The biggest complaint about the bathrooms was a lack of baby changing facilities - hopefully a feature not to be overlooked for the family friendly Earthquakes Stadium.

Down on the field, the Center Line Soccer photographers basked in the awesome stadium lighting, and all hope to see the brightness replicated at Buck Shaw II.  In this particular game, the green and red uniforms were not conducive to accurate white balance in the post processing; the blue and black kit would be much more preferable for the Levi's Stadium games.  Meanwhile, up in the Press Box (eight floors up), the facilities were luxurious.  "Watching the game. Seats were comfortable with nice amount of leg room. Great match." said Center Line's Lisa Erickson.

So what the Earthquakes can learn about building a stadium?  The basic design of the Earthquakes Stadium is long completed, and rising up on Coleman Avenue.  In contrast to the higher, longer and wider Levi's structure, which pushes upper seats further from the field, the Earthquakes stadium design has seats with unobstructed views that are much closer to the field.  No seat licenses and cheaper seat prices for the Earthquakes aimed at the soccer market.

It was a lack of some finishing touches at Levi's Stadium that left  a lasting impression on the fans.  There was no clear signage inside and outside of the stadium, and reported to be poor to missing in the upper decks.  When all of the visiting fans are new to the facility, as they were for the Seattle game, clear signs and informed staff would have expedited the pedestrian flow.

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Stadium access:

Heavy traffic had been anticipated, even with a ticketed crowd of 45,000 (compared to 70,000 for an NFL game).  CLS received many negative comments about access into and out of Levi's Stadium - mostly along the lines of: "Great stadium, but the logistics sucked."  The staff received plenty of praise for their courtesy, but perhaps not surprisingly, they appeared confused by a lack of information.  Again, with no accurate directions to enter the stadium, there were long lines at the Intel Gate, while other entrances a few yards away over the footbridges had lines shorter than Buck Shaw: "no [staff] really knew how to get anywhere" said one fan.

The crush to enter the stadium was exacerbated by the placement of the staff close to the stadium.  If a few staff had been placed earlier in the pedestrian stream, perhaps in the parking lots to give directions or answer questions, then the pedestrian congestion would be reduced.  What about the street traffic? Despite early route plans communicated to season ticket holders, there were unanticipated and poorly signed street closures that added to the congestion entering and exiting the stadium vicinity.

While VTA did a great job transporting fans from Mountain View to Levi's Stadium, the nightmare began after the game, with all the fans spilling out the stadium at once.  Reports of two-hour waits were common, and one traveler arrived back in Burlingame at 1:20 AM - more than three hours after the games end.  The thousands of fans winding their way back to the out-lying parking lots, brought traffic to a stand still in both directions on Great American Parkway, with slow access to either US101 or US237 - consequently the freeways themselves were clear.

The fan parking was widely spread around Levi's stadium, "We had a fun experience tailgating in the lot, and someone even brought a foosball table!"  Part of the pedestrian route from Red Lot 3 made for a tricky negotiation to the stadium.   We already knew that the Earthquakes game was part of a great experiment to test the stadium facilities, but the circuitous route back to our cars made fans feel like white laboratory mice in a maze looking for an elusive piece of cheese.

What's the answer for Buck Shaw II?  If Caltrain is to be a viable option, especially for SF fans, then easy access to and from Santa Clara will be key.  The parking at Earthquakes Stadium is closer in, and hopefully contains enough spaces that could be augmented by space at the surrounding with local businesses along Coleman Ave - all closer than at Levi's Stadium.

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Stadium Concessions.

Much has been made of the luxurious edible fare at Levi's though some of the tastier items will only be available to the wealthiest fans.  In the dry run at Levi's it was literally that - dry.  There were many reports of long lines, and insufficient supply with many items running out by half time.

While there might be a huge variety of food options, the chief complaint came down to service: and remember this was a 90-minute soccer game, rather than a three-hour football game.  Soccer fans have much less time at their disposal during the game compared to throwball/football fans.  Abraham Rodruiguez went to get food at the 60th minute and got back to his seat in the 85th. "I will go to Levis again but never buy food there again".  Apparently the main bottleneck was staff who couldn't put food out fast enough.  But even more egregious, many of the staff were unable to pour a decent beer (if there was any beer left).  "I had to teach the server how to pour beer after the guy in front of him raged and stormed away at getting a $10 IPA that was over half foam".

So, what can the Quakes organization learn about stadium concessions in a large venue? The world's longest outdoor bar will only work if you have the world's largest collection of experienced bartenders to staff it.  (Note to self: what is the collective noun for bartenders?  A jigger of bartenders?  I digress).  Serve enough beer quickly enough that the spectators don't miss most of the game. And please, please, please don't run out.

Another comment by Phil Luna concerned the big screens while waiting in the bar line: "they caught my eye from outside and they were amazing.  While I waited for those twenty minutes, I could only watch the TVs, which were delayed fifteen seconds.  So, you could hear the crowd, but not understand what was going on." A simple solution would be to use the the live feed rather then the network broadcasts.

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The Fans.

For the most part the Earthquakes Quakes fans were as cheerful as ever - you haven't lasted seven years on the bleachers at Buck Shaw stadium without a sense of humor.  That humor was quickly dissipated for many season ticket holders when they found the locations of the seats they were allocated in Levi's stadium.

Here, in their opinion, the Earthquakes front office dropped the soccer ball in the care and feeding of their faithful fans. "When you've held 8th row seats on the center line since the Quakes returned in 2008, you were disappointed with second deck seating in the corner of Levi's Stadium". "We couldn't see who was coming on and off, who was making the plays or feel as involved in the game as we usually do.  I go to the game to watch every second the closeness of Buck Shaw makes me feel like a part of the team."

Furthermore, it appeared that 49er fans snagged the best seats; many of them didn't show, or left early - these were patrons there to see the stadium versus fans there to see the soccer game. There's not much the Earthquakes FO could do about that, but keeping their current season ticket holders happy will help fill the Earthquakes new stadium - "Why weren't all STH's given lower bowl seats?? We support the Quakes, how come they don't support us?".  Most Quakes fans didn't even get a win pin after the game.

Another bone of contention, and something that the Earthquakes can do something about:, was that the supporters' groups were restricted: no flags, no paint banners, no drums, all of which "killed the culture and traditions of the World's Most Popular sport in this planet!!!."  Most fans did not agree with the policy and they hoped that the FO would evaluate this issue in time for next year's game at Levi's Stadium.  The proximity of the different supporters' groups in the same section also did not sit well:  "Supporters groups NOT sitting next to each other would be a great thing to solve in the new Quakes stadium".  "I shudder at the thought of the supporters groups being one behind the other next season...Anything you can do to convince the FO to come up with a new/creative solution for next season would be welcome!".

To conclude: "The bigger question is will these complaints be heard or ignored?" The Earthquakes can consider how they might improve the fan experience for next year.  There will be a full season of NFL under their belts, so some of the logistics will be ironed out.  As far as the soccer experience at Levi's, "the decision to play this game at Levi's without advocating for your own fans was a poor decision." and that can be improved on by the Earthquakes FO "maybe the Earthquakes FO can educate the 49ers on how to host a soccer game?"

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So, the fans' wish list for the new Earthquakes stadium can be summarized:

  • Levi's Stadium operations are not yet efficient enough for soccer, though most problems should be ironed out during the football season, and in time for next year's Earthquakes game.
  • Good public transport alternatives for the games are key to alleviating traffic and parking congestion.
  • Clear signage to get to the stadium, and once inside to find your seat and facilties in the stadium.
  • Friendly and knowledgeable staff who understand the layout and operations of the stadium; friendliness was accomplished and appreciated by the fans at the Levi's Stadium game.
  • Family friendly rest rooms - no lines, and changing tables.
  • Feed and water the fans in a timely manner, keep enough food and drink supplied in time for kickoff and at half time.
  • Supporters' Groups - their locations have already been established in the end zone; drums and banners all add to the soccer atmosphere.
  • Season Ticket Holder Appreciation - perhaps next year they can be allocated better seats for the Levi's game.
  • Bigger, brighter stadium lighting for the photographers - Quakes In Blue.
  • And finally, for the denizens of the new Earthquakes Stadium Press Box, some peach frickin' cobbler.