After just one football game at $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers on Thursday were forced to tear up the playing field and replace it with new sod.
The field had become a hazard a day earlier, prompting coach Jim Harbaugh to abruptly halt the open practice and take his players to the team’s regular practice fields.
The 49ers host the Chargers at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday at 1 p.m., and the team has vowed to have the field ready.
The grass started becoming an issue during the second half of Sunday’s game against Denver. Players said parts were coming up, particularly between the hash marks where most of the action takes place.
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The conditions grew worse Wednesday when at least two wide receivers made cuts on the field and the grass ripped out underfoot, sending them tumbling to the ground. The 49ers stopped practice after nearly an hour, and the thousands of fans there watching were given free passes to the team museum. The 49ers then began consulting various entities – including the NFL and the Rose Bowl, which uses the same strain of grass – on how to proceed.
“The 49ers organization would like to apologize to any fans who were inconvenienced by today’s practice ending early,” the 49ers said in a statement Wednesday. “We have determined the appropriate measures necessary to have the field ready for Sunday and look forward to hosting the San Diego Chargers.”
The 49ers would not comment on their steps to remedy the problem, even shutting down the live cameras inside the stadium that for the last two years had documented construction of the new facility. There was no media availability Thursday.
The grass, called Bandera Bermuda, was laid in April. That should have been plenty of time for it to lay roots that would allow it to withstand a game and a practice, said Kevin Morris of the nonprofit National Turfgrass Evaluation Program.
“That shouldn’t have happened,” Morris said of the patches that came up. “Everything should have been fine.”
Morris said Bermuda strains typically grow well in the type of sandy soil beneath the field but that it sounded as if the Levi’s grass hadn’t taken root. One of the challenges the team currently is working on is finding the right composition of sand and soil beneath the field.
Morris said the team probably was laying down a thicker sod that would hold up during Sunday’s Chargers game. That type of quick fix happened in January at the Rose Bowl when new sod was laid less than a week before the BCS title game. The Eagles replaced their field just three days before last night’s game against the Steelers.
But Morris said it was only a temporary solution because the roots from the new sod would not be able to reach the soil. At some point the team will have to remove the current grass and start from scratch with a better composition of soil and sand below the grass.
The 49ers have two sizable gaps between home games that could be enough time to establish something more permanent, between Sunday’s game and the regular-season home opener Sept. 14 against the Bears and between an Oct. 5 game against the Chiefs and a Nov. 2 game vs. the Rams.
But there are other events planned during those gaps, including a high school football doubleheader Aug. 29, an international soccer game Sept. 6 and a Cal-Oregon football game Oct. 24. The high school games have remained unchanged thus far, according to athletic directors at two of the schools involved. Jesuit is scheduled to play Bay Area power De La Salle in the nightcap.
Bandera Bermuda was chosen because it doesn’t require a lot of water and because it is considered durable enough to handle multiple events. Members of the team’s grounds crew were busy during Wednesday’s practice replacing divots and laying down grass seed. Team officials, including general manager Trent Baalke, were observed conferring throughout the session.
It’s not known whether the replacement turf is Bermuda Bandera. The 49ers and the Chargers are the only NFL teams that use the strain on their home fields, according to West Coast Turf, which supplied the 49ers’ sod. It also is used at San Diego’s Petco Park and Stanford’s football practice field.
One of the qualities of Bandera Bermuda, the company’s website says, is its “superior wear tolerance.”