The farm belonging to West Coast Turf in Livingston, just southeast of Turlock in Merced County, is a piece of land 1 mile by 1 mile that was chosen in part because of the deep and uniform sandiness of its soil. When you are growing sod that will be pulled up and transplanted elsewhere, the sandier the soil, the better. Sand, manager Greg Dunn will tell you, can be very important.
The grass grown here over a period of about 18 months will provide the playing surface and lush-green backdrop for Super Bowl 50 on Sunday afternoon, when the Denver Broncos play the Carolina Panthers. Early last month, roughly 75,000 square feet of sod was scooped up from its plot at the Livingston facility, carried in giant rolls by truck to Santa Clara and unfurled at Levi’s Stadium.
For years, the NFL has brought in a new field before the Super Bowl at stadiums that use natural grass. This is the eighth time that West Coast Turf – which is based in Palm Desert and supplies fields for many major professional and college stadiums throughout California – has provided the field for the Super Bowl, and the first time that the sod has come from the Livingston farm.
West Coast Turf has supplied the fields at Levi’s Stadium since the 49ers began playing there in 2014. But that hasn’t always helped public perception of the company.
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In the first preseason game at Levi’s, on Aug. 17, 2014, players complained about pieces of the turf coming loose. Days later, the 49ers cut short an open-to-the-public practice at the stadium because of concerns about the field, leading to the first of several re-sods during the stadium’s inaugural season. The field came under heavy scrutiny, with some casting aspersions on the turf provider.
But Dunn, who manages the Livingston facility for West Coast Turf, now says Levi’s issues “had nothing to do with the turf. It was the root zone.” That is, when the original fields were laid down, roots from the sod were supposed to take hold in the Levi’s soil base, giving the playing surface stability. In this case, Dunn said, “the soil was physically moving underneath the surface of the sod,” causing it to give way under the players’ footing.
NFL officials have seemed to support this explanation. At a recent news conference at Levi’s, NFL turf consultant George Toma told KQED that the earlier field issues arose partly because the stadium had the wrong sand base under the sod and “it never firmed up.” This week, the league’s field director, Ed Mangan, said he believes those problems are past.
“They got it all worked out, whether it was from the bottom up or from the top down,” Mangan said. “They conquered all their demons and I think they did a great job of it.”
Dunn said the 49ers “did the right thing” by quickly replacing the soil mix under the field and that most issues thereafter were minor cosmetic ones. Still, during training camp in August, the 49ers again canceled an open practice due to concerns about field conditions. Since then, however, another change has been made – this time, to the grass itself.
The field that will be in place Sunday is a hybrid of Bermuda overseeded with ryegrass to enhance its color. It was grown on a semi-permeable membrane that allows water to pass through but not roots or soil, causing the roots to grow laterally and form a stronger network. The benefits are twofold: The field is more durable, and because the roots don’t need to take hold in the new soil, the field can be laid down and played on right away.
Dunn said the idea behind this process has been around for years. But after the NFL used sod grown this way for the past few Super Bowls, it was suggested to West Coast Turf as a way to enhance their overall product. The company planted its first three fields using the membrane technique last February, all of which have been used at Levi’s. Dunn said the first was installed at the end of August, the second in late November and the third for the Super Bowl – meaning the 49ers played all of last season on this type of field.
The Super Bowl, though, is a different animal when it comes to stress put on the playing surface. In the days before the game, the field is subjected to rehearsals for the pregame and halftime shows, the latter essentially a full-on concert. Machinery and heavy stage pieces rumble across grass that must be pristine for kickoff Sunday afternoon. And then the sod must hold up under the continuous pounding of 350-pound linemen in cleats.
“Putting a field in and playing a game on it, that’s easy,” Dunn said. “The real challenge is putting it down and having all those demands. It’s not sports – there’s really no equivalent to it.”
The field’s final weeks in Livingston, Dunn said, were governed by constant decisions of whether to mow or not mow, pull blankets over the sod or leave it uncovered, to ensure it was in the best condition on harvest day. To be taken to Levi’s Stadium, the sod was cut into pieces 40 feet long, 42 inches wide and 2 inches thick, and curled into rolls weighing about 2,500 pounds apiece. Two dozen trucks were used to transport the 75,000 square feet of sod, which weighed almost 1.4 million pounds.
The installation at Levi’s took place Jan. 11-12, as each piece was unrolled and the edges fitted together. By early this week, Mangan said, most of the work still left to do was maintenance – cutting the grass to three-quarters of an inch every day, painting the field and keeping an eye on moisture. The latter has been helped by a break in the rainy El Niño weather system that is forecast to last through game day.
Mangan, who is working his 27th Super Bowl, said problems could still arise during rehearsals this week. But as of Tuesday, he said: “We’re feeling good right now.”
Contingency plans are in place. Dunn said that in one corner of the 49ers’ practice field, adjacent to Levi’s Stadium, are 22 more rolls of sod and West Coast Turf’s installation equipment in case any areas of the field need to be patched. Dunn said he personally will be able to relax “at 10 a.m. Sunday – there’s nothing I can do at that point.
“I’ve done a lot of fields, I’ve been doing this for three decades, but this is the big game, this is the field, this is the most demanding install that I’ve ever been involved in,” Dunn said. “You’re bringing in a lot of experience and have a lot of high expectations going in where every piece has to be perfect.”
Dunn is a football fan. And like millions of Americans, when Sunday afternoon arrives, he’ll be tuned into the nation’s biggest sporting event. It’s just that for him, he’ll be watching the field as much as the action on it.
“Anybody in my position, anybody that does what I do, you’re watching (both) the field and the game,” Dunn said. “Every fall, I’m watching the player get up, not just go down, to see what happened underneath him – if there is anything.”