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Official Review by Andy Mantsch, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The Pac-12 has a storied athletics history in all sports and has justifiably given itself the nickname “Conference of Champions.” In football, the conference boasts several national championships dating back to the 1920s. From the Cal teams of the early 20s to the Southern Cal dynasty of the 2000s, the history of this conference is not overstated. In 2011 the conference officially added its 11th and 12th teams and instituted a conference championship game. The first three championship games were played onsite at member institutions, but the plan changed for 2014.
Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA (home of the San Francisco 49ers) became the first ever neutral site stadium selected as the home of the Pac-12 Championship in 2014. While the game is scheduled to re-appear at Levi’s Stadium next year, the future of this game is still not firm.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Levi's Stadium is loaded with food options, there's no doubt about that. Boasting 180+ menu items, selection will never be an issue. Most of the foods are even from California and a large chunk of that from within 150 miles of the stadium, giving it a distinct west coast flare. Whether your fancy includes hot dogs and burgers or paninis and curry, you'll find it here. Each stand has a vegetarian option as well for those out there who don't want to partake in the massive variety of meat options available.
If it's beer that you crave, the Tap Room located at the 50 yard line boasts the best of California beer in 42 taps. There's something for ever palette here, so enjoy. Wine is also available throughout the stadium for an even more Bay Area feel.
So what could possibly go wrong here? Well, that's an easy answer. Prices are astronomical. If you're coming to the game to enjoy several beers, prepare to empty your bank account. Prices start at $10.25 for domestic 20oz beers and go to $11 for craft beers. Food isn't much better, with even the simple and standard options running in the pricey range. A hot dog will cost you $6, while chicken tenders go for $11. The best way to put it when weighing price, hot dogs and snack items will run you $6 to $9 and meal items start at around $11. That's the price of the upgraded food options, but it doesn't make it any less hard on the wallet.
The 68,500 seat stadium itself leaves very little to complain about. Everything is shiny, new and clean. State of the art is a very apt term to describe it. Seating is comfortable, concourses are large and everything is just crisp and sleek. The scoreboards on either end zone are large and beautiful. The sound system is excellent. The only general concern I could point out is that the upper deck on one side rises to what seems like dizzying heights to make up for the giant tower of press boxes and suites across the field. But overall the stadium is beautiful and truly up there with the elite professional sports stadiums.
For the Pac-12 Championship game, unique activities abound. A celebrity national anthem, fireworks, bands, pageantry, halftime sponsored giveaways and mascots galore make up just some of the things that make this event so fun. The Pac-12 goes out of their way to make sure the event feels like a true championship experience.
The problem here lies in the scheduling. The Pac-12 is a football conference spread over a massive footprint making up the western portion of the country. Fans need to travel extraordinary distances for the game. So the choice to schedule it on a Friday evening at 6pm in the midst of Bay Area rush hour seems a bit baffling. Only the most hardcore fans travel to the event, and if the format remains the same in the future, attendance will largely depend on who's playing. In the 2014 iteration, the game was fortunate to host Oregon. While it's a lengthy drive down I-5 from Eugene to get there, Ducks fans travel fairly well and largely ringed the lower bowl. Arizona fans, however, did not travel as well and there was only a smattering of red around the stadium. The upper decks were another matter. They were largely empty with only patches of fans. The on-field presentation seems to clash with the lack of attendance and makes this whole event seem to not quite live up to what it could be.
The area around the stadium is nice enough. It mostly consists of upscale commercial buildings and looks a lot like a large business park. While not in a bad neighborhood, this doesn't create a lot of great options for food or drink pre-kickoff. In the larger area, there is a reasonable amount of residential property that is very appealing to the eye but doesn't provide a whole lot of options for pre-game either. It feels like the stadium was dropped into any one of thousands of residential and commercial areas around the country and the area hasn't yet adjusted to the new resident.
Hotels are easy to come by around the stadium. Mariotts, Hiltons and Hyatts are in abundance in the area and within easy walking distance if you're willing to spend the money to stay there. Levi's Stadium sits in Santa Clara with San Jose to the immediate south and San Francisco a pretty reasonable drive to the north. If you're planning a weekend trip here, it's pretty easy to find your fair share of activities to keep you occupied in the Bay Area. In terms of restaurants, it's the same. The Bay Area is full of delicious food options, all within a reasonable driving distance. I just wouldn't expect to find a whole lot in the immediate vicinity of the stadium.
The fan situation is a very mixed bag. Let me give props to the Oregon fans, as they travelled well and did their part to make it an exciting atmosphere. The lower bowl was awash with green for the 2014 version. But when thinking of future versions of this game, the larger concern is the day and time of the game. If this continues to be a Friday at 6pm event, one would be hard pressed to expect fans to show up consistently in full force. In the 2014 example, Arizona fits this mold. It's just too hard to take the extra time off of work or make the long trek to Santa Clara on a Friday afternoon. The normal Saturday schedule means that a fan can only take one day off of work and comfortably make it to the game while being back at the office on Monday. On top of that, the 6pm kick means that locals attempting to make the game from the San Francisco area are going to have to battle rush hour traffic to get there. Only time will tell if this strategy changes for future versions of the game.
So to work with what I have from this event, the fans that showed up were great. The atmosphere is definitely a party atmosphere for all in attendance and there's palpable electricity in the air around the championship at stake. Despite being a local event, just about everyone wears the colors of one team or the other. This is one of the things that has always been so great about college football postseason. It's accessible to the team's fans, meaning the tickets are so overpriced that the average team fan can't attend (see below). Unlike other sports neutral site events, everyone in the stadium has definitively picked a side. Unfortunately, there just aren't enough people in the stadium.
Let's start by calling it what it is, the Bay Area during Friday rush hour. While it definitely wasn't as bad as I'd expected, there's definitely a considerable amount of traffic on your route to Levi's Stadium. Fortunately, there are multiple alternate routes to arrive on site. If you use any sort of GPS navigation system that allows for traffic redirection, now's the time to use it. Because it's rush hour and not everyone in traffic is heading to the stadium, you'll find that some routes will be clogged with both types of traffic while others will only consist of gameday traffic. If you can stick with the latter, you'll be better off. Just keep in mind, a lot of the roads around the stadium are closed for pedestrian traffic, so check out the Levi's Stadium website in advance to figure out the best navigation.
Obviously, the other option is to arrive early and tailgate. That raises another interesting question about the Levi's Stadium area. There are not really any centralized parking lots. Tailgate will be spread out among business parking lots for miles around the stadium. This also means that parking rates vary depending on the location you find, and walking distances can be considerable if you want to get out of traffic early and park. Best bet, arrive early to beat rush hour and spend the extra money to park relatively close.
A unique option that Levi's Stadium offers is the Bike Valet service. There are multiple paths that can be taken to get to these bike storage locations, so if you'd like to follow the River Trails on your bike you can plan to arrive as much as 2 hours before kickoff. Just be aware, it closes 1 hour after the end of the game. That means this is not an option for tailgaters.
Once in the stadium you'll find the going pretty easy. The concourse is huge with multiple escalators to access upper/lower levels. Restrooms are abundant throughout the stadium and vending options are spread out everywhere. There are standing room tickets and options available, but arrive early to claim your spot on the rail.
It's hard to gauge the ticket price as reasonable or unreasonable, because it depends where you buy them from. Tickets for sale through the event or schools are quite pricey. Ticket prices varied by section, but they generally aren't available for anything under $100. However, the benefit of the Friday fan situation was that you can buy tickets for very affordable rates through resale websites for great deals. In my case, I bought end zone tickets about 16 rows up for around $30 a piece. If the Friday event stays as scheduled, I would expect this to fluctuate depending on the participants, but it will still be an option worth investigating. Parking rates vary greatly as well. You can spend anywhere from $20-$50+ to park around the stadium. While not cheap, it's not terribly out of alignment with expectations. The real damage is done here by the stadium concessions. Everything here is expensive. You're likely to spend more inside the stadium on food and drinks than you are on getting into the stadium. All in all, this is a pricey trip. While any college football bucket list person should do this one time, this is one of those events that goes into the "one time only" category.
Because of the championship game nature, there are all kinds of extras here that you don't get at the average game. First thing, all of the Pac-12 schools are represented and all 12 mascots are very engaged. It's not often you get this level of sideline entertainment throughout the game. The celebrity national anthem and just overall buildup make kickoff even more exciting. Fireworks, smoke machines and dueling bands continuously build the anticipation of a championship matchup. Halftime features full scholarship giveaway contests by Capital One and more competition by college bands. And let's not forget, the teams you get to see on the field are Pac-12 championship caliber teams. It's a pretty cool experience overall. Now if a drink wasn't $11 and there were fans in the upper deck, imagine how cool this would be.
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