Sunday, December 21, 2014

San Diego Chargers 38 at San Francisco 49ers 35 (OT) - December 20, 2014

One of the fun parts of being a member of Club 122 is keeping current with all the new stadiums that open on a regular basis. Every year, at least one franchise in the Big 4 sports leagues moves into a shiny new venue, necessitating a trip for myself. Though I am happy to revisit cities and add another venue to my list, local residents sometimes take an opposite stance. These new baubles often see a team shafting its fan base in two ways; using public financing to pay for part of the construction (while retaining all profits afterwards) and then jacking up ticket prices for the inaugural season, or charging fees for personal seat licenses.

There is scant evidence that having a sports team helps the community in any meaningful way, at least financially, as relatively few fans actually travel for sports on a regular basis (many that you see in visiting colours are actually transplants). Civic pride is extremely powerful though, and you will continue to see communities held for ransom as teams threaten to move elsewhere unless they get a new stadium deal. I try not to be cynical regarding the way in which billionaire owners fleece their fans; but after a visit to Levi's Stadium, it is harder than ever.

The stadium was built using a creative financing plan that resulted in no taxes to residents of Santa Clara, the town 50 miles south of San Francisco in which Levi's Stadium sits. Instead, hotel taxes (a despised revenue generation method by sports road trippers) and other methods of raising money were used, which allowed a bill to pass allowing for construction to begin in 2012. The result is a beautiful stadium that serves more as a vehicle for corporate sponsorship than athletic endeavours. The entrances are sponsored (Dignity Health Gate C for example), as are several different club zones, such as the Yahoo Sports Zone and the United Club. You can see the major sponsors atop the upper seating bowl in the picture below.

My biggest complaint is that all the good seats between the 30-yard lines in the lower levels are club seats, which means that they often sit half-empty during games as many corporate types seem disinterested in the product on the field. Speaking to some fans who were season-ticket holders in Candlestick, I learned that the atmosphere here was not nearly as frantic as that in the old place and it is possible that the 49ers will suffer as a result of a decreased home advantage.

Having said that, Levi's Stadium is a huge improvement over Candlestick Park. Public transit options are plentiful. I recommend coming in from the south using VTA bus #60 from Santa Clara, which avoids much of the traffic snarl that affects those coming from the city and is far less crowded than light rail after the game. At $4 round trip, it is a good deal and you will get a seat both ways.

The stadium is surrounded by a screening perimeter, which includes a pregame party with some sports bars selling Bud Light. Inside, access to the seating bowl is controlled via stairways and escalators from large open-air plazas (above). Concourses are wide, and the seating bowl is uniquely designed, with the west side of the stadium containing the SAP Tower, which includes two levels of seats (those in the darker red are in the club sections), three levels of suites, the Press Box, and a rooftop terrace. It is a unique part of the stadium and a smart design that resembles Ford Field in this aspect.

There are only 68,500 seats here; cynics might claim that less supply means higher prices. To be fair, with the suites only on one side of the field, the upper deck seats are not that bad; the shot below is from the highest point in the seating bowl at the top of section 401.

As you can see, there are no end zone seats on the 400 level. The first row of both the 300 and 400 levels has a railing, but I don't think that it would impact your view. The ideal seats are in the 200 level, which are still close to the field but offer the elevated view that allows you to see the formation and the development of the play below you.

Below are a few more shots from various angles. I really enjoy the way the red seats play off the green field, this is one of the most aesthetically pleasing venues around.

There are a number of sponsor booths along the concourse, including one for the San Jose Sharks, who will play here in February. The one place you'll want to visit is the 49ers Museum at the north end of the facility. Ticket holders are charged a nominal (ha!) fee of $15 to see the history of this proud franchise. I happened to see much of this for free at Candlestick last year, so I deferred my visit to spend more time wandering the concourses.

Food is ridiculously overpriced, steamed buns are $10 for example. I understand much of it is locally sourced, but if that's the case, why is it so costly? Obviously the Bay Area has more than its share of extremely wealthy individuals who don't mind throwing down $8.25 for a hot dog or $12 for a sandwich. I am not one of those people, so I cannot comment on how the food tastes. To be honest, I was kindly given a media credential by the 49ers, so I was able to enjoy the press box meal, which was quite good, as is some of the artwork on display there, such as this collection of Sports Illustrated covers featuring 49ers.

Sharpy was with me on the trip and picked up a club ticket on the secondary market for a very reasonable price, about 1/3 of face value according to those sitting near him. The seats here are padded and much more comfortable than those in the other sections. The club areas are swanky and offer some additional food items not found elsewhere. Note that even within the clubs, there are some areas where only the truly elite can enter. I generally avoid club areas, but recommend it here if you can find an affordable it as it opens up much more of the stadium to you. Below is one of the bars in the Yahoo Sports Zone.

Standing room tickets are the other recommendation ; they are the cheapest alternative at around $50 and you can stand at any drink rail to enjoy the game, keeping in mind that those in front of you might have paid four times as much for the pleasure of sitting down.

Overall, Levi's Stadium is a fitting addition to the world of professional sports venues; generally expensive, catering to a corporate crowd and mostly pricing out serious fans, but offering just enough options for those who don't mind sacrificing a bit of comfort to see the game. A visit is mandatory for any NFL road tripper; do your research and you should be able to enjoy the afternoon here without resorting to a second mortgage.

The Game

The 49ers had been eliminated from the playoff race the previous week, so there was a distinct lack of buzz as the Chargers came to town needing to win to keep their postseason hopes alive. I was rooting for the 49ers as that would help the Bills playoff chances; they had already lost to San Diego in a game I attended back in September (note the betting recommendation). This one tumed out to be a much more entertaining affair, though not necessarily a well-played one.

Things did not start well for the Chargers as the 49ers scored on their first possession when Frank Gore rumbled 52 yards for a touchdown. After each team committed a turnover, the 49ers drove down and scored on an 8-yard pass from Colin Kaepernick to Bruce Ellington to make it 14-0. On the next drive, Rivers was picked off for the second time, this one taken to the house from a suitable 49 yards out by Antoine Bethea and it was suddenly 21-0 for the home team. Game over, right? Not even close.

Each team scored one touchdown before the halftime break, and the Chargers took the ball to start the  second stanza, only to go three-and-out. The 49ers did likewise, and the game hit a bit of a slow spot  until midway through the third quarter when Rivers connected with Antonio Gates for a 1-yard score to cap a 59-yard drive. As the 49ers began their next possession, Gore was penalized for a chop block that led to a third-and-20 situation from their 22. Kaepernick went back to pass and was sacked, fumbling the ball into the end zone, where Corey Liuget recovered it for a touchdown. Yikes, 28-21 suddenly. Not to worry, 49er fans, as Kaepernick showed his wheels on the second play from scrimmage, scampering 90 yards to regain the 14-point lead. It was the second longest QB run in NFL history, with Terrelle Pryor"s 93-yarder from last season the only one superior.

It certainly looked like the Chargers playoff chances were slim, but never count Rivers out and never leave early. Down 35-21 with 8:55 to go. Rivers led the offense on a 9-play drive culminating in a 21-yard TD pass to Gates. The 49ers took over, and needed just a couple of first downs to pretty much clinch the game, but Kaepernick foolishly ran out of bounds on a 3rd down play, losing a yard and stopping the clock with 3:34 to go. That gave Rivers more than enough time to mount an amazing drive. Twice he faced 4th and long, and twice he found receivers for 17-yard gains. At first and goal from the 9, Rivers was sacked, forcing the Chargers to use their final timeout. That allowed them to set up a play that saw Malcolm Floyd wide open in the end zone and the game was tied at 35 with just over 30 seconds left. The 49ers had a few plays but couldn't get close enough for a realistic field goal attempt as Phil Dawson's 60-yard attempt fell laughably short.

The 49ers won the overtime coin toss but on their second play, Quinton Patton ran an end around into open space, only to fumble after gaining 20 yards, their third of the evening. The Chargers recovered and after a couple of short passes to move into San Francisco territory, handed off to Ronnie Brown six times in a row to get the ball to the 22-yard line. From there, Nick Novak had no trouble with a 40-yard kick (below, taken from the farthest reaches of the press box) and the Chargers stayed alive with an amazing 38-35 comeback win.

Penalties and turnovers were all the rage in this one as you can see below. Not pretty, but a lot of fun to watch. That is often true for many NFL games - so much can happen that sometimes it is the messier games that are more entertaining. Note that the teams finished just a yard apart in total yards, while their passing and rushing totals were almost exact opposites.

This one had it all, except a favourable outcome for the Bills who were probably watching over in Oakland. The Chargers win made Buffalo's playoff task all the more difficult but in the end, it mattered not as they couldn't even take care of their part of the bargain, but that will be the next recap.



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