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Have modern stadiums taken the game away from the fans

I worry about the same thing happening with the new Rider stadium

The first 49ers game I ever went to was against the Chicago Bears at Kezar Stadium. My dad took me. It was a December afternoon in 1967, and I was 14 years old. Kezar was a faded old bowl plunked down in the middle of the working-class Inner Sunset. Scary-looking brick Polytechnic High School was across from it, along with some houses whose roofs afforded a free view of the gridiron—a veritable West Coast Wrigley Field. Golden Gate Park, filled with still-mysterious creatures called hippies, lay just beyond the foliage of Kezar Drive.

My memory of that day is so old that it resembles an ancient newsreel, flickering and spotty. I vaguely remember that Kezar had narrow wooden bench seating, that the stadium’s paint was peeling off, and that the field seemed a long way away. I can see seagulls circling overhead and hear 60,000 people cheering, a sound the exact pitch of which I’ve never encountered again. My only distinct memory is of the Bears’ Gale Sayers returning a punt for a touchdown, the instant when he cut back against the Niners’ defense an imperishable fragment of violent athletic perfection.

In 1971, the Niners departed decrepit Kezar for sleek, modern Candlestick Park, which they shared with the San Francisco Giants. When Candlestick opened in 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon threw out the first ball and said, “This will be one of the most beautiful baseball parks of all time.” Nixon’s prediction did not prove accurate, but the first time I saw the ’Stick, I would have agreed with him wholeheartedly. I was awed by the steep concrete bowl and the otherworldly escalator that climbed into the sky, the sea of orange seats, and, most of all, the big field, a green universe between chalk lines where epic deeds were going to be performed.

Over the years, I gathered indelible memories of the 49ers at Candlestick Park. Jerry Rice soaring into the air in the north end zone to break Jim Brown’s all-time touchdown record. Joe Montana scanning the field. Steve Young outrunning defensive backs. A young girl sitting next to me crying with happiness when Alex Smith fired the winning bullet to Vernon Davis in the 2012 NFC divisional playoff, after which Davis himself wept. And, during the last 49ers game ever played at the ’Stick, on December 23 of last year, in an ending too implausible to script, NaVorro Bowman returning an interception the length of the field and launching himself deliriously over the goal line to win the game.

The 49ers will produce more lasting memories. But they won’t produce them in San Francisco. This September, the San Francisco 49ers, the team I have been faithfully rooting for since that hazy day in ’67, will start playing their games at their new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Candlestick Park will be detonated in early 2015, joining the original Kezar Stadium in the trash can of history. An era that began in 1946, with the 49ers’ very first game at Kezar as part of the now-defunct All-America Football Conference, has come to an end. For the first time since Tony Morabito, who ran a lumber-carrying business in his native city, launched the 49ers in front of a crowd of longshoremen, factory workers, and draymen, San Francisco does not have a professional football team that plays in the city. This feels strange and wrong.
 
The simple truth is that, unless you’re a well-off resident of Santa Clara, San Mateo, or Santa Cruz County, or you passionately hated Candlestick (a not-so-small minority, even among San Francisco sports diehards), this move is a tough pill to swallow. The new stadium is priced for plutocrats, it is soul-shrivelingly corporate, and, of course, it is 40 exhaust-choked miles from San Francisco. But an equally simple truth is that for most of us fans, none of that necessarily matters. Because none of it is going to derail our love affair with the 49ers.
The dirty little secret about being a fan is that you’ll put up with anything. There’s pretty much nothing the team can do to permanently alienate you. The 49ers can hire Joe Thomas as general manager and Dennis Erickson as coach. They can start Jim Druckenmiller at quarterback. They can go 2–14. They can draft A.J. Jenkins. They can sign washed-up O.J. Simpson and insufferable Deion Sanders. And yes, they can leave town and build a $1.3 billion new stadium an hour away and frisk their loyal fans for thousands of dollars just for the right to spend even more on their season tickets (the dreaded seat license arrangement, more on which later), and we’re still going to watch them every Sunday. Because the 49ers are not their owners, not their front office, and not their stadium. They’re a Platonic concept, an unchanging, constantly changing entity made up of all the teams that have run onto the field over the years. And those of us who have drunk the red-and-gold Kool-Aid are not about to let the financial maneuverings of some suits deprive us of one of our favorite things in life.
For me, the move is mostly moot because, like a vast majority of fans, I usually watch the 49ers on TV. I’m as committed a fan as they come: I’ve only missed a handful of games in 35 years, the words “Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson” induce PTSD-like symptoms, and I’m still brooding about that phantom pass interference call on Eric Wright. But I’ve only been to about a dozen 49ers games in my life. The tickets were always too expensive (ah, I did not then know the meaning of the word), and I’m happy enough screaming at the set at home. So on a practical level, it doesn’t really make that much difference to me whether the 49ers play at Candlestick Point or at the bottom of the bay in Santa Clara. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I’m not going to be at either place.

And then there’s the other reason not to hold a grudge about being jilted: The new stadium is way, way, way better than the old one—and that’s accounting for the traffic jams and concession glitches that bedeviled the park at its grand opening last month. (The 49ers say that the problems will be addressed.) I went on a media tour of Levi’s Stadium this summer, then followed that up by joining a goodbye tour of Candlestick, so the comparison is fresh in my mind. And I can attest that Levi’s is to Candlestick as a shiny new maroon Bentley convertible with a chauffeur, a 42-inch HD TV, a Rogue RA:1K stereo, and a wet bar stocked with Château d’Yquem is to a yellow 1962 Volkswagen bug with a rusty body, torn vinyl, three empty Bud cans under the front seat, an engine that gets vapor lock after an hour on the freeway, and a worthless yet bust-inviting roach in the ashtray.

The most dramatic and obvious difference between the two stadiums is in the concourses. Candlestick’s public walkways were one step up from the Black Hole of Calcutta. Negotiating that narrow concrete passageway with a tray full of beers as a wall-to-wall phalanx of drunken yahoos bore down on you would have taxed even the lateral-movement abilities of Gale Sayers himself. Levi’s concourses, on the other hand, are like the fashion ethos of the 1970s blue jean: They’re wide. They stretch on and on. They allow even the most unsteady fan to wobble to his or her seat without colliding with half of the population of Los Gatos on the way. 

Then there are the bathrooms. Candlestick appears to have been designed by one of those Werner Erhard–like behavior-modifying sadists for whom going to the bathroom indicates weakness of will. When the secret history of the ’Stick is written, its longest chapter will be about the legions of fans who missed epic moments while waiting to relieve themselves. Levi’s, on the other hand, will have 28 percent more plumbing fixtures than Candlestick and 250 more toilets. The only people complaining about this are catheter salesmen.
The contrast between the locker rooms is even starker. The old 49ers’ clubhouses at the ’Stick were ridiculously cramped, with Montana and Rice squeezed into a little space at the top of some absurdly placed stairs. The locker room below had only eight showers. The dingy, smelly tunnel that led out to the field was so low that current 49ers guard Alex Boone, who is 6 foot 8, had to duck his head when running down it. At Levi’s, the 49ers’ locker room is like a temple for oversize gladiators, with genuine walnut finishes on the 10-foot-tall lockers, high ceilings, and big TVs lining the walls. Even the visitors’ locker room (which, per hallowed, this-is-our-house custom, is much less opulent and spacious than the home locker room) is far nicer than the 49ers’ lockers at the ’Stick.

Then there are the bells and whistles. Candlestick, not to put too fine a point on it, didn’t have any. Its one attempt at being state-of-the-art, a radiant heating system, failed to work, prompting a famous lawsuit by flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli, who wore a parka into the courtroom to demonstrate how cold his box was. Levi’s, as you might guess, is wired up the wazoo. The two 200-by-48-foot scoreboards at Levi’s are the largest of their kind in any outdoor NFL stadium, and almost 10 and a half times (!) bigger than the scoreboard at Candlestick. As befits its location in the heart of Silicon Valley, the stadium has 40 times more broadband capability than any other ball field in the country. You can push a button on your Samsung Galaxy S5 and a gigantic genie will appear, bearing in his brawny arms a perfumed houri whose veiled charms are redolent of the dusky east. OK, that app is still in beta, but you can order a beer at a concession stand with your phone and pick it up without waiting, or have your food delivered to your seat. If you order at the stands, the wait shouldn’t be too bad: There’s one cash register for every 185 fans, two-thirds more than the ratio at the ’Stick. And the food will be better, too, with dishes like Rajasthani lamb curry and Niman Ranch pulled pork sandwiches with apple-jalapeño coleslaw and homemade barbecue sauce, which can be washed down with 40 different beers.

Another striking difference between Levi’s and Candlestick is the extent of the private spaces. Candlestick was built long before teams had hit upon the idea of turning over the most desirable seats in the stadium to corporate clients who would pay big bucks to sit in glassed-in luxury suites and private warrens. The new stadium’s corporate clubs are vast and opulent, and there are also 9,000 club seats and 176 luxury suites (the ’Stick had 94). The crowning privatized glory is the rooftop, whose panoramic views of the South Bay and access to a beautiful green roof, luxuriant with vegetation, are sure to dazzle the VIPs and other paying guests who are allowed entry. As our gaggle of media serfs walked for the fi rst and probably last time through one of the corporate clubs, past a custom wine refrigerator fi lled with high-end cabs and pinots, it struck me that this space was so mega-expensive that it made the $325 seats nearby seem downright democratic. The opera feels egalitarian by comparison. If you’re a techno-libertarian who ascribes to a corporationsare- people philosophy, you may find this encouraging. If you’re not, then all that gleaming corporate space may strike you as a tad creepy. But it’s a big part of how a modern, $1.3 billion stadium gets paid for. 

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