More than 48,000 fans came out for the first event at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. (Photo by 49ers.com)
Jim Mercurio has worked nearly 20 Super Bowls and run hundreds of other events during his lengthy career with the San Francisco 49ers. But nothing has been as challenging as the recent opening of the National Football League team’s new $1.3-billion home, Levi’s Stadium.
“This is my 21st season and there’s no question that this is one of the busiest times of my life,” said Mercurio, 49ers vice president of stadium operations and security. “But it’s also one of the most rewarding.”
The approximately 68,500-capacity stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., hosted its first major sporting event on Aug. 2 with a match between Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders. The test run filled about two-thirds of the stadium, drawing more than 48,000 people. But the event received harsh criticism with many attendees complaining about traffic congestion and long postgame waits to use the light rail system. Media reports also noted that some food vendors ran out of supplies by halftime and that the stadium’s highly touted Wi-Fi system was spotty in certain areas.
Mercurio told Venues Today there’s definitely room for improvement before the 49ers play the Denver Broncos at Levi’s Stadium’s first NFL game on Aug. 17. He said, however, that various setbacks are to be expected when launching a major event for the first time at a venue of this magnitude.
“When you’re opening up a $1.3-billion, two-million-square-foot facility, you’re bound to have some issues,” he explained, grading the test run as a B-. “There’s nothing that took place that told me, ‘Uh oh, we’re in trouble.’ It was all about smaller details that we need to make some adjustments to.”
Not surprisingly, the recent launch has worn out the 49ers staff. “The morale right now is that people are beat up a little bit,” Mercurio said, adding that the stadium’s field had to be prepped for the Niners’ first practice at the site on Aug. 4. “But my team takes a lot of pride in what they do. When you’re in this business, you realize it’s not a 9-to-5.”
Indeed, Mercurio and his team have been working around the clock to make sure things run smoothly at the upcoming sold-out 49ers game, which will draw a significantly larger number of people than the MLS game. Much of his focus is trying to improve the flow of traffic in and out of the stadium. Many attendees at the Earthquakes vs. Sounders game complained about the lengthy amount of time it took to exit the venue.
“Some of the traffic plans needed to be a little tweaked,” he said, noting that signage around the stadium will be improved. “For whatever reason, we coned down from three lanes to one lane. Had we not done that, it wouldn’t have backed up some things.”
The 49ers Stadium Management Company which manages Levi’s Stadium on behalf of owner, the Santa Clara Stadium Authority, has been working with the city’s police department to lessen traffic congestion at events. “The engineering folks learned that some of the estimated signaling lights needed to be adjusted and will be for this next game,” Mercurio explained.
But that doesn’t mean the traffic situation will ever be perfect, especially since the venue is located in such close proximity to Great America theme park, he added, pointing out that part of the traffic congestion on Aug. 2 was a result of the amusement park holding a special discount day. “People really have to remember that there’s going to be traffic, especially post game,” Mercurio said. “When everyone wants to leave at the exact same time, there’s going to be traffic.”
The Levi’s Stadium team is also working with Santa Clara’s Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to improve public transportation to and from the facility. Though Mercurio said soccer fans waited hours for trains following the MLS match on Aug. 2, he is confident there won’t be many problems going forward. Colleen Valles, spokesperson for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authorit, said that, “the wait time for fans to board trains varied, but we were able to move more than 9,000 people in an hour and a half.”
The VTA was in the process of building a new “pocket track” to store extra trains after events in the days leading up to the 49ers/Broncos game.
“The pocket track wasn’t completed by gameday on Aug. 2 with the Earthquakes, but it will be by Aug. 17 with the 49ers game,” he said. “Those kinds of things should be more helpful in guiding people into the lots.”
One sporting industry professional who experienced the postgame VTA issues firsthand was San Jose Sharks' chief operating officer John Tortora, whose professional hockey team will be playing against the Los Angeles Kings at Levi’s Stadium on Feb. 21. “There were some scattered delays, particularly after the game, but nothing not to be expected when you open a facility of that size the first time,” Tortora told Venues Today.
Despite some of the stadium opening’s negative reviews, “we have no concerns about the ability of Levi’s Stadium to handle our outdoor game and crowd by the time February comes around,” the Sharks' COO added. “It’s a learning curve. By the time the 49ers preseason game comes on Aug. 17, it’ll be an even better experience.”
Mercurio believes that Levi’s Stadium should be a “well-oiled machine” by October. By then, the facility will have hosted four 'Niners games, an international soccer match and a high school football game. “My guess is that it’s not until October that I think people really understand the routes they want to take … (and) know all the different food and beverage concession offerings that we have,” he said.
The 49ers executive expects Levi’s Stadium to host about 20 to 25 large-scale events annually. Nonsporting events already on the books through next year include WWE’s Wrestlemania 31 (March 29), Monster Jam (April 11) and Monster Energy Supercross (April 18). The venue has also been tapped to host Super Bowl 50 in 2016 and will see foot traffic from a 20,000-square-foot 49ers Museum, which opened to the public on Aug. 8.
Mercurio said his team will continue to be aggressive about filling dates. “Our guys are out there marketing the stadium the best that they can, and certainly the coverage it’s getting is helping too,” he said. “We’ll absolutely be aggressive in pursuing other events and concerts.”
Interviewed for this story: Jim Mercurio, (408) 562-4949; John Tortora, (408) 287-7070; Colleen Valles, (408) 464-7810