Football / Sports

The construction workers who built Levi's Stadium are introduced to the crowd of dignitaries who gathered for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new $1.3 billion stadium Thursday, July 17, 2014, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group/MCT)

49ers open Levi's Stadium with show-stopping NFL ceremony

SANTA CLARA -- Welcome to the new home of the 49ers.

Eight years after the San Francisco football team announced its plans to move an hour's drive south to Santa Clara, the Niners officially opened their $1.3 billion "sports and entertainment cathedral" during a show-stopping ceremony on Thursday.

The beers were flowing, the stadium-themed merchandise was flying off the shelves, the massive HD video-boards were lit up with highlight reels and the surround-sound speakers were humming with pop music. Team luminaries from coach Jim Harbaugh to star defender Patrick Willis were schmoozing with guests such as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, tech executives and local politicians.

About the only thing left to add to Levi's Stadium is 70,000 screaming 49ers fans -- and, you know, some football. Until then, the faithful can look forward to the sleek new features on display Thursday, including: a WiFi system that will allow all fans to surf the web at once -- a sports first; instant replays available on your phone; a roof-top suite and celebrity-chef dining for high rollers; and all the standard modern amenities Candlestick Park didn't have, such as concourses that are now three times bigger.

"You deserve to have the best stadium in the world," said 49ers CEO Jed York. "Now you have it."

In typical NFL tradition, Thursday's ribbon-cutting ceremony had all the pageantry of the April 2012 groundbreaking event, which also felt like a Super Bowl half-time show.

After York and Santa Clara Mayor Jamie Matthews officially cut the long red ribbon outside the south entrance, hundreds of VIP attendees were able to pose with four more un-cut ribbons and hold giant red-and-gold scissors. Afterward, they sipped champagne and ate hors d'oeuvres in the swanky United Club as owner John York, Jed's father, made a toast on the stadium's grand wedding staircase.

At one point in the ceremony, hundreds of workers wearing white "I built Levi's Stadium" shirts and hard hats marched down two red-carpeted giant staircases. Thousands of white, red and gold pieces of graffiti burst into the air at the end of the event, as dozens of cheerleaders waved their pom-poms and guests rushed to take selfies in front of a giant screen on stage.

Thursday's ceremony, which marked the opening of the first new NFL stadium in California since 1967, was bittersweet for some fans. Goodell acknowledged the move from San Francisco "is an emotional issue," while about 30 percent of Candlestick Park season ticket holders gave up their tickets -- some after generations -- in large part due to being priced out of the stadium's expensive new seat license program.

But 49ers President implored fans not to even bother comparing Levi's Stadium to Candlestick Park, and Goodell seemed to agree.

"You can feel the difference, and you know the fans are going to feel the difference," Goodell said.

Despite the ceremony, there is still work left to be done before the first event, an Aug. 2 San Jose Earthquakes match, and when the Niners take the field afterward for their first preseason game Aug. 17, and the first regular-season game Sept. 14. The museum and hall of fame area and the new Michael Mina restaurant are both unfinished, for instance.

And there are lots of kinks to be worked out. General Manager Trent Baalke was walking through the stadium and noticed a hand-rail was a little loose, for instance.

Then there's all the things the team will need to fix when they inevitably go wrong, whether it be food choices, traffic routes or scheduling.

"The first year is going to be a shake-out year," Mayor Jamie Matthews said.

York and others in the Niners front office will now turn their attention to bringing in more events to the stadium, beyond the biggies they've already reeled in -- Super Bowl 50 in 2016, WrestleMania next year and the Pac-12 Championship Game starting this year. They'll also be pitching the stadium as a host venue for smaller shindigs such as weddings and bar mitzvahs.

"We're not done," Marathe said.

Matthews said while the city's Stadium Authority will continue to oversee Levi's, Santa Clara's big job now becomes building the $6.5 billion monstrosity of a mixed-use project a developer has proposed across the street from the 49ers new home. There is also a separate hotel and sports bar next door proposed by Joe Montana. Both projects have at least a year of planning left.

The players, meanwhile, must turn their attention to the field, where they will have a new home-field advantage that York called "very formidable." Marathe said he noticed Willis and offensive lineman Joe Staley get goosebumps when they toured the finished stadium Thursday.

"It's time to make new memories in this stadium," Staley said. "I'm pumped up."

(c)2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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